The Sanhedrin: The Jewish Court System

“Appoint judges and enforcement officers in all your gates.”—Deuteronomy 16:18

The Torah enjoins us to appoint judges, as well as officers who enforce their rulings. But how are these judges appointed and what is their jurisdiction? Let’s explore the Jewish court system, from the ancient Sanhedrin to modern-day rabbinical courts.

Supreme Court: The Great Sanhedrin of 71 Members

The Jewish supreme court was called the Sanhedrin (“Council”) or Sanhedrin ha-Gadol (“the Great Council”) and consisted of 71 rabbis.

Why 71? G‑d told Moses, “Gather for Me 70 men from the elders of Israel.” Moses presided over them, as the verse continues, “And they shall stand there with you.”1 Thus, the 70 judges plus Moses equals 71.

Once Moses passed away, the judge with the greatest knowledge was appointed in his stead. Called the nasi, he would sit at the head of the court. To his right sat the av bet din (patron of the court), the second greatest judge, who was appointed as the nasi’s assistant. The remaining 69 would sit before them, arranged according to age and stature. The wiser the judge, the closer he would be seated to the nasi.2

The Sanhedrin was always located close to the Tabernacle or the Temple. In Moses’ time it was near the entrance to the Tabernacle; in later times it was seated in a special chamber in the Temple compound. Toward the end of the Second Temple era, it convened in other locations in the Holy Land and continued to function in an ever-decreasing capacity until approximately the 5th century.

The Sanhedrin’s Function

Any laws and takanot (decrees) issued by the Sanhedrin were binding on the entire Jewish nation. Although lower courts consisting of 23 judges could try capital cases, only the Sanhedrin had authority over cases involving the king, capital crimes committed by the high priest, or crimes committed by an entire tribe or city.

Powers exclusive to the high court also included:3

  • Crowning a king.
  • Authorizing “voluntary” wars (milchemet hareshut), such as wars for the sake of expanding the country’s borders.
  • Expanding holy sites, such as Jerusalem and the courtyard of the Holy Temple.
  • Appointing lesser courts of 23 judges.

Additionally, since the Sanhedrin was required to hear all testimony directly, rather than through an interpreter, it was preferable that its members be familiar with every language spoken by Jews around the world. When a foreign language was used in testimony, the Sanhedrin had to have at least two members who spoke that language to examine the witnesses, and a third member who at least understood the language.4

Unlike modern-day supreme courts, the Sanhedrin was not an “appeals court” in the sense that a litigant could appeal a verdict. However, if a lower court was unsure of how to rule, it could refer the case to a higher court.

Lesser Sanhedrin: 23 Members

There were also lesser sanhedrins that consisted of 23 judges, the minimum amount of judges required to try capital cases.5 (Interestingly, even the case of an animal that was liable to be put to death had to be judged by such a court, unless of course there was immediate danger.6)

In addition to the two lesser sanhedrins located at the entrances to the Temple courtyard and the Temple Mount respectively, every sizeable city, as well as every tribe, had its own lesser sanhedrin.7

Standard Rabbinical Court: Three Judges

An ordinary tribunal consisted of three judges8 and had the power to adjudicate monetary issues as well as cases involving corporal punishments. They could not, however, judge any case that could even potentially evolve into a case of capital punishment.9

Qualifications for Judges

Every judge was required to have the following seven attributes: wisdom, humility, awe of heaven, a loathing for money (even his own), a love for truth, the love of the people at large, and a good reputation.

In addition, to be appointed to the greater or lesser sanhedrin, one had to have achieved distinction in Torah knowledge and possess some knowledge of intellectual disciplines such as medicine, mathematics, calendar, astronomy, astrology and the teachings of idolatry, so that he would know how to judge cases concerning those fields. He could not be too old or childless when appointed, since someone with a family is more likely to be sympathetic and merciful. Members of the sanhedrin could be kohanim, Levites, or Israelites of fine pedigree.

In order for any court to be able to rule on capital or corporal cases, or even just punitive damages, its judges had to have semichah (rabbinic ordination passed down from Moses, not the ordination used today. For more on that, see A Brief History of Rabbinic Ordination).10 A non-ordained court, which is what contemporary rabbinical courts are, can adjudicate monetary disputes by ruling that one must compensate another for financial loss, but it cannot hold one liable for Torah-mandated fines (such as having a thief pay double).11

Appointments to the Great Sanhedrin

According to Don Yitzchak Abarbanel, in the times of the Jewish kings, members of the Sanhedrin were chosen by the king. In later times, the nasi, in consultation with the rest of the court, would fill vacancies as they arose. When a nasi would die, the members of the court would choose someone from among themselves to replace him.12

Appointments to the Lesser Courts

Maimonides quotes the Talmudic teaching that the high court would send emissaries throughout the entire land of Israel to seek out judges.13 Whenever they found a person who possessed the seven attributes outlined above, they would install him as a judge in his own city. From there, they would promote him as needed to the court that held sessions at the entrance to the Temple Mount. Then he would be promoted to the court that held sessions at the entrance to the Temple courtyard, and then to the Great Sanhedrin.14

According to Abarbanel, the people of each tribe and city would choose judges from among themselves who would sit on their lower courts, including the courts of 23 judges. Interestingly, he says that the real reason there were two courts in the Temple area was that Jerusalem was divided between the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and each tribe would get its own court.15

The commonly accepted view follows Maimonides.

Contemporary Rabbinical Courts

Contemporary communities have different mechanisms for appointing rabbinical judges. Some cities have a board, which may include rabbis of various synagogues, that elects the members of their rabbinical court. Other communities have community-wide elections.

Additionally, many times an ad hoc court can be formed to arbitrate a specific dispute. Each party chooses one rabbi whom he or she believes to be trustworthy, and then the two rabbis together choose a third rabbi to join them. This is known as a zabla, which is an acronym for the Hebrew words zeh borer lo echad, “this one chooses one for himself [and this one chooses one for himself].” Before the arbitration begins, each party agrees to abide by the ruling of the court, which is fully binding on both parties.

Today, without the Sanhedrin, we don’t have the same uniformity in Jewish law as we had in ancient times, and there is more room for disputes. Thus, we include in our prayers three times a day, “Restore our judges as in former times . . .” May it be speedily in our days!

Footnotes
1. Numbers 11:16.
2. Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Sanhedrin 1:3.
3. Talmud, Sanhedrin 2a.
4. These three members then constituted a minor court (beit din) of three, who could report the testimony to the entire body. Once testimony was accepted by a minor court, it was no longer considered secondhand testimony. See Talmud, Sanhedrin 17b, and commentaries ad loc.
5. Although the number 23 is based on the Oral Tradition, there is an allusion to it in the Torah. Numbers 35:24–25 states: “The congregation shall judge . . . and the congregation shall save . . .” Implied is that there must be the possibility of a congregation “judging”—condemning one to death—and a congregation “saving”—seeking his acquittal. Now, a congregation is no less than ten. Thus, there are at least 20 judges. We add three judges so that there not be an equally balanced court, and to allow the possibility of “following after the inclination of the majority.” See Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Sanhedrin 5:3.
6. See Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Sanhedrin 5:2.
7. Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Sanhedrin 5:2.
8. For certain purposes, such as declaring a new month or establishing a leap year, specially formed courts of other sizes would meet.
9. See Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Sanhedrin 5:3.
10. See Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Sanhedrin 4:1. Although some editions read that only one member of the court needs to be ordained, it would seem that the correct reading, as is found in older manuscripts, is that all members need to be ordained. In fact, Maimonides himself states this in his commentary to the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 1:3.
11. See Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Sanhedrin 5:9.
12. See Abarbanel, Deuteronomy 16:18.
13. Sanhedrin 88b.
14. Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Sanhedrin 2:8.
15. See Abarbanel, Deuteronomy 16:18.
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