Mechutanim in Jewish Law

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by R. Gil Student

I. Fathers-in-Law

There is a deep lesson in the fact that there is no English equivalent of the word “mechutanim.” Mechutanim are the parents of your son- or daughter-in-law (mechutan is the male part of the mechutanim). When your child marries, you gain not only a son or daughter but also a set of corresponding parents who become your mechutanim, as the two families join together. I believe that the lack of English equivalent reflects the difference between the Jewish view of marriage and Western society’s vision of a couple starting out new, leaving behind the past. To Jews, marriage is a joining of families. To Western society in general, marriage is a joining of two individuals into a couple. However, mechutanim is not a biblical word. Nor does it appear in the Talmud. I do not believe it existed in the time of Rashi and Rambam. The first I have seen of the term is in the sixteenth century, in an Egyptian responsum of the Radbaz, as we shall see shortly. The word seems to have gained usage sometime between the years 1200 and 1500 (Rambam died in 1204 and Radbaz was born roughly in 1480).

A significant discussion of mechutanim revolves around the roles of witnesses and judges. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 28b) says: “The father of the groom and the father of the bride can testify about each other. There are considered to each other only like a lid on a barrel.” Note that the Talmud does not have a term for mechutanim and instead uses the lengthy terms of “father of the groom (avi chassan)” and “father of the bride avi kallah).” When explaining these terms, Rashi describe Reuven’s son who marries Shimon’s daughter, without invoking the term mechutanim. The Gemara says that mechutanim are not joined into a single unit, like different parts of a utensil, but rather like a lid to a pot. They are related but not connected. Therefore, they can serve as witnesses for each other. If they literally became close family, they would not be allowed to testify about each other.

II. Judging a Mechutan

There is a general rule that someone for whom you cannot testify, you also cannot serve as a judge on a case involving him. However, there are exceptions to this rule. An unattributed gloss to the Mordechai (Sanhedrin, end of no. 721) quotes a responsum of an unnamed Gaon who rules that even though mechutanim can serve as witnesses for each other, they cannot serve as judges. Even if one mechutan serves in a formally appointed position as judge, a litigant against the judge’s mechutan can invalidate the judge for this case because of their relationship. This responsum is also quoted by Rav Yitzchak Ben Abba Mari (12th cen., France; Sefer Ha-Ittur, Kabbalas Eidus).

Rav Yosef Kolon (Maharik; 15th cen., Italy; Responsa, no. 21) addresses the issue of a rabbi serving as a judge on a case in which his mechutan is one of the litigants. Maharik quotes Rambam’s Mishnah commentary to Niddah (6:5). The Mishnah (Niddah 6:5) says that there are some people who may testify about each other but may not serve as judges for each other. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 29a) says that the one exception the Mishnah has in mind is someone blind in one eye. Rambam asks why the Mishnah does not also have in mind two people who love or hate each other, who also may testify but may not judge each other. Rambam explains that the Mishnah omits these exceptions because these strong feelings of affection or the opposite often change quickly. Maharik notes that Rambam does not ask why the Mishnah does not have mechutanim in mind. It must be, argues Maharik, that mechutanim are not an exception. Rather, they both may testify and may judge each other. (Neither Rambam nor Maharik use the term mechutanim.) Apparently, Maharik was unaware of the Gaon’s responsum quoted in the gloss to the Mordechai, who does not allow mechutanim to judge each other.

Significantly, Rav Moshe Isserles (Rema; 16th cen., Poland; Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 33:6) rules like the Gaon that mechutanim should not serve as judges for each other. However, taking into account Maharik’s leniency, after the fact (bedieved) such a judgment would be valid. However, there is more to say on the subject. Rav Meir (Maharam) Lublin (17th cen., Poland; Responsa, no. 63) was asked by someone who found Maharik’s deduction from Rambam’s commentary to be quite weak. Maharam Lublin defends Maharik’s deduction but concludes that his own opinion is that a mechutan may not judge you, just like someone who loves you. Is there any greater friend than a mechutan?

III. Who Is a Halakhic Authority?

Earlier, Rav David Ben Zimra (Radbaz, 16th cen., Egypt; Responsa 1:631), a contemporary of Rema, was asked about this subject. He deduces that a mechutan may serve as a judge from Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, not his Mishnah commentary. Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Eidus 13:11) says that mechutanim (without using that term) may testify about each other. When Rambam (ibid., 16:6) lists all the exceptions to the rule that someone who may testify may also judge, he does not include mechutanim in the list of exceptions. This deduction is much stronger than Maharik’s deduction from Rambam’s Mishnah commentary, which Radbaz quotes as well.

Radbaz also cites the responsum of the Gaon mentioned above. Radbaz offers an important methodological consideration. He is not willing to rely on an anonymous gloss quoting an anonymous responsum. Many scribes and students added glosses to manuscripts. How do we know that this was a responsum from a leading scholar that was reliably copied? This reminds me of a story Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Nefesh Ha-Rav, p. 248) told of a time he sat next to Prof. Saul Lieberman at a bris. Prof. Lieberman told him that they found a Geonic manuscript saying that a kohen is not allowed to become impure even from a sheretz (or neveilah). Rav Soloveitchik replied that his grandfather could learn better than many of the Ge’onim, i.e. people who lived in that era. The famous Ge’onim have an important place in our tradition but just because someone lived 1,200 years ago does not make his halakhic rulings inherently important (see also Rav Aharon Rakeffet, The Rav, vol. 2, pp. 27-28). Radbaz seems to be saying something similar but adding that we don’t even know if the responsum was transmitted accurately.

IV. Not All Mechutanim Love Each Other

Radbaz also makes the following important point: “I have already seen many mechutanim who hate each other.” Just because your children marry does not mean that you become automatic best friends. Some mechutanim maintain very warm and close relationships, as I do with my mechutanim. Others are not best friends. Therefore, we cannot automatically disqualify mechutanim. If they are close friends then they fall under the general disqualify of a friend serving as a judge. If they hate each other, they fall under that category. And if they are somewhere in between, they are qualified to judge each other. There is no need for a special category of mechutanim. Rav Yair Chaim Bacharach (17th cen., Germany; Chavos Yair, no. 2) rules likewise that a mechutan is similar to a good friend or an enemy. This means that in a case of Zabl”a, in which each litigant chooses one judge and those two judges choose a third, you may select a mechutan as a judge just like you may select a close friend.

In practice, there are many different opinions with a variety of nuances. In addition to the authorities quoted above, Rav Yitzchak Alfasi (Rif; 11th cen., Spain; Responsa, no. 106) rules strictly regarding a publicly appointed judge and both Rav Yitzchak Aderabi (16th cen., Greece; Responsa Divrei Rivos, no. 133) and Rav Yom Tov (Maharit) Tzahalon (17th cen., Israel; Responsa, no. 238) rule strictly more generally. Pischei Teshuvah (Choshen Mishpat 7:15) provides a lengthy summary of later views. However, the very fact that such a conversation exists points to the important nature of the mechutan relationship in the Jewish community.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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