In the midst of a parasha dealing with korbanot, it is strange to find the following pasuk: "Should a soul sin and hear the voice of a curse and he is a witness, either he saw or he knew, if he does not say, he will bear his sin" (Vayikra 5:1). Targum Yonatan does explain this pasuk in the realm of mitzvot between man and his Maker, regarding one who witnessed his friend violating an aveira of swearing falsely or cursing.
However, the mishna (Sanhedrin 4:5) understands it in context of one who knows testimony on behalf of his friend but does want to go through the rigors of interrogation before beit din. According to this approach, it is a broadening of the Ten Commandments, where we find "Do not serve as a false witness against your friend." Here, we are commanded not to be a bad witness, even through inaction, by refusing to testify. Whether he refrains to save embarrassment, to avoid a fight, or for any other invalid reason, he will bear the sin. The sin is not limited to two witnesses, who are fully believed by beit din. Even one witness is required to testify, as his testimony can be of help; if he does not, he has a moral obligation to pay for the funds a litigant might have received as a result (Rambam, Edut 17:7).
However, according to this approach, what does the beginning of the pasuk, referring to hearing the voice of a curse, have to do with refusal to testify? Ibn Ezra explains that it refers to an ancient minhag. When authorities were unable to solve a case for lack of evidence, they would put a cherem on whoever knew information and did not testify. Whoever ignored the cherem, says the pasuk, would bear a sin.
As far as halacha is concerned, Chazal interpreted the pasuk differently. The mishna (Shvuot 4:3) says that it is referring to witnesses who denied knowing about the case and had an oath administered to them by the litigant, to which they answered amen falsely. In such a case they were obligated to bring a korban known as an oleh v’yored. This approach connects the beginning of the pasuk to its end and also explains why it is found in relation to korbanot.
This approach also shows a contrast between our legal process and those of other cultures. Many courts around the world make witnesses swear, before testifying, that they will tell the truth. This is unnecessary for us because we all have taken an oath at Sinai not to testify falsely. Oaths in court are used, according to the Torah, only for litigants to confirm their claims and by reluctant witnesses to make sure they agree to testify.
We conclude with a midrash and a pasuk related to our topic: "One who divides up with a thief hates his soul; he hears a curse and will not tell" (Mishlei 29:24). The midrash (Vayikra Rabba 6) says this refers to one who saw a theft and is promised money by the thief if he refrains from reporting him.
Let us pray for the renewal and improvement of a complete Torah judicial system.