Torah Portion: Mishpatim
For every item of liability — whether an ox, a donkey, a sheep, or a garment — regarding any lost item about which he says, “This is it!” to the court shall come both their claims (Shemos 22:8).
It is a positive commandment to judge cases involving a plaintiff and defendant; that is, we should hold trial whenever one person sues another about any monetary issue, [such as] when he gave him a loan, or deposited any item for safe-keeping, or that he stole from him, or withheld money from him. It is thus written: regarding any lost item about which he says, “This is it!”Our Sages explain that from the wording of “This is it!” we learn that the defendant only has to take an oath if he partially admits to the loan, but if he claims that “None of this ever happened,” or if he says that he returned the full sum to the lender, the Torah exempts him from taking an oath. But if he admits that he was a custodian and that he did not return the item, except that he makes some other argument that would exempt him, such as a claim of accident or theft, then he must take an oath about it. This verse encompasses all claims between people that involve admission and denial.
The root purpose of civil law is obvious.
This mitzvah—that we are obligated to hold court—applies to men who are fit to judge. It applies in all places and at all times. A court that transgressed this and did not execute justice, if it had the power to do justice but did not, then the court violated a positive commandment, and its punishment is very great. For [this failure] brings ruin to the land, for a country can only function with justice—as our Sages said: “On the three things the world stands…,” and one of them is “justice.”
This is one of the mitzvos that all of mankind was commanded to keep, including the nations of the world, for the world cannot exist without it.