לא תענה ברעך עד שקר
The Ninth Commandment says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” which is explained by Jewish tradition as “You shall not lie in a court of justice.”
As we have explained, DO NOT STEAL refers to the highest level of stealing: stealing a life (kidnapping, human trafficking, enslavement, etc.). The Ninth Commandment also refers to the highest form of lying: lying in the court of law. If lying in court was not criminalized, justice could not possibly be served. And without justice, we would have corruption, anarchy, and impunity. And human society would collapse. The Tora warns us severely about the manipulation and distortion of the judicial system, criminalizing, for example, bribery of judges or other court officials. The Ninth Commandment warns us specifically about lying in court, what is known as “perjury.”
Jewish law takes the matter of judicial testimony very seriously. There are several conditions that need to be met for someone to serve as a witness. For example, witnesses can not be relatives of the accused or of one of the parties. In a Jewish court, a single witness can not testify. At least two witnesses are needed. The fact that two witnesses are required, instead of one, while cannot entirely stop perjury, drastically diminishes the possibility of false testimony.
There are also maters of character that can disqualify a witness. The wicked (resha’im) are incompetent to act as witnesses. This includes people who have committed crimes: delinquents, scammers, thieves, usurers, etc. Neither can gamblers serve as witnesses, or people who deliberately and without justification cease to work or study, as they are suspected of spending their free time in criminal activities (see further details in Shulhan ‘Arukh Hoshen Mishpat Chapter 34).
A man who has no basic knowledge of Tora (the Bible) or Mishna, or of the basic norms of civilized behavior (derekh erets), is presumed to live a questionable life and therefore is not considered competent as a witness. This presumption, however, is refutable if there is evidence that, despite this person’s ignorance, his conduct is unblemished.
All these requirements and limitations (and more) are intended to avoid, as much as possible, that the Jewish judicial system could be manipulated or defrauded.
Returning to the topic of false witnesses; in the time of the Rabbinic courts, there were severe penalties for false witnesses. For example, if false witnesses were challenged by other witnesses, proving that they could not have been at the crime scene during the date they mentioned in their testimony (‘edim zomemim), the first witnesses would receive the penalty or punishment corresponding to the crime they wanted to adjudicate the accused. Thus, for example, if based on the testimony of these false witnesses, the accused would have to pay compensation of a 1,000 dollars, the false witnesses would have to pay 1,000 dollars. What is more, if the false witnesses accused someone of a crime that carries the death penalty, these false witnesses were to be sentenced to death.
In spite of all these efforts for justice to be served, sometimes a false witness can not be detected. The Tora, however, guarantees that when human justice is deceived, Divine Justice will soon arrive.
We read in the book of Mishle, the proverbs of King Solomon, that a false witness who deceived the court, will have to face Divine Justice. HaShem will not absolve or forgive a false witness. עד שקרים לא ינקה ויפיח כזבים לא ימלט, “A false witness shall not go unpunished, and he who declares lies shall not escape [Divine justice],” Proverbs 19: 5.
Every day, three times a day, we ask in our Tefilot [= prayers, specifically, the ‘amida] from HaShem to renew the courts of justice, and thus, when righteousness reigns, many of our sorrows will disappear. We declare at the end of this prayer that HaShem, is מלך אוהב צדקה ומשפט, is a King [ “King” here means “Supreme Judge”] who loves righteousness and justice. And therefore, He will not let impunity reign.