Sunday, June 14, 2009

Swearing in Court

There is a strong Jewish custom to never vow, even if it means losing money (Responsa Chasam Sofer, vol. 5 no. 90). This issue arises whenever a Jew is called to testify in court or even to serve on jury duty. In New York (maybe other states) and in Israel you have the opportunity to affirm that you will tell the truth, without actually swearing.

However, this presumably should not matter. The Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh De'ah 237:1) rules that a vow does not have to include God's name, and later (237:10) rules that a vow does not have to use the word swear (shevu'ah; based on the first Mishnah in Nedarim). If so, is not affirming to tell the truth as much a vow as swearing?

Click here to read moreI asked this question the first time I had jury duty and was told by my rabbi the following: Since I am actively refusing to swear, it shows that my usage of the word "affirm" is intended to mean that it is not a vow. I have since seen that R. Ovadiah Yosef rules that way in Yabi'a Omer (Yoreh De'ah, vol. 1 no. 17).

However, R. Yosef adds that your affirmation is preceded by a statement that since you are a religious Jew you do not want to swear. This additional statement makes it clear that your affirmation is not intended to be a vow. When you are called to testify, you go through this. But on jury duty, they have everyone say together "I swear" without giving individuals the opportunity to state their desire to say something else. Last time I was on jury duty, a few months ago, I said, "I don't swear," mainly to see if anyone would notice or care. No one did.

The procedure of affirming rather than swearing is also what religious soldiers in the Israeli army do during their induction ceremonies. The affirmation rather than swearing to protect faithfully is considered a valid way of avoiding the problem of making a vow (R. Yosef Tzvi Rimon, Tzava Ka-Halakhah, pp. 354-361).

I should add that regardless of whether this is technically a vow, you still aren't allowed to lie in court and it is considered a sin to do so.

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