Beis Din and Interpreters

Question

Gad and Asher are two recent arrivals from Russia (formerly Gregori and Anatoly!).
Unfortunately, they have got into an argument about money matters. They wish to go to Beis
Din to settle their differences. Since they only speak Russian and no other language, they
wish to know if they need to search for an all-Russian speaking Beis Din or can the case
be heard through an interpreter?


Answer

The Mishnah in Makkos (6b) states: "According to the
testimony (lit.mouth) of two witness" – [this teaches us that]. the Sanhedrin
should not hear from an interpreter. The simple meaning of this Mishnah is, the Sanhedrin
(or Beis Din) must hear the testimony of witnesses directly from their mouths. Rashi
(ad loco) states that this law only applies to witnesses. This implies that Beis Din is
permitted to hear litigants claims through an interpreter. Rambam, on the other hand,
is of the opinion that this law extends to litigants as well.

The Shulchan Oruch sides with the Rambam (see Choshen Mishpot 17:6 and 28:6).
The Sema (ad loco – 17, Note 14) explains how we extend the law to litigants
in spite of the fact that the verse only discusses witnesses. The logic behind requiring
Beis Din to hear testimony directly from witnesses is that this adds to the judges’
ability to achieve clarity and verify the truth. The same logic applies to hearing the
claims of the litigants. Another reason given by the Sema (28, Note 34) is that an
interpreter may alter what he has heard when he translates for the benefit of the Beis
Din. However, the Rambam and the Shulchan Oruch write that if all the members of the Beis
Din understand the language spoken by the witness, but do not speak it, they may
hear the case directly, passing any questions or decisions to the witnesses/ litigants via
an interpreter. (This is derived from the Gemoro at the end of P. 6b in Makko-Rovo set up
an interpreter, etc.)

It would therefore seem that Gad and Asher would have to search for a Beis Din whose
members understand Russian. However, the Bach (17:9) comes to the rescues. He
states, that the Torah only requires Beis Din to hear testimony or claims directly in
capital cases. When it comes to monetary cases, this requirement is only Rabbinic.
However, the Rabbis only required hearing testimony or claims directly in the first
instance (l’chatchiloh). If a monetary case had been heard via an interpreter, there
is no doubt that the decision handed down by Beis Din on this basis would be valid (in a
capital case, it would be invalid). Thus, it follows that in a situation where no
Beis Din is available in the litigants’ town which understands their language, it is
perfectly permissible for their case to be heard through an interpreter. This is also the
opinion of the Tumim (17-Note 6), quoting the response of the Ge’onim. The Sha’ar
Mishpat
(17-Note 3) adds that such a situation is no worse than if the litigants were
unable to speak. We would then permit them to transmit their arguments by means of
sign-language (as long as the signing was clearly understood). Since they have no other
method of communicating with the Beis Din, we allow them to present their claim in this
manner. Similarly, if there is no Beis Din in town which understands the language of the
litigants, they may also use the services of an interpreter to convey their claims to Beis
Din.

THEREFORE, Gad and Asher should first try to find a local Beis Din whose members all understand
Russian (they need not be able to speak it). If none is available, they have no obligation
to search the country for such a Beis Din. They are permitted to have their case heard by
a Beis Din which does not understand Russian, and transmit their arguments via an
interpreter.

This obviously only refers to monetary claims.