The act of falsely making or materially altering, with intent to defraud, any writing which, if genuine, might be of legal efficacy or the foundation of legal liability. The Mosaic law, intended mainly for an agricultural people, in general makes little mention of the legal status of documents. While it provides punishments for deceit in selling (Lev. xxv. 14), for false weights and measures (Lev. xix. 35, 36; Deut. xxv. 13-16), it makes no provision against forgery. The Rabbis, however, found it necessary to institute laws and regulations for the preparation and execution of legal documents, so as to make forgery impossible. But even they did not attempt to set any definite punishment for it.
A legal document, whether a promissory note, a deed of sale or of gift, a will, or a marriage contract, had to be written on material upon which any erasure could be instantly recognized; and if it was not written upon such material, the document was invalid, even if it was to go into effect immediately (Giṭ. 22b; compare Jer. xxxii. 14). A space of two lines, left between the body of the document and the signatures of the witnesses, invalidated the document; for it was apprehended that some addition might be made in such space which might change the character of the document. Since, however, the witnesses could not always sign so close to the body of the document that not even the space of one line would be left, the Rabbis laid down the law that anything written in the last line had no binding force, and that it should be reserved for a summary or enumeration of the contents of the document (B. B. 161b; "Yad," Malweh, xxvii. 3, 4; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 44, 1; 45, 6).
If, at the writing of the document, some mistake occurred which necessitated erasure or crossing out, the mistake had to be noted and explained at the end of the document, above the signatures of the witnesses. A word expressing a number from three to nine should not be placed at the end of a line, where, by an addition of a letter or two, the summight be increased, as the number ("shalosh" =3), which could easily be made into ("sheloshim" = 30) by the addition of . The sum should never be expressed by letters of the alphabet, (each of which has its numerical value), but should be written out in words (B. B. 167a; Maimonides, l.c. p. 13; Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 42, 4; 44, 5).
In spite of all these precautions, the apprehension of forgery still existed; and the debtor could easily free himself from payment through the plea that the document was forged. In such a case the court entirely disregarded the existence of the document, considering it merely as an oral claim ("milwah 'al peh"), when only the rabbinic oath ("hesset") was imposed. The Rabbis, therefore, established a new institution with regard to promissory notes, namely, the confirmation of the signatures of the witnesses by a competent court ("ḳiyyum sheṭarot"), through which the document assumed the character of a judicial decision, and after which no plea of forgery was admitted (see Evidence).
The Rabbis provided no special punishment for the forger. Some authorities would disqualify him from being a witness or from being believed on his oath; but this opinion is not generally accepted (see Ḥatam Sofer, Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 39, quoted in Pitḥe Teshubah to Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 34, 17). Still he fell under suspicion, and the court was warned to examine with greater care any document he might produce. If two witnesses testified that a person asked them to forge a document, any document produced by such person was considered forged, and he could henceforth establish his claim only through the testimony of witnesses (Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 67, 2, Isserles' gloss). The court was permitted to employ violent means, even public chastisement, to compel the forger to confess his guilt (B. B. 167a; comp. Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 42, 3; see also Clerical Errors).
- Bloch, Das Polizeirecht, Budapest, 1879.