CONTEMPT OF COURT:
Disrespectful demeanor before, or disobedience of, a public authority. Courts of justice must be treated with respect, and their orders must be obeyed; therefore they have in all countries the power to punish acts of disrespect, and to enforce their orders by punishing disobedience.
The judges may punish any disrespect, or any annoyance of their messenger while he is in the exercise of his office (Ḳid. 12b), by infliction of stripes or by the lesser excommunication (M. Ḳ. 16a). When the disrespect is shown to the judges, the guilty party is subject to the law against insults to the learned (Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 342). But the service of a process of contempt for disobedience to the court's orders, and as a means of enforcing obedience, is the more important branch of the subject. An offender is not warned; he is bidden to appear and submit to the court. If he does not he is guilty of disobedience; he has violated a high duty; and so, when the court's messenger reports that he summoned the defendant, and that he refused to appear, the court puts him under the lesser ban ( or ). But if the defendant, being summoned, simply does not appear on the day set for hearing, the ban is pronounced on the day following (B. Ḳ. 112b, 113a). The defendant is in contempt, and can clear himself only by submitting to the jurisdiction of the court and paying the cost of the writ of excommunication.
The notion arose as early as the tenth or eleventh century (see historic examples in Bloch, "Die Civil-prozess-Ordnung," p. 27) that the court might bring the pressure of the community to bear on the renitent by suspending public worship in the synagogue which he attended, at first on work-days only, and then, this step being insufficient, on Sabbaths also.
After judgment rendered, if the condemned does not obtain a stay of proceedings, or show by oath his inability to pay, and no property of his is in sight, though the judges feel assured of his ability to pay, some maintain that a process of contempt in the shape of imprisonment can be awarded (Isserles' gloss to Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 97, 15; see Ket. 86a). If he declares that he will not obey, he should be put under the lesser ban at once; if he still fails to comply with the judgment, he must first be warned, and may then be put under the ban; and if he remains obdurate for thirty days, he is then subject to the greater excommunication ("ḥerem"—see Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 19, 3; Sanh. 25, 11).
Although it is the duty of those who know disputed facts to come forward and testify (Lev. v. 1), yet rabbinical jurisprudence has not provided a writ to call for the attendance of witnesses at the instance of a litigant, like the subpœna of English and American law. Hence the process of contempt most frequent under that law, the attachment against the body of a witness who fails to appear when called, is not known to the Jewish codes.
- Bloch, Die Civilprozess-Ordnung nach Mosaisch-Rabbinischen Rechte, pp. 24-27.