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Thought for the Day: מודה במקצת -- Taking an Oath for Partial Admission

While still just a lad and when TV was only black and white, I knew very little about courtroom procedure.  I had some, of course, because of Divorce Court and Perry Mason.  They drama was always introduced by a witness being called and then asked if he swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  The witness, of course, always answered, "I do."  (Similar to getting married, when you also make promises without thinking too much.)

One may very well ask: What's the point?  I mean, was he planning on lying, but the clever court system has boxed him into a corner?  What corner?  If he was planning to lie anyway, what's one more lie?  The answer, I found, is that lying is not a crime (apparently) unless you specifically affirm/swear that you won't.  Another explanation I saw was that it is a reminder to the witness to answer the question he is being asked and only the question he is being asked.  That is: if the lawyer asks, "Do you have the time?"  The correct response is either "yes" or "no"; the actual time should not be offered unless appropriate follow up questions are asked.  (I did not make up that example!)  I love America.

Since one of the mitzvos by which each Jew is bound is to always tell the truth (unless doing so will unnecessarily cause hurt feelings), there should be no need for a litigant to swear to the veracity of his statement.  In fact, usually there is none.  More in fact, we enjoined by Chazal to eschew swearing any time, as the penalty for a false or even unnecessary oath is extraordinarily harsh.  "Usually", because, again of course, there are exception.  One notable exception is מודה במקצת/partial admission.

Here's how that works: Reuvein claims Yehuda owes him 1000$.  Yehuda, though, only admits to owing Reuvein 500$ (and there are no witnesses).  In that case, Yehuda pays the 500$ and then takes a Biblically mandated oath that he is telling the truth.  The question is, obviously (after the riveting and crystal clear introduction above): What does the oath accomplish that being a frum Jew did not accomplish?

The gemara (Bava Metzia 3a) explains.  Let's suppose Yehuda really owes Reuvein 1000$.  Any normal person is not going to be so brazen as to claim he owes nothing to someone who has been so nice to him.  Therefore Yehuda (being normal) will not claim he owes nothing.  That being the case, why would Yehuda not admit to the whole amount?  Yehuda (being normal) really does want to admit to the entire debt, but he doesn't have the money right now.  Yehuda -- being absolutely normal and embarrassed at coming up short -- therefore devises a clever rationalization: "I'll just admit to half now to give myself a little bit of time to get together the other half.  Of course I'll pay the remainder as soon as I am able."  (The picture you should have in your head is the little guy with the pitchfork in the red suit on Yehuda's left shoulder is making an impassioned plea to the little guy with the halo in the white robes on Yehuda's right shoulder.)

In that case, the requirement of taking an oath with stop the rationalization.  Denying the entire claim does not engender an oath because if someone is to brazen as to deny any benefit from someone who has been so kind to him, then he is also brazen enough to ignore the commandment not to lie.  The Torah doesn't require robbers to swear; that would just compound their sin.  The Torah only requires good people to swear in order to help the to stay good.

Honesty compels me to note that this is not the whole story.  Suppose that Yehuda denies owing Reuvein anything, then two witnesses come and testify that they know that Yehuda actually does own Reuvein (at least) 500$.  Now we don't have the line of reasoning above, but the Torah does still require and oath from Yehuda regarding the remainder of Reuvein's claim.  Why?  Oh gosh... the gemara goes on for more than two pages with some of the most complex reasoning  I have ever to prove that it is obvious.  Ah.


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