Bible Prophecy Research
Title: Sanhedrin Launched in Tiberias
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Date: October 13, 2004

Sanhedrin Launched in Tiberias

Sanhedrin Launched In Tiberias
12:42 Oct 14, '04 / 29 Tishrei 5765

A unique ceremony - probably only the second of its kind in the past 1,600 years - is taking place in Tiberias today: The launching of a Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish-legal tribunal in the Land of Israel.

The Sanhedrin, a religious assembly that convened in one of the Holy Temple chambers in Jerusalem, comprised 71 sages and existed during the Tannaitic period, from several decades before the Common Era until roughly 425 C.E. Details of today's ceremony are still sketchy, but the organizers' announced their intention to convene 71 rabbis who have received special rabbinic ordination as specified by Maimonides.

An attempt to reconvene the Sanhedrin was made several centuries ago in Tzfat. The body in fact ordained such greats as Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the classic Jewish Law code Shulhan Arukh. However, the opposition of other leading rabbis soon forced the end of the endeavor.

One of the leaders of today's attempt to revive the Sanhedrin is Rabbi Yeshai Ba'avad of Beit El. He said that the 71 rabbis "from across the spectrum received the special ordination, in accordance with Maimonides' rulings, over the past several months." Rabbi Ba'avad explained that the membership of the new body is not permanent: "What is much more crucial is the establishment of this body. Those who are members of it today will not necessarily be its members tomorrow. But the goal is to have one rabbinic body in Jerusalem that will convene monthly and issue rulings on central issues. This is the need of the generation and of the hour."

Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, who heads the Temple institute in Jerusalem, is one of the participating rabbis. He told Arutz-7 today, "Whether this will be the actual Sanhedrin that we await, is a question of time - just like the establishment of the State; we rejoiced in it, but we are still awaiting something much more ideal. It's a process. Today's ceremony is really the continuation of the renewal of the Ordination process in Israel, which we marked several months ago. Our Talmudic Sages describe the ten stages of exile of the Sanhedrin from Jerusalem to other locations, until it ended in Tiberias - and this is the place where it was foretold that it would be renewed, and from here it will be relocated to Jerusalem."

Rabbi Ariel said that the rabbis there included many from the entire spectrum: "Hareidi, religious-Zionist, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, hassidi, and many others - such as Rabbi Yoel Schwartz, Rabbi Adin Shteinzaltz, and many others... We can't expect a great consensus; that's not how things work here. But sometimes that's how the process goes, from the bottom up."

Published: 17:23 October 13, 2004
Last Update: 12:42 October 14, 2004

(Arutz Sheva)

The Jewish Court System
by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan

Qualifications for a Jewish judge and the operation of the Sanhedrin.

An excerpt from Rabbi Kaplan's Handbook of Jewish Thought.

The Sanhedrin was the supreme council of Israel. As long as it stood, it was the supreme court and legislative body in all matters of Torah law. As such, the Sanhedrin was entrusted with keeping and interpreting the Oral Torah.

It is a positive commandment to set up courts to interpret and decide questions of Torah law. It is thus written, "You shall appoint judges and officers in all your gates, which God is giving you" (Deut. 16:18).

The commandment includes the communal responsibility to appoint a duly ordained Sanhedrin. This precedes the establishment of other courts.

The Sanhedrin consisted of 71 judges. God thus commanded Moses, "Gather to Me 70 men of the elders of Israel... and bring them to the Tent of Meeting, so that they should stand there with you" (Numbers 11:16). This was the first Sanhedrin. Counting Moses himself, it consisted of 71 members.

Since the membership of the Sanhedrin is fixed by the Torah, its number cannot be changed.

Nevertheless, it was permitted to allow outside sages to enter into the deliberations of the Sanhedrin without voting privileges. Cases are therefore sometimes found in which a greater number participate in a decision.

The Sanhedrin could not render judgment unless its entire membership was present. If a member was absent, however, a temporary substitute could be appointed.

The leading sage of the Sanhedrin was appointed as its head, taking the place of Moses in the first Sanhedrin. His official title was "Head of the Sitting" (Rosh HaYeshiva). Later, however, he was referred to as the "President" (Nasi).

Any judgment issued by the Sanhedrin in the absence of the Nasi was invalid.

The second-ranking sage of the Sanhedrin was appointed as assistant to the Nasi. He was known as the "Master of the Court" (Av Beit Din). Both he and the Nasi were voting members of the Sanhedrin.

The Sanhedrin would sit in a semicircle, so that all its members would be able to see each other. They would also have an equal view of all witnesses testifying.

Out of respect for the Nasi, the Av Beit Din would sit at the extreme right. He would be followed by the Nasi, and then by the rest of the Sanhedrin in order of their capability.

Qualifications for Membership

Every member of the Sanhedrin had to be distinguished in Torah knowledge, wisdom, humility, fear of God, indifference to monetary gain, love of truth, love of fellow man, and good reputation. It is thus written, "You shall provide out of all the people, able men, who fear God, men of truth, disdaining unjust gain, and place them over [the people]" (Exodus 18:21). It is likewise written, "Take from each of your tribes, wise men, with understanding and full of knowledge, and I will make them your leaders" (Deut. 1:13).

Since the Sanhedrin had to be competent to render judgment in all cases that came before it, all its members had to be expert in all areas of the Torah. They also had to have enough knowledge of science and mathematics to be able to adapt Torah law to all possible problems.

Members of the Sanhedrin likewise had to have knowledge of other religions, as well as the teachings of idolatry and the occult arts, so as to be able to render judgment in cases involving these matters. For this reason, even studies which were normally discouraged or forbidden, were permitted to members of the Sanhedrin when these studies were required for judgment.

The Sanhedrin was required to hear all testimony directly, and not through an interpreter. It is therefore preferable that its members be familiar with all the languages spoken by Jews around the world.

When a foreign language is used in testimony, the Sanhedrin must have at least two members who speak that language to examine the witnesses. There must also be a third member who understands the language. These three members then constitute a minor court (beit din) of three, who can report the testimony to the entire body. Once testimony has been accepted by a minor court, it is no longer considered second-hand testimony.

In order that the Sanhedrin command the utmost respect, its members must be of good appearance, and free of bodily defect. Therefore, a person who is blind, even in one eye, cannot be a member of the Sanhedrin.

Age and Lineage

Similarly, the members of the Sanhedrin must command respect as mature individuals. Therefore, it is preferable that each member be at least 40 years old, unless he is incomparable in wisdom and universally respected. Similarly, it is preferable that the head of the Sanhedrin be at least 50 years old. Under no condition should a person under 18 be appointed to the Sanhedrin.

A person who is very old may not sit on the Sanhedrin, since he is apt to be too severe. The same is true of a man who is sterile, or even childless. A Sanhedrin containing any such member is not validly constituted. Therefore, if a member becomes very old or sexually maimed, he must be replaced.

It is preferable that the members of the Sanhedrin be chosen from people of unbroken descent, as in the case of all positions of authority. It is required, however, that all members of the Sanhedrin be of Jewish parentage...

Every member of the Sanhedrin must be of unblemished family, as was the first Sanhedrin under Moses. Therefore a bastard (mamzer, i.e., the son of an adulterous or incestuous union) is ineligible for membership and renders a Sanhedrin invalid...

It is preferable that the Sanhedrin contain Kohen-priests and Levites as members. It is thus written, "You shall come to the Kohen-priest and Levites, and to the judge who shall be in those days" (Deut. 17:9). Nonetheless, a Sanhedrin is valid even without Kohen-priests and Levites.

Rabbinic Ordination

Every member of the Sanhedrin must be ordained, following a tradition from Moses. It is thus written, "Moses did as God commanded him. He took Joshua... and laid his hands on him, commanding him, as God spoke through Moses" (Numbers 27:22-23). Moses also laid his hands on the other elders, ordaining them as members of the Sanhedrin. These, in turn, ordained others, generation after generation, in an unbroken line of ordination from Moses.

Although Moses ordained the first Sanhedrin with the actual laying of hands, this was a special case, and was only done that one time. All subsequent ordinations were performed orally, granting the subject the title of "Rabbi" and declaring that he is "ordained with the right to judge cases involving fines."

Ordination must be conferred by a court of three, containing at least one ordained member. It can be done either in person, or by messenger or letter. A single court can ordain many individuals at once.

Therefore, as long as a single ordained person is alive, the tradition of ordination can remain unbroken. The ordained person can form a court with two unordained men, and ordain as many others as needed. The unordained members of the court, however, could then never be ordained themselves, since that would give them an interest in the case.

Some authorities maintain that ordination must be performed by day. In this respect, it is no different than any other judgment.

Ordination can only be conferred in the Land of Israel. The entire area included in the First Commonwealth is valid for such ordination. Both the ordaining court and the persons being ordained must be within its borders. If a Sanhedrin was ordained in the Holy Land, however, it can then function in other lands as well.

To qualify for ordination, a man must have all the qualifications necessary for membership in the Sanhedrin. However, if he later becomes disqualified from membership in the Sanhedrin because of age or physical disability, his ordination is still valid.

To qualify for ordination, one must be expert in all areas of Torah law. However, now that the Oral Torah has been committed to writing, it is sufficient that one be familiar enough with all the written authorities to render judgment in all cases.

The greatest Torah scholars of each generation are automatically qualified for ordination. It is thus written, "You shall go to the... judge who shall be in those days" (Deut. 17:9). This indicates that each generation has its own standard.

It is forbidden to appoint a man to the Sanhedrin or any other court if he does not have the necessary qualifications, even if he has other good qualities. To do so is to violate the commandment, "You shall not respect persons in judgment" (Deut. 1:17).

On the Temple Mount

The Sanhedrin originally convened in the Temple area, in the Chamber of Cut Stones (Lishkat HaGazit). This was a chamber built into the north wall of the Temple, half inside the sanctuary and half outside, with doors providing access both to the Temple and to the outside.

The place where the Sanhedrin convened was actually outside the sanctuary area. The Sanhedrin would sit while in judgment, and it is forbidden to sit within the sanctuary area. On the other hand, part of this chamber had to be inside the sanctuary area, since the Sanhedrin judged many things involving priests and the Temple service, and this had to be done within the Temple grounds. Moreover, questions would often arise during the divine service, when it is forbidden for a Kohen-priest to leave the sanctuary area. There was also a requirement that there be direct access from the Great Altar (mizbeach) to the Sanhedrin.

It was only in this chamber that the Sanhedrin could perform all its functions, including the trial of capital offenses.

However, in the year 3788 (28 CE), when the Sanhedrin relinquished its power to try capital offenses, it moved to another room on the Temple Mount, and then into the city itself. When Jerusalem was destroyed in 3828 (68 CE), the Sanhedrin moved to Yavneh. During the ensuing century, the location of the Sanhedrin alternated between Yavneh and Usha. From there it moved consecutively to Shafar'am, Beth She'arim, Sephoris, and Tiberias. It remained functioning in Tiberias until shortly before the completion of the Talmud.

During the persecutions of Constantinius (4097-4121; 337-361 CE), the Sanhedrin had to go into hiding, and it was eventually disbanded. There is a tradition that it will be in Tiberias that the Sanhedrin will be restored.

The traditional ordination (semicha) was thus abolished in the year 4118 (358 CE). The Sanhedrin and other duly constituted courts cannot be established until this ordination is reinstituted.

Jewish Courts Today

What is called "ordination" today is not true ordination, but rather, a certification that the individual is expert in certain areas of Torah law. Moreover, it implies that he has the permission of his teachers to render public decisions; without such permission it is forbidden.

Such ordination, however, in no way implies competence to serve on the Sanhedrin.

Therefore, no rabbinical court today can judge cases on its own authority. The only authority that such courts have is as agents of the earlier ordained courts. In this capacity, they can only judge commonly occurring cases involving actual loss on the part of the litigants. However, infrequently occurring cases, and those involving punitive damages or fines, require duly ordained judges, and therefore cannot be judged in contemporary rabbinical courts.

Some say that like all other positions of authority, ordination can be established by common consent as well as by unbroken tradition. However, only those living in the Land of Israel are counted with regard to matters dealing with authority. Therefore, ordination can be reestablished by the consent of the religious leaders in the Holy Land, even if they represent a minority of world Jewry.

Therefore, if all the religious leaders and authorities living in the Land of Israel were to agree to ordain a suitable individual, he would be considered duly ordained. He would then have the authority to set up a court and ordain others. Thus, the Sanhedrin and other courts could be restored.

It is foretold that the restoration of the Sanhedrin will precede the coming of the Messiah. God thus told His prophet, "I will restore your judges as at first, and your counsellors as in the beginning; afterward you will be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city. Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and those who return to her, with righteousness" (Isaiah 1:26-27). This restoration, however, can only take place in such a time as willed by God.

The Messiah will be a king of Israel, and as such, he can only be recognized by a duly ordained Sanhedrin.

There is a tradition that the Sanhedrin will be restored after a partial ingathering of the Jewish exile, before Jerusalem is rebuilt and restored. There is also a tradition that Elijah will present himself before a duly ordained Sanhedrin when he announces the coming of the Messiah. Like all events in the Messianic drama, the restoration of the Sanhedrin can only occur at the time decreed by God.

Author Biography:
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan was a multi-faceted, prolific exponent of Jewish thought -- skilled in both Kabbalah and Jewish law, as well as the natural sciences (he was listed in "Who’s Who in Physics"). He suffered an untimely death at age 48.

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By : Wilhelm Bacher Jacob Zallel Lauterbach

Hebrew-Aramaic term originally designating only the assembly at Jerusalem that constituted the highest political magistracy of the country. It was derived from the Greek ???????. Josephus uses ??????? for the first time in connection with the decree of the Roman governor of Syria, Gabinius (57 B.C.), who abolished the constitution and the then existing form of government of Palestine and divided the country into five provinces, at the head of each of which a sanhedrin was placed ("Ant." xiv. 5, § 4). Jerusalem was the seat of one of these. It is improbable, however, that the term "synhedrion" as a designation for the chief magistracy was used for the first time in connection with this decree of Gabinius; indeed, from the use made of it in the Greek translation of the Proverbs, Bacher concludes that it must have been current in the middle of the second century B.C.

The Great Sanhedrin.

In the Talmudic sources the "Great" Sanhedrin at Jerusalem is so called in contradistinction to other bodies designated by that name; and it was generally assumed that this Great Sanhedrin was identical with the Sanhedrin at Jerusalem which is mentioned in the non-Talmudic sources, in the Gospels, and in Josephus. The accounts in the two different sets of sources referring to the Sanhedrin, however, differ materially in their main characteristics. The Great Sanhedrin is designated in the Talmudic sources as "Sanhedrin Gedolah hayoshebet be-lishkat ha-gazit" = "the Great Sanhedrin which sits in the hall of hewn stone"(Sifra, Wayik.ra, ed. Weiss, 19a). The mention of "sanhedrin" without the epithet "gedolah" (Yer. Sanh. i. 19c) seems to presuppose another body than the Great Sanhedrin that met in the hall of hewn stone. For neither Josephus nor the Gospels in speaking of the Sanhedrin report any of its decisions or discussions referring to the priests or to the Temple service, or touching in any way upon the religious law, but they refer to the Sanhedrin exclusively in matters connected with legal procedure, verdicts, and decrees of a political nature; whereas the Sanhedrin in the hall of hewn stone dealt, according to the Talmudic sources, with questions relating to the Temple, the priesthood, the sacrifices, and matters of a kindred nature. Adolf Büchler assumes indeed that there were in Jerusalem two magistracies which were entirely different in character and functions and which officiated side by side at the same time. That to which the Gospels and Josephus refer was the highest political authority, and at the same time the supreme court; this alone was empowered to deal with criminal cases and to impose the sentence of capital punishment. The other, sitting in the hall of hewn stone, was the highest court dealing with the religious law, being in charge also of the religious instruction of the people (Sanh. xi. 2-4).

I. The Political Sanhedrin:

The Gerusia.

This body was undoubtedly much older than the term "sanhedrin." Accounts referring to the history of the pre-Maccabean time represent a magistracy at the head of the people, which body was designated Gerusia. In 203 Antiochus the Great wrote a letter to the Jews in which he expressed his satisfaction that they had given him a friendly reception at Jerusalem, and had even come to meet him with the senate... Antiochus V. also greeted the gerusia in a letter to the Jewish people. This gerusia, which stood at the head of the people, was the body that was subsequently called "sanhedrin." The date and the manner of its origin can not now be determined. Josephus calls it either ??????? or ???????, and its members ??????? (="elders,") or ??????? (="councilors"), whose number was probably the same as that of the members of the Sanhedrin in the hall of hewn stone, namely, seventy or seventy-one. There are no references to indicate whence the Sanhedrin derived its authority or by whom it was elected, unless it be assumed that the convocation of that body by the high priest and at times by the Jewish king, as mentioned in the sources, refers to the manner of its election. This Sanhedrin, which was entirely aristocratic in character, probably assumed its own authority, since it was composed of members of the most influential families of the nobility and priesthood (comp. Sanh. iv. 2, where there is an allusion to the composition of this body). The Pharisees had no great influence in this assembly, although some of its members may have been friendly to them at various times. Though there are no definite references to gradations in rank among the several members, there seems to have been a committee of ten members, ..., who ranked above their colleagues (comp. Schürer, "Gesch." 3d ed., ii. 201-202).

Place of Meeting.

The meetings took place in one of the chambers of the Temple in order that the discussions and decrees might thereby be invested with greater religious authority. According to a passage in the Mekilta (, 4 [ed. Weiss, p. 87a]), the Sanhedrin, which was empowered to pass the sentence of capital punishment, sat "in the vicinity of the altar," i.e., in one of the chambers of the inner court of the Temple. It was called "the hall of the ???????" because the latter sat there. Subsequently it was called "lishkat parhedrin" = "the hall of the ????????" (Yoma 8b). In this hall there was also a private room for the high priest (Yoma 10a; Tosef., Yoma, i. 2). The ????????? or the ???????? assembled in this private room (comp. Matt. xxvi. 57; Mark xiv. 63) before they met in the hall.The Sanhedrin did not, however, always retain this place of meeting; for, according to Josephus, the ????? was in the vicinity of the xystus ("B. J." v. 4, § 2), hence beyond the Temple mount, or, according to Schürer (l.c. ii. 211), on it, though not within the inner court. In the last years of the Jewish state, therefore, to which the account in Josephus must be referred, the Sanhedrin left its original seat, being compelled to do so perhaps by the Pharisees, who, on gaining the upper hand, would not permit the secular Sanhedrin to sit in the sanctuary. Indeed, while the Sanhedrin still sat in the Temple, it was decreed that a mezuzah was to be placed in the hall of the ????????. This was not required in any of the other apartments of the Temple; and R. Judah b. Ila'i, who was otherwise thoroughly informed as to the earlier institutions of the Temple, was unable to assign a reason for the decree (Yoma 10a). It may be explained only on the assumption that it was intended to secularize the sittings of this Sanhedrin. It may have been for the same reason that the body was subsequently excluded entirely from the Temple, inasmuch as the latter and its apartments were intended for the cult and matters connected with it, while the discussions and decrees of this Sanhedrin were political and secular in nature.

Functions and Position.

The extant references to the Sanhedrin are not sufficient to give an exact and detailed idea of its functions and of the position which it occupied. It is certain, however, that the extent of its power varied at different times, and that the sphere of its functions was restricted in various ways by the Roman government. One of these restrictions was Gabinius' above-mentioned division of the Jewish territory into five provinces, each with a sanhedrin of its own, whereby the authority and the functions of the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem were materially diminished. Its power was insignificant under Herod and Archelaus. After the death of these rulers its authority again increased, the internal government of the country being largely in its hands. It administered the criminal law, and had independent powers of police, and hence the right to make arrests through its own officers of justice. It was also empowered to judge cases that did not involve the death penalty, only capital cases requiring the confirmation of the procurator.The high priest, who from the time of Simeon wasalso the head of the state, officiated as president of the Sanhedrin. He bore the title "nasi" (prince), because the reins of government were actually held by him. Subsequently, when they were transferred to other hands, the high priest retained the title of nasi as president of the Sanhedrin. The powers of the latter official were restricted under the procurators, without whose permission the body could not be convened ("Ant." xx. 9, § 1). This Sanhedrin, since it was a political authority, ceased to exist when the Jewish state perished with the destruction of Jerusalem (70 C.E.).

II. The Religious Sanhedrin:

The Great Bet Din.

This body, which met in the hall of hewn stone and was called also "the Great Bet Din" or simply "the Bet Din in the hall of hewn stone" (Tosef., Hor. i. 3; Tosef., Sot.ah, ix. 1; Yer. Sanh. i. 19c), was invested with the highest religious authority. According to Talmudic tradition it originated in the Mosaic period, the seventy elders who were associated with Moses in the government of Israel at his request (Num. xi. 4-31) forming together with him the first Sanhedrin (Sanh. i. 6). The institution is said to have existed without interruption from that time onward (comp. Yer. Sanh. i. 18b, where, in a comment on Jer. lii. 24 et seq. and II Kings xxv. 18 et seq., it is said that Nebuzar-adan brought the Great Sanhedrin to Riblah before Nebuchadnezzar); but the fact that no passage whatever in the pre-exilic books of the Bible refers to this institution seems to indicate that it was not introduced before the time of the Second Temple. Originally it was probably not a regularly constituted authority, but merely a synod which convened on special occasions for the purpose of deliberating on important questions or of issuing regulations referring to religious life. The first assembly of this nature was that held under Ezra and Nehemiah (Neh. viii.-x.), which was called "the Great Synagogue" ("Keneset ha-Gedolah") in Jewish scholastic tradition. Subsequently, at a date which can not be definitely determined, this occasional assembly was replaced by a standing body. The latter, which was called "Sanhedrin" or "Bet Din," was regarded as the continuation of the synods which had previously been convened only occasionally.

Influence of the Pharisees.

It further appears from Ab. i. 2-4 that the Great Bet Din was regarded as a continuation of the Keneset ha-Gedolah; for the so-called "zugot" who were at the head of the Great Bet Din are named after the men of the Great Synagogue, which was regarded as the precursor of the Great Bet Din. This explains why the latter is sometimes called also "synagogue" (; Meg. Ta'an., in Neubauer, "M. J. C." ii. 16). Originally the members of this bet din also were priests belonging to prominent families, probably under the presidency of the high priest. The Pharisees, however, held at various times more or less prominent positions in this body, according as they were the victors or the vanquished in their conflict with the Sadducees. When John Hyrcanus toward the end of his reign turned from the Pharisees ("Ant." xvi. 11, § 1), he seems to have effected their dismissal from the Sanhedrin or bet din and to have formed a Sadducean bet din (Sanh. 52b), or a Sadducean Sanhedrin, as it is called in another passage (Meg. Ta'an. l.c. p. 17). Under Alexander Jannæus, Simeon b. Shet.ah. succeeded in ousting the Sadducean members from the bet din and in reorganizing it so that it was composed only of Pharisees. But the latter lost their prestige in the subsequent quarrel with Alexander, gaining the upper hand again only under his successor, Salome Alexandra, from which time the Great Bet Din was composed exclusively of Pharisees. According to the Mishnah (Sanh. i. 5; Sheb. ii. 2), the bet din, at least during the last years of its existence at Jabneh, where it had been reorganized, consisted of seventy or seventy-one members, according as the president was included in or omitted from the list. Simeon b. 'Azzai (first half of the 2d cent.) says that seventy-two elders ("zek.enim," i.e., members of the Sanhedrin) were present when R. Eleazar b. Azariah was elected president together with Rabban Gamaliel II. (Zeb. i. 3; Yad. iii. 5, iv. 2); this was one more than the usual number, and included probably, besides the seventy other members, the two presidents, Gamaliel and Eleazar b. Azariah.

Appointment and Promotion of Members.

According to R. Jose b. H.alafta, the members of the Great Bet Din were required to possess the following qualifications: scholarship, modesty, and popularity among their fellow men (Tosef., ii. 9; Sanh. 88b). According to an interpretation in Sifre, Num. 92 (ed. Friedmann, p. 25b), they had also to be strong and courageous. Only such were eligible, moreover, as had filled three offices of gradually increasing dignity, namely, those of local judge, and member successively of two magistracies at Jerusalem (Jose b. H.alafta, l.c.). R. Johanan, a Palestinian amora of the third century, enumerates the qualifications of the members of the Sanhedrin as follows: they must be tall, of imposing appearance, and of advanced age; and they must be learned and must understand foreign languages as well as some of the arts of the necromancer (Sanh. 19a).

Functions and Authority.

The hall of hewn stone ("lishkat ha-gazit") in which the bet din sat was situated on the southern side of the inner court of the Temple (Mid. v. 4). It was used for ritual purposes also, the priests drawing lots there for the daily service of the sacrifices, and also reciting the "Shema'" there (Tamid ii., end, to iii., beginning; iv., end, to v., beginning). The larger part of the hall was on the site of the court of laymen. There were two entrances: one from the court of the priests, which was used by the latter; the other in the Water gate, used by the laity. The Great Bet Din sat daily, except on the Sabbath and on feast-days, between the morning and evening sacrifices (Tosef., Sanh. vii. 1). On the Sabbath and on feast-days, on which there were no meetings in the hall of hewn stone, the members of the bet din assembled in the schoolhouse on the Temple mount (ib.). According to the accounts given in the Talmudic sources, the Great Bet Din had the following functions, which it exercised in part as a body and in part through committees of its members: It had supervision over the Temple service, which was required to be conducted in conformity with theLaw and according to Pharisaic interpretation. It decided which priests should perform the Temple service (Mid., end). It supervised especially important ritual acts, as the service on the Day of Atonement (Yoma i. 3). It had in charge the burning of the Red Heifer and the preparation of the water of purification (Tosef., Sanh. iii. 4). When the body of a murdered person was found, members of the Great Bet Din had to take the necessary measurements in order to determine which city, as being the nearest to the place of the murder, was to bring the sacrifice of atonement (Sot.ah ix. 1; Tosef., Sanh. iii. 4; comp. Sot.ah 44b-45a). It had also to decide as to the harvest tithes (Peah ii. 6). It sat in judgment on women suspected of adultery, and sentenced them to drink the bitter water (Sot.ah i. 4; see Ordeal). It arranged the calendar (R. H. ii. 5 et seq.), and provided correct copies of the Torah roll for the king, and probably for the Temple also (Tosef., Sanh. iv. 4; Yer. Sanh. ii. 20c). In general it decided all (doubtful questions relating to the religious law (Sanh. 88b) and rendered the final decision in regard to the sentence of the teacher who promulgated opinions contradicting the traditional interpretation of the Law ("zak.en mamreh"; Sanh. xi. 2-4; see Elder, Rebellious).

The "Zugot."

Two persons were at the head of the bet din: one, the actual president with the title "nasi"; the other, the second president or vice-president, who bore the title "ab bet din" (father of the court). The existence of these two offices is well authenticated from the time following the Hadrianic persecution. R. Johanan (3d cent.) says that in the college which was regarded as the continuation of the Great Bet Din in the hall of hewn stone R. Nathan officiated as second president ("ab bet din") side by side with R. Simeon b. Gamaliel II., who was president ("nasi"; Hor. 13b). In a mishnah ( ii. 2) five pairs of scholars are enumerated who were at the head of the Great Bet Din at the time of the Second Temple; and it is stated that one of each pair was nasi and the other ab bet din. These five pairs of scholars, who collectively are also designated "zugot" (Peah ii. 6), were at the same time the most prominent representatives of the tradition (Ab. i. 1 et seq.) and at the head of the Pharisaic school. There is therefore no reason to doubt the statement that from the time the bet din came under Pharisaic influence these Pharisaic teachers stood at its head. The fact that the high priest had formerly been the president of this bet din explains why there were two presidents. Since the high priest was probably frequently prevented from presiding at the meetings, or was perhaps not competent to do so, another officer had to be chosen who should be the actual director of the body. The double office was retained when, with the growing influence of the Pharisees, the nasi of the bet din was a scribe and no longer the high priest. The title "nasi," which the president of the bet din bore, may have originated at the time when the high priest—the real prince and the head of the state—acted as president. The following reason also may have determined the retention of the title, even after the high priest no longer officiated as president: The bet din, which, as shown above, was called also (corresponding to the Hebrew ), was identified with the Biblical "'edah" (comp. Sifre, Deut. 41 [ed. Friedmann, p. 59b]; Sifra, Wayik.ra, ed. Weiss, 19a, where it is expressly stated that the Great Bet Din in the hall of hewn stone is the 'edah); and, since only a director of the 'edah is called "nasi" in Ex. xvi. 22 and Num. iv. 34, it may have seemed desirable to retain the title "nasi" for the president of the bet din.

Order of Business.

Business at the meetings of the bet din was transacted according to a certain order. Reliable traditions describing the procedure and the balloting have been preserved in the Mishnah; but it is impossible to distinguish between the regulations obtaining in the bet din at the time of the Second Temple and those obtaining in the school of Jabneh, which was regarded as a continuation of the Sanhedrin. The following are some of these regulations: The members of the bet din sat in a semicircle in order that they might see one another (Sanh. iv. 2; Tosef., Sanh. viii. 1). The president sat in the center (Tosef., l.c.). Two secretaries recorded the various opinions expressed by the members; according to one tradition there were three secretaries (Sanh. l.c.). When a question was raised and a member of the college declared that he was in possession of a tradition according to which the question might be decided, such tradition was decisive. When no member knew of any tradition relating to the question at issue, discussion followed and a ballot was taken (Tosef., Sanh. vii. 1). Three rows of scholars sat in front of the bet din, and filled vacancies in the latter when necessary (Sanh. iv. 4; Tosef., Sanh. viii. 2). This regulation, however, refers only to the school of Jamnia and not to the bet din of the time of the Second Temple; for only such men were appointed to membership in the latter as had previously sat in less important bodies.After the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem and the downwall of the Jewish state, the Academy of Jabneh was organized as the supreme religious authority, being therefore regarded as the continuation of the Great Bet Din in the hall of hewn stone. The later Jewish academies under the presidency of the patriarchs of the family of Hillel—hence, down to the end of the fourth century—were also regarded as the continuation of that institution (this is the meaning of the sentence "The bet din of the hall of hewn stone went on ten journeys until it finally settled at Tiberias"; R. H. 31a, b); they accordingly retained its organization, and the president bore the title of nasi, the second president officiating side by side with him as ab bet din.

Bibliography: Schürer, Gesch. ii. 188-189, where the literature on the subject is given; Jacob Reifmann, Sanhedrin, Berdychev, 1888; Bacher, art. Sanhedrin, in Hastings, Dict. Bible; Adolf Büchler, Das Synhedrium in Jerusalem und das Grosse Bet Din in der Quaderkammer des Jerusalemischen Tempels, Vienna, 1902, the chief source for the view given above.W. B. J. Z. L.


SANHEDRIN (J. high court)
Also: Great Academy; Great Sanhedrin (Jer.)

SANHEDRIN. Great Sanhedrin usually means the supreme political, religious, and judicial body in Palestine during the Roman period, both before and after the destruction of the Temple, until the abolishment of the patriarchate (c. 425 C.E.). The precise definition of the term Sanhedrin has engaged the attention of historians in the past century, owing to the apparent conflict between the Hellenistic and rabbinic sources as to its nature and functions. While in the Hellenistic sources, in Josephus and the Gospels, it appears as a political and judicial council headed by the ruler, the tannaitic* sources depict it chiefly as a legislative body dealing with religious matters, and in rare cases acting as a court—for instance, to try a false prophet or high priest.

[* tannaitic = pertaining to the Tannaim, the Jewish scholars of the first two centuries of the Common Era]

The first historical mention of the Sanhedrin is in the statement of Josephus that in 57 B.C.E. Gabinius divided the country into five synedria (Ant., 14:91) or synodoi (Wars, 1:170). Most scholars agree that the reference is to a purely political body, as the Romans did not interfere with the religious life of conquered people. Their objective was, as Schalit points out, the prevention of uprisings. The next report describes Hyrcanus, as ethnarch of Judea, presiding over the Sanhedrin trying Herod, the strategus of the Galilee, for political murder (Ant., 14:168–70). Subsequently, when Herod became king, he had the Sanhedrin condemn Hyrcanus for plotting against him (Ant., 15:173), though according to another account, he did so himself without the Sanhedrin (15:176). Josephus' next reference to a Sanhedrin is to one that consisted of Roman high officials, convened at the suggestion of Augustus in Syria, to try the sons of Herod for rebellion against their father (16:356ff.); according to Josephus (Wars, 1:537), this Sanhedrin consisted of Herod's "own relatives and the provinical governors." When the Sadducean high priest, Ananus, "convened the judges of the Sanhedrin" (Jos., Ant., 20:200) to condemn James, the brother of Jesus, his opponents, the Pharisees, took great pains to have him removed. Their plea before the Roman governor that Ananus "had no authority to convene the Sanhedrin without his consent" (20:202) was obviously a pretext. Ananus' Sanhedrin was no doubt a Sadducean one, so that in removing Ananus shortly after this, Agrippa II pleased the Pharisees. On the other hand, the Sanhedrin convened by Agrippa II to permit the levitical singers to wear the priestly linen garments—apparently in accord with II Chronicles 5:12—was a Pharisaic one (Arakh. 11a–b). Josephus' objection to this ruling (Ant., 20:216–18) represents the priestly-Sadducean view. Josephus received his commission as a supreme commander from the Sanhedrin (Life, 62), though he usually refers to it as the koinon (ibid., 190, 309) and describes it as the assembly of the leading people of Jerusalem (ibid., 28, see also Wars, 2:562).

The Gospels describe three trials before the Sanhedrin, all of them presided over by the high priest, but apparently in different locations. Jesus was tried on Passover night, or on the preceding night, in the palace of the high priest (Mark 14:53ff.; John 18:13). His disciples, Peter and John Zebedee were questioned at "eventide," "in Jerusalem" (Acts, 4:3–6). In the case of Paul, the chief priest "and all their Sanhedrin" were ordered to meet in the chief captain's quarters (Acts, 22:25–30). The tannaitic sources, however, depict the Great Sanhedrin as an assembly of sages permanently situated in the Chamber of Hewn Stone in the Temple, meeting daily, only during the daytime between the hours of the two daily sacrifices (approximately 7:30 A.M.–3:30 P.M.) and never at night, on the Sabbaths or festivals, or on their eves. It was the place "where the Law went forth to all Israel" (Sanh. 11:2; Tosef., Sanh. 7:1) and was the final authority on halakhah*; the penalty of contravening its decisions on the part of a scholar—zaken mamre**—was death (Sanh. ibid.). Settling questions of priestly genealogy was also within the province of the Great Sanhedrin (Mid. 5:4; Tosef., Sanh. loc. cit.). Actual cases are recorded of questions being sent to "the sages in the Chamber of Hewn Stone" (Eduy. 7:4) and of Rabban Gamaliel going to the Chamber and receiving a reply to a question which he put (Pe'ah 2:6).

* halakhah = an accepted decision in rabbinic law.

** zaken mamre = rebellious elder.

The competence of the Sanhedrin is listed in tannaitic literature. "A tribe, a false prophet, or the high priest may not be tried save by the court of seventy-one; they may not send forth the people to wage a battle of free choice save by the decision of the court of one and seventy; they may not add to the City [of Jerusalem], or the Courts of the Temple save by the decision of the court of seventy-one; they may not set up sanhedrins for the several tribes save by the decision of the court of one and seventy; and they may not proclaim [any city to be] an Ir ha-Niddahat* [cf. Deut. 13:13–19] save by the decision of one and seventy" (Sanh. 1:5). The Tosefta enumerates still other functions: "They may not burn the red heifer save according to the instructions of the court of 71; they may not declare one a zaken mamre save the court of 71; they may not set up a king or a high priest save by the decision of the court of 71" (Tos., Sanh. 3:4). Elsewhere the Mishnah rules that the rites of the water of ordeals (see Sotah; Sot. 1:4) and the eglah arufah—i.e., the breaking of the heifer's neck in order to atone for the sin of an anonymous murder (cf. Deut. 21: 1–9)—may be performed only under the supervision of the Great Bet Din in Jerusalem (Sot. 9:1).

* Ir ha-Niddahat = "subverted" or "apostate" city.

Another aspect of the conflict between the sources is that whereas the tannaitic documents represent the Sanhedrin as being composed of Pharisaic scholars, headed by the foremost men of the sect—the nasi* and av bet din**—the Hellenistic accounts usually make the high priest, or the king, the president of the body. Thus Samaias and Pollion (that is, probably, Shemaiah and Avtalyon or Shammai and Hillel) and Simeon b. Gamaliel, who are mentioned in Josephus, and Gamaliel I, who is cited in the Book of Acts, are referred to in these books merely as prominent members of the Sanhedrin, though in the tannaitic documents they are represented as the presidents of that body. In the Book of Acts, moreover, the Sanhedrin is depicted as being "one part Sadducees and the other Pharisees" (Acts, 23:6).

[* nasi = "president."]

** av bet din = vice president of the supreme court (bet din ha-gadol) in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period; later, title given to communal rabbis as heads of the religious courts.

The historians' answers may be classified into three groups. Some scholars maintain that there was a single Sanhedrin, the supreme political, religious and judicial body, but they differ among themselves as to the other aspects of the reconstruction. Schuerer, who dismisses the rabbinic sources, regards the high priest as the presiding officer. Hoffmann held the highest office to belong to the Pharisaic nasi, though the secular rulers often usurped the role. Jelski, following a middle course, divides the functions of the presidency between the high priest, upon whom he bestows the title nasi, and the Pharisaic av bet din. Similarly, G. Alon believes that the Sanhedrin was composed of Pharisees and Sadducees, each dominating it by turns. Chwolson thinks that the Great Sanhedrin of the rabbinic documents was nothing but a committee on religious law appointed by the Sanhedrin (so, too, Dubnow and Klausner). Common to all these theories is the erroneous assumption that there can be only one Sanhedrin in a city. In reality, a Sanhedrin can be the king's or ruler's council, a body of high officials; a congress of allies or confederates, a military war council, etc. (see Liddell-Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, s.v. suneqrion).

Another group of scholars believes that there were in Jerusalem three small Sanhedrins, each of a different composition and task—priestly, Pharisaic, and aristocratic—each consisting of 23 members. A joint meeting of the three Sanhedrins headed by a nasi and av bet din, constituted the Great Sanhedrin of 71 (Geiger, Derenbourg, etc.). This imaginary reconstruction flounders on the Tosefta (Hag. 2:9 and Sanh. 7:1) and the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanh. 1:7, 19c), according to which, contrary to the Babylonian Talmud (Sanh. 88b), the small Sanhedrin consisted only of three. The third group of scholars is agreed that there were two supreme bodies in Jerusalem, a political and a religious, but disagree on almost everything else. Buechler thinks that the religious body was properly called Bet Din ha-Gadol she-be-Lishkat ha-Gazit ("Great Bet Din in the Chamber of Hewn Stone"), and the application to it of the term Sanhedrin was a misnomer. Zeitlin points out that there is no evidence that the political Sanhedrin was called "Great," but his view that the division between the political and the religious authorities dates back to Simeon the Hasmonean is questionable. More likely the separation was the result of the fact that the political views of the religious Sanhedrin were not sought by Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, the sons of Salome, nor by Herod, nor by the high priests who were appointed by Romans.

The opponents of the theory of the double Sanhedrin base themselves mainly on three arguments: no proof exists that the nasi headed the Sanhedrin in the days of the Temple; the priests' authority to "declare" the law is scripturally prescribed (Deut. 17:9), so that the high priest must have at least formally headed the religious Sanhedrin, as he did among the Qumran sect; and in Judaism there is no division between the religious and the secular. As against these arguments, it has been pointed out: the law concerning the assignment of one's property to the nasi (Ned. 5:5), which dates from Temple days, assumes that the nasi headed the Sanhedrin, just as he did in the post-destruction era; the Pharisaic exegesis dispensed with the need of priests in issuing legal decisions, the Pharisees basing their ruling on the superfluous words "and to judge" (Deut. 17:9; see Sif., Deut. 153); and the Pharisees did not voluntarily relinquish their right to judge on political matters. The political rulers simply did not consult them. After the destruction of the Temple the religious Sanhedrin was reconvened in Jabneh, and, under the presidency of the nasi, it now became also the supreme political instrument for all the Jews of the Roman Empire. When Judea was destroyed as a result of the failure of Bar Kokhba, the Sanhedrin moved to Galilee. At first it met in Usha, then in nearby Shefaram, subsequently, in Judah ha-Nasi's time, in Bet She'arim and Sepphoris, and in the end in Tiberias. The Romans apparently withdrew their recognition of the Sanhedrin when they dissolved the patriarchate.

(Encyclopaedia Judaica, CD-ROM Edition, 1997)


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