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Tractate Sanhedrin: Commentary and Study Guide

by Nachman Cohen

Bibliographic information

TitleTractate Sanhedrin: Commentary and Study Guide
AuthorNachman Cohen
PublisherVarda Books
Publication Date2009
SubjectCommentary on Talmud


SANHEDRIN ( Court): Name of a treatise of the Mishnah, Tosefta, and both Talmudim. It stands fourth in the order Nezikin in most editions, and is divided into eleven chapters containing seventy-one paragraphs in all. It treats chiefly of courts and their powers, of qualifications for the office of judge, and of legal procedure and criminal law.

From Sanhedrin: Commentary and Study Guide


In the foregoing, we have discussed the ideal court system and the approach taken if there were no qualified judges. (6) points up the tannaitic dispute as to whether, Biblically, judges who are not completely qualified [i.e., knowledgeable] may adjudicate. R. Yehoshua believes that they may adjudicate. The Torah wishes that cases come to trial promptly. This can be done only if non-working people, even those lacking the requisite knowledge, can act as judges.

R. Eliezer haModa'i disagrees with this view. R. Yehoshua's position requires justification. If the whole idea of "din Torah" is for cases to be resolved on the basis of Torah law, then with what justification can one allow expediency to overweigh the strong possibility of a faulty decision? To be sure, R. Yehoshua's law is limited to monetary matters, nevertheless, it seems to undermine the total concept of a Jewish court system.

Furthermore, there is a completely different remedy available to litigants who wish to settle a dispute, namely, p'shara (mediation). (See I- [16]-[24].)

P'shara or bitzu'a is a system which has more flexibility than din.

Its major concern is settling disputes amicably. It is not bound by the law. In this system, truth and Torah law are secondary to a peaceful resolution of the dispute. How could the Torah, with its concern for truth, establish this alternate system of resolving disputes? Indeed, once these two systems exist, which route should the litigants seek out? Why, in fact, did the Torah establish two alternatives?

Tanna'im debate the first question. R. Eliezer b. R. Yosi haG'lili believes that it is prohibited to seek mediation. Tanna Kamma holds that it is permissible to go to mediation. R. Yehoshua b. Korcha maintains that it is a mitzva to settle disputes through mediation.

In understanding this dispute we must come to grips with the Torah's allowance of settling cases without concern for uncovering the truth, or of applying remedies which are contrary to the Torah's remedies. Insight can be gleaned from the G'mara's presentation of the subject.

About the Author 

Nachman Cohen ---

Rabbi Nachman Cohen, Director of Torah Lishmah Institute, is the Spiritual Leader of Young Israel Ohab Zedek, of North Riverdale/Yonkers, and Chairman of the Board of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists.

Rabbi Cohen studied in Mesivta Torah Vodaath as well as Yeshivas Karlin Stolin. He received an Sc.M. in Physics from Brown University and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Boston University.


Preface v

How to best use this sefer viii

The Legal System 1

Judgment versus Mediation 12

Other Legal Remedies 18

Heavenly Retribution 21

Contents of the Tractate 24

Meta-Legal Perspectives 38

Aggada 40

Order of Mishna 56

11 Chapters of Tractate Sanhedrin


The Legal System

Tractate Sanhedrin begins with a classification of the hierarchy of courts and their function. The court system consists of a supreme tribunal, the Sanhedrin (also known as the Court of Seventy-[One]), Courts of Twenty-Three (also called sanhedrei k'tana or Minor Sanhedrin) and Courts of Three. Each court has its own jurisdiction. The Court of Three hears civil cases while the Court of Twenty-Three tries capital cases. The Sanhedrin is the final arbiter of Torah law and it tries cases of national concern (see below).



It is instructive at this point to review the Biblical basis for the various aspects of the court system. In the Torah, the court system was suggested by Yisro and was instituted with the approval of Almighty. (Many reasons are given as to why Yisro merited that these Biblical laws were left for him to suggest.) Yisro advised that Moshe appoint judges over 1000, 100, 50 and 10 people respectively. These individuals were to judge all cases except those involving davar hagadol (d'varim shel gadol). The latter cases involving the leaders of the nation, such as, the king or kohen gadol, and davar hakashe, cases in which the law was unclear to lower court judges, were to be brought to Moshe's attention.

After the Jews left Sinai and sinned by asking for meat, Moshe declared that the burden of leading the nation by himself was too much for him. God instructed Moshe to choose 70 individuals from among the twelve tribes and they were to act as the supreme court, the Sanhedrin haG'dola. Whatever had previously been under Moshe's sole authority was now to be shared with the Sanhedrin. Moreover, as Moshe had chosen these judges, so too, the Sanhedrin was given the sole authority to choose future judges. (See Tanchuma, B'ha'aloskha 14.)


The Sanhedrin has jurisdiction over cases involving:

  1. The tribe

  2. A false prophet

  3. The kohen gadol

  4. Declaring a voluntary war

  5. Extending the boundaries of Jerusalem

  6. The appointment of Courts of Twenty-Three

  7. Ir hanidachas

A zakein mamre must rebel against the ruling of the Sanhedrin to be culpable-although he may be tried for his violation by any Court of Twenty-Three.

The G'mara explains that [a] refers to

  1. R. Masna: Cases in which a tribal leader or any other person in authority is a litigant;

  2. R. Elazar: Disagreements over tribal boundaries;

  3. Ravina: A tribe whose majority worshipped idols. They are judged collectively but executed as individuals.

An investigation of the above reveals that the Sanhedrin's direct jurisdiction exists in all areas touching upon the nation's physical and spiritual well-being. Thus, as the highest national court, it judges capital cases involving Israel's leaders (kings, kohanim g'dolim and others in a position of authority) [because leaders are the embodiment of a nation], territorial disputes between tribes, and tribes which worship idols. Going to war involves the physical safety of the entire nation, so the Sanhedrin's approval must be sought. The Sanhedrin safeguards the spiritual sanctity of the people by authenticating prophets, trying false prophets, choosing justices for all courts, and setting inviolable standards that no zakein may refute.

An elder who urges individuals to disregard the Sanhedrin [and they carry out his wishes] is labeled a zakein mamre. The Sanhedrin determines which times will be invested with k'dusha [when its members intercalate the calendar] and determines (and helps to create) k'dushas Yerushalayim v'ha'azaros. It is, moreover, the judges of the Sanhedrin who determine which city is to offer the egla arufa. This underscores the fact that murder can weaken the fiber of the nation affecting its spiritual well-being.

The Lishkas haGazis: The Sanctity of Place

The Sanhedrin convened in the Lishkas haGazis. This chamber is on the northwest side of the Temple courtyard with half of it situated in kodesh, the other half in chol (non-sanctified portion). The Talmud does not consider the place where the Sanhedrin sat to be insignificant. From the phrase, "min hamakom hahu," it is derived that hamakom gorem (that is, the total legal system is not considered to be intact unless the Sanhedrin sits in this chamber). Halakhically, this law has two specific applications.

So long as the Sanhedrin does not sit in the Lishkas haGazis no scholar may be declared a zakein mamre and no person who commits a capital crime may be put to death [except a murderer].

Insight can be gained as to the intrinsic significance of the location of the Lishkas Hagazis from the following two comments in the Talmud. According to Chazal, the Lishkas haGazis was chosen as the sight of the Sanhedrin for two reasons: 1. It was in the tribal territory of Yehuda (as per the verse lo yasur shevet m'Y'huda) 2. It was close to the Kodesh haKodashim where the Sh'khina was centered.

The foregoing underscores that the Sanhedrin, was not simply a tribunal. Rather, it was the representation of Divine legal authority on earth. In Heaven, God, kavayakhol, does nothing before conferring with His tribunal. On Earth, He turns His authority to judge over to the Sanhedrin.

The Sanhedrin's task was to be Judaism's highest court. The major function of this court was ki yipaleh mimkha davar lamishpat...v'kamta v'alisa, i.e., to resolve halakhic uncertainties. First and foremost, the Sanhedrin was to be the forum which established normative Jewish law. Interestingly, the head of the Sanhedrin (the nasi) was called Rosh Yeshiva. When it was not involved in case work, the Sanhedrin functioned as the country's leading Yeshiva. (R. Chananel points out that except for Mondays and Thursdays when they heard cases, Courts of Twenty-Three functioned as yeshivos.) Therefore, on Shabbos when it did not sit in judgement, the Sanhedrin sat in the Temple's "Beis Midrash."

Concerning this court's rulings, R. Yehoshua maintains, lo bashamayim hi. The Sanhedrin is the court of last resort when it comes to Halakha. It can even overrule the authority of the Heavenly Tribunal.

Because of its exalted status of being God's emissary on Earth, the Sanhedrin had to act imitatio Dei. Its most important function was emes u'mishpat shalom shiftu b'sha'areikhem; to bring about peace through the establishment of truth.

The Lishkas haGazis was alongside the kodesh hakodashim. This is the place on Earth where Heaven and Earth merge, the place where God rests His Sh'khina. It was from the earth in the kodesh hakodashim that Adam was created. The tribunal designated as God's emissary had to be endowed with the greatest level of ru'ach hakodesh. It was not enough that their decisions were made with chokhma (wisdom). They had to be made with k'dusha (sanctity) and ru'ach hakodesh (Divine inspiration). In any significant dispute there are always strong arguments for each side. The Sanhedrin, attuned to Da'as Elyon, could safely choose the correct view.

So significant was the location of the Sanhedrin's chamber that when ...

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