Since Jewish law gives almost no credence to circumstantial evidence and to proofs based on supposition and assumptions, direct eyewitness testimony becomes essential. This is especially clear when dealing with dinei nefashot – capital cases – since in such cases Jewish law will not even accept admission on the part of the accused. Thus, it is only through the testimony of witnesses that we can establish what happened in a given situation and how it took place.
In previous chapters of Massekhet Sanhedrin we learned what type of person could or could not testify, removing relatives and untrustworthy individuals from entering the courtroom as witnesses. The fifth perek of Massekhet Sanhedrin, which begins on today’s daf focuses on the methods used by the courts to question the witnesses in order to verify the truthfulness and accuracy of their testimony.
There are two basic stages in examining the witnesses’ testimony. First it is necessary to establish the basic information: the time and the place of the incident, as well as the basic question of what happened. Only after these questions have been clarified does the court delve into details of what happened and how it occurred.
According to the Mishna, there are seven of the first type of questions, which are called ḥakirot (interrogations), and include questions about time and place. There are additional questions that deal with whether the witnesses recognize the victim and/or the accused and whether they warned the accused that he would be liable for his actions (according to Jewish law, no punishment can be given unless the accused had been warned of the consequences of his actions). It is not clear whether these questions are ḥakirot or if they are the second type of question, called bedikot (examinations). The Meiri offers an additional category that he calls derishot (clarifying questions) that have the same level of severity as ḥakirot.