TALMUD. The 24rd Massekhet – Sanhedrin

In contrast to its name, Tractate Sanhedrin is not solely focused on laws relating to the Jewish court system, rather it is the Tractate of the Jewish State. Massekhet Sanhedrin deals with a broad range of issues that arise in connection with the workings of a Jewish State. All of the basic governmental institutions required by the Torah – and the relationships between them – are discussed in this tractate.

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  1. Massekhet Sanhedrin: Introduction to the Tractate

    In contrast to its name, Tractate Sanhedrin is not solely focused on laws relating to the Jewish court system, rather it is the Tractate of the Jewish State. Massekhet Sanhedrin deals with a broad range of issues that arise in connection with the workings of a Jewish State. All of the basic governmental institutions required by the Torah – and the relationships between them – are discussed in this tractate.

    One of the basic foundational concepts of a Jewish State is the absolute rule of God as creator of the world. Much as God rules over the laws of nature, so He rules over the laws that obligate humankind. Only through God’s will do human beings have the ability to govern, an idea that is clarified in the words of the prophet Yeshayahu who says “For the Lord is our Judge, the Lord is our Lawgiver, the Lord is our King” (33:22). Thus, all of the different powers of government – legislative, executive and judicial – are listed as being under God’s authority.

    In truth, there is no true legislative branch in the Jewish State, since all of the laws stem from the Torah itself. All later rules and regulations were established to clarify points of law that may not have been covered by the Torah or enactments made to protect the laws of the Torah. The true legislative branch is God Himself, or, more precisely, the laws of the Torah as a manifestation of His will. The Torah is the single source for the laws of the Jewish State, and so, God, its Author, remains the true Legislator forever.

    In contrast, the judicial branch is entrusted to human beings, and specifically to the Sages of the Jewish people in every generation. It is the judicial branch that will interpret the eternal laws of the Torah so that they are appropriately applied according to the unique needs and realities of every generation. This power is given to a complicated set of courts, all under the supervision of the Great Sanhedrin of 71 Sages, standing in for Moses and the 70 elders who joined him in judgment.

    The executive branch of government in the Jewish State was the responsibility of the king – occasionally referred to as the “nasi” (see Vayikra 4:22, and Yeḥezkel 19:1 and 37:25) together with the ministers and officers that he appoints. The king was head of state, commander-in-chief of the military and responsible for both domestic and foreign policy – parallel to the role of many world leaders today. Regarding certain specific political questions that affected the entire nation – for example, declaring war – the king was required to present his decision to the Sanhedrin for approval. Still, with regard to most areas of decision-making the king had complete rule and no other branch of government was involved.

    The governmental structure described in Massekhet Sanhedrin is not a utopian vision distant from reality. The government depicted is neither that of Messianic times nor of the age of the first monarchy under King David and King Solomon. Rather what we find described is the Jewish government of Mishnaic times. This is most clearly indicated by the concern shown for the roles of the king and the High Priest. The king in Massekhet Sanhedrin is not from the Davidic dynasty and with regard to many laws he does not necessarily show full commitment to the rules of the Torah – it appears to be describing a king from the Hasmonean dynasty or from the kings that followed, such as King Herod.

    From the time that the Jewish State lost its independence, Massekhet Sanhedrin slowly lost its up-to-date significance. During the waning days of the Second Temple period the Sanhedrin decided to give up much of its authority so that it would not become an empty symbol of a theoretical power without any true sovereignty. Eventually the legal system described in this tractate became a description of an official structure that was no longer relevant, given that it had no authority while under foreign rule or in the Diaspora. Nevertheless, many of the laws that are discussed found application in various historical periods, and the basic conceptual foundation of this legal system has been used throughout the generations.

    Having said this, it is important to emphasize that the laws of the Jewish State were never limited to the political boundaries of the state as they are understood today. The sphere of influence of the Sanhedrin and the authority of Jewish law extended to all Jewish communities. In every area where the Jewish community had autonomy that allowed it to apply Jewish law a local court was established that was subservient to the great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. Moreover, not only was the law system of the Jewish State not limited geographically, it did not limit itself solely to the rule of law. Jewish law includes ethical, community and religious law with no division between those laws that regulate interpersonal relations and those that govern relationships between man and God. Even those areas that are ordinarily seen as relating to community affairs – between man and his fellow man – include an element of concern with eradicating sin. In the view of the Jewish State, a sinful act impacts not only on the sinner but also on the community and the land of Israel itself.

    Thus, the rules and regulations of Jewish law do not merely serve as tools to create an orderly society, rather their purpose is to create a Godly community, to build a state whose purpose is to serve God in every aspect of society.

    Understanding this helps explain basic differences between the Jewish court system and the secular one, both in terms of goals and in terms of application of the law. The Torah refers to a judge sitting in judgment as elohim (see Shemot 21:6 and 22:8), indicating that he is involved in holy work – in God’s work. As such, it is incumbent on the judge to reach a conclusion that is not dependent on human assumptions – one that leaves no room for doubt – and wherever the evidence leaves unanswered questions, the accused will be set free.

    For this reason, it is not enough for the judge to be a scholar and an expert in jurisprudence. He must also have semikha – ordination unlike what exists today – that is, receiving a charge from a teacher who received it in a direct chain of transmission from Moshe Rabbeinu. This semikha not only acts as official permission to judge, but it also offers some level of a heavenly promise that there will be a Godly presence in the courtroom. It is this level of divine intervention that leads to a command to accept the ruling of the Sanhedrin – see Devarim 17:11.

  2. Sanhedrin 2a-b: The Jewish Court System

    According to the Meiri, Massekhet Sanhedrin should be placed first in the Order of Nezikin – damages. The logic behind this order is that it seems appropriate to place the rules regulating the appointment and establishment of judges prior to those tractates whose focus is the laws that the judges will apply to different cases. Nevertheless, the accepted order of the tractates has Massekhet Sanhedrin following Massekhet Bava Batra, whose final Mishna (see Bava Batra daf 176) closes with the statement made by Rabbi Yishmael who recommended that anyone who wants to develop his intelligence should study the monetary laws. Thus, the first Mishna in Massekhet Sanhedrin begins with the words dinei mamonot – “the monetary laws.”

    As presented in the first Mishna, there are three types of courts in Jewish law:
    1.Ordinary courts of three judges whose purview is limited to monetary matters and kenasot – monetary penalties
    2.Sanhedrin ketana – courts of 23 judges, who ruled on issues of capital crimes
    3.Sanhedriah gedola – the supreme court of 71 judges that sat in the Lishkat ha-Gazit on the Temple Mount. This court appointed the various Sanhedriyot ketanot, ruled on questionable cases and was reserved for judging high profile cases like a false prophet, the High Priest or a tribe that was suspected of sinning by committing Avoda Zara.

    The source of the term “Sanhedrin” is from the Greek – συνέδριον – where it means “assembly” or “council” and specifically an important council of judges or leaders. Rav Ovadya Bartenura offers an alternative source for the word. He suggests that it is an abbreviation for the expression sonei hadrat panim be-din – a group that “despises showing favoritism when in judgment” – one of the laudatory descriptions of the court.

  3. Sanhedrin 3a-b: How Many Judges Constitute a Court?

    The first Mishna in Massekhet Sanhedrin (2a) taught that for simple cases of monetary matters the appropriate court is made up of three judges. Several sources are offered by the Gemara for this number of judges. According to Rabbi Yonatan, the repeated use of the word elohim in Shemot 22:8 indicates that we need two judges. We do not want to have an even number of judges, since we want to allow court decisions to be made based on a majority ruling, so we add a third judge to the bench.

    While this is the accepted ruling, several other opinions are presented in the Gemara-

    Rav Aḥa brei d’Rav Ika suggests that on a Torah level, one judge would be sufficient to act as a court, based on the passage in Sefer Vayikra (19:15) be-tzedek tishpot amitekha – “you (in the singular) must judge your fellow with righteousness.” He concludes, however that we cannot do this mi-shum yoshvei keranot – because of people who are not involved in commerce and do not know the law. Since we fear that the single person who steps forward to judge may be inappropriate, we insist on three judges. We can then be certain that at least one of them will be a good judge who will influence the others.

    Shmuel rules that when two judges act as a court, their ruling is accepted, although they are considered to be a beit din ḥatzuf – an impudent court. He apparently accepts Rabbi Yonatan’s teaching that the third judge is appointed in order to avoid an even number, but accepts the ruling of a court that did not follow that rabbinic enactment.

    Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi disagrees with the basic ruling and requires five judges. Our Gemara concludes that he also accepts Rabbi Yonatan’s teaching, but he differs in how he understands the word elohim. According to Rabbi, since the word elohim is plural and is repeated twice, the basic requirement is to have four judges, and the fifth is added so that there should not be an even number of judges on the court. The Talmud Yerushalmi offers an alternative source for Rabbi. According to the Yerushalmi, Rabbi compares the judges to witnesses – just as there must be two independent witnesses, so there must be two additional judges beyond the basic requirement of three.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  4. Sanhedrin 4a-b: Vocalization vs. Tradition

    As we learned on yesterday’s daf according to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, since the word elohim in Shemot 22:8 is plural and is repeated twice, the basic requirement of a court is to have four judges, and the fifth is added so that there should not be an even number of judges. This stands in contrast with the Mishna’s requirement of three judges, which, according to Rabbi Yonatan, we learn from the twice-repeated use of the word elohim with an additional judge to avoid a split decision. The Gemara explains that he does not read each of the words elohim as requiring two judges since the word is lacking a vav when it is written in the Torah.

    On today’s daf the Gemara brings Rabbi Yitzḥak bar Yosei who quotes Rabbi Yoḥanan as explaining that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s understanding of the passage is based on the fact that he believes yesh em la-mikra – that when interpreting a pasuk we emphasize the way it is read (its vocalization) rather than the way it is written. The other position would be yesh em la-masoret – that what is important for interpreting the pasuk is the tradition that we have regarding the way it is written.

    The Gemara offers other examples of yesh em la-mikra vs. yesh em la-masoret. For example, in determining the number of parchments and compartments that we need in tefillin shel rosh (tefillin placed on one’s head) Rabbi Yishmael says that we derive the four compartments from the four times the word totafot appears in the Torah (twice in Shemot 13:16, Devarim 6:8 and Devarim 11:18). Clearly Rabbi Yishmael rejects yesh em la-mikra – even though totafot is a plural form, we only have four compartments. Rabbi Akiva disagrees on a different point, suggesting that the word totafot actually means four, since the word tat means two in the Katfei language and the word pat means two in the Afriki language.

    Scholars have attempted to identify the languages and words that Rabbi Akiva is referring to – e.g. the word aft in Coptic. Nevertheless, no clear determination has been made.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  5. Sanhedrin 5a-b: Permission to Judge

    Today’s semikha, or Rabbinic ordination, is a last remaining hint of what was once an institution that connected the recipient to Moshe Rabbeinu standing at Mount Sinai. While at one time the Rabbi received his ordination from his teacher who was part of a chain of tradition, that true semikha was lost with the exile of the Jewish people from Israel.

    Common semikha today is called yoreh yoreh, which indicates expertise in Yoreh De’a, the section of the Shulḥan Arukh whose focus is on issur ve-heter – what is permissible and what is forbidden – mainly in the realm of kosher food. A higher level semikha is called yadin yadin, which indicates that the student has also shown fluency in Ḥoshen Mishpat, whose focus is on interpersonal and monetary matters.

    These terms – yoreh yoreh and yadin yadin – are actually a question and a response, as is clear from a story told on today’s daf.

    Our Gemara reports that there was an existing tradition in both Israel and Bavel that someone who wanted to rule as a judge would need to receive permission from the head of the community – the Resh Galuta (Exilarch) in Bavel and the Nasi in Israel. Once such permission was granted, even if the judge erred in his decision, he would not be personally responsible for paying for the mistake. The Gemara relates that when Rav came from Israel to Bavel his uncle, Rabbi Ḥiyya, presented him to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and asked “yoreh?” – can he act as a judge in matters of issur ve-heter? Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi responded “yoreh!” Rabbi Ḥiyya continued and asked “yadin?” To which Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi replied “yadin!”

    The Gemara relates that Rabbi Ḥiyya made one further request, one which is no longer in the lexicon of yeshiva students today. He asked “yatir bekhorot?” Will he be allowed to rule on questions of a blemish on a first-born animal? Here Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi replied “al yatir!” He cannot. The Gemara explains that it was not a lack of knowledge that kept him from receiving this ordination, as Rav had spent 18 months living amongst the shepherds in order to learn these laws, rather he knew the material so well that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi feared that others would come away with incorrect lessons because they would not understand the nuances that led him to make his decisions.

  6. Sanhedrin 6a-b: To Mediate or Not to Mediate

    When two litigants come before the court, what is the best approach? Should the judges insist on hearing the case and deciding it based on the straightforward reading of the law, or should they offer arbitration and try to reach some level of agreement and accommodation?

    This question is debated in a baraita that is brought on today’s daf.

    The baraita opens by teaching that just as an ordinary court decision is made by three judges, so mediation also must be done by three judges. Once a decision has been made, however, the judges can no longer offer a compromise.

    Rabbi Eliezer, the son of Rabbi Yosei HaGelili, argues that under all circumstances it is forbidden to mediate a dispute, and mediating is the equivalent of sinning. He understands the passage in Devarim (1:17) ki ha-mishpat le-elokim hu – to mean that the rendering of justice is a religious obligation, and any attempt to circumvent that is an evil act.

    Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korḥa rules that it is a mitzva to mediate a dispute. Quoting the passage in Zekharya (8:16) that teaches “Execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” he asks how judgment and peace can be done together. He sees these two values as ones that will contradict each other when placed together in a courtroom. Rather, he suggests, judgment and peace can be reconciled by means of mediation that is fair and leaves both sides feeling satisfied.

    It is interesting to note that two different terms are used for mediation in this Gemara. Rabbi Meir who objects to the idea of mediation calls it bitzu’a, while the Ḥakhamim who are open to the use of mediation call it peshara. While peshara simply means a compromise (like the Hebrew word for lukewarm water – mayim poshrim), bitzu’a carries with it negative connotations. The Ramah suggests that its source is the word betza meaning “dishonest gain” since Rabbi Meir views the idea of bitzu’a as taking money that truly belongs to one party and forcing him to share it with the other party. According to the Rosh the word bitzu’a means to break, which indicates something that should be avoided.

  7. Sanhedrin 7a-b: Stepping on People’s Heads

    Among the various practices that the Gemara on today’s daf recommends to judges, Rabbi Eliezer teaches that a judge should avoid “stepping on people’s heads.” The source that he brings is the juxtaposition of the two biblical passages forbidding climbing stairs up to the altar and commanding that laws be placed before the Jewish people (see Shemot 20:22 and 27:1).

    This description is based on the way the students sat in the academies during the time of the Mishna and Gemara. The lecturer or the head of the yeshiva would sit on the floor facing the students, who would be sitting facing him in a series of rows. Ordinarily people had assigned spots based on their seniority, with the more learned and experienced students sitting in front, closer to the Sage. Were one of the students whose spot was near the front to arrive late, after all of the other students were already seated, he would need to “step on the heads” of the other students in order to get to his place.

    The Gemara in Yevamot (105b) describes such an incident.

    The Gemara relates that Rabbi Ḥiyya and Rabbi Shimon the son of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi were discussing whether a person should look upwards during prayer (based on the passage in Eikha 3:41) or downwards (based on the passage in I Melakhim 9:3). Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yosei overheard their discussion and shared his father’s teaching – that a person should look upwards but direct his heart downwards in order to fulfill both passages.

    As they were talking, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi entered and the students – who sat in assigned places on the floor during the lecture – all hurried to find their seats. Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yosei was heavy-set and was unable to reach his place easily, so he appeared to be “walking on people’s heads” as he made his way to his seat. The Gemara then records an exchange between Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yosei and Avdan, one of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s students, where Avdan reprimanded Rabbi Yishmael for “stepping on people’s heads,” but Rabbi Yishmael successfully defended his actions.

  8. Sanhedrin 8a-b: An Impartial Judge

    Our Gemara continues with a number of rules and regulations that the judges and courts must follow based on the instructions given by Moshe as described in the beginning of Sefer Devarim.

    The Torah teaches lo takiru panim ba-mishpat (Devarim 1:17) – literally “do not recognize (respect) faces in judgment.” Rabbi Yehuda understands this to mean that when in court, the judge cannot show favoritism to someone with whom he is friendly. Rabbi Elazar suggests that it means that the judge must treat someone who he does not like as if he does not know him.

    To illustrate this rule, the Gemara tells of Rav’s host who came to him on a legal matter and asked him to act as a judge. Rav argues that that relationship did not allow him to act as judge, and he asked Rav Kahana to play that role. Rav Kahana saw that the host was behaving as though he would receive preferred treatment given his relationship with Rav, and he rebuked him saying “if you listen, good and if not I will take Rav out of your ear!”

    This odd statement is understood by most commentaries as meaning that he will make the host forget Rav by making it clear that Rav would not be helpful to him in any way.

    In another case, Reish Lakish quotes the passage in Devarim (1:17) as obligating the judges to take up the case of a single peruta with the same interest that is devoted to a case of one hundred maneh. The Gemara objects that this is obvious, and concludes that the intention is to obligate the courts to accept cases as they come and not to deal with more prestigious cases before simpler cases.

    A peruta is the smallest coin that was in use in the time of the Mishna; a single dinar contained 192 perutot, and a maneh contained 100 dinarim. As such, the 100 maneh mentioned by Reish Lakish is about two million perutot.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  9. Sanhedrin 9a-b: A Person Is His Own Relative

    Generally speaking, halakha does not allow a person to incriminate themselves.

    Based on this rule Rav Yosef teaches that if someone makes a statement that will incriminate him the court will reject the statement in its entirety.

    The opinion is presented in the name of Rava that adam karov etzel atzmo, ve-ein adam masim atzmo rasha – literally, “a person is his own relative, and a person cannot render himself wicked” – just as a person cannot testify against a close relative in beit din similarly he cannot testify against himself, incriminating himself. Nevertheless, as the continuation of the Gemara concludes, there exists an often discussed Talmudic idea – palginan diburei – that we split up his statement between what he says about himself, which we do not accept, and what he says about others, which we accept as testimony. For example, if a person says “I killed someone” we reject his self-incriminating statement, but we accept his testimony that the man had actually been killed.

    The mechanism behind the concept of palginan diburei is subject to a disagreement among the rishonim. The Rashba argues that we can only apply it in cases where we can interpret the testimony in a way that will allow his entire statement to be understood as being truthful. For example, in the case mentioned above, we could say that the witness who says “I killed him” actually means “I killed him…accidentally.” If it is impossible to interpret his testimony in such a way, we would not apply the principle of palginan diburei, and we would reject his testimony entirely. Others, however, explain that the concept of palginan diburei is powerful enough to allow us to accept the conclusion of his testimony (that the man is dead) even as we reject the incriminating aspect of it (that the witness murdered him).

    It should be noted that the rule ein adam masim atzmo rasha applies only in cases of criminal acts that would lead to punishments such as lashes or a death penalty. If someone admits to owing money then the court will view his confession as equivalent to testimony made by witnesses, and obligate him to pay.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, as published in the English Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  10. Sanhedrin 10a-b: Setting the Calendar

    As we learned in the first Mishna in Massekhet Sanhedrin, different courts were established to deal with different types of cases, with courts of three, 23 or 71 depending on the case. One situation where we find a disagreement relates to ibur shana – establishing a leap year in the Jewish calendar. When discussing ibur shana, Rabbi Meir rules that a court of three judges suffices; according to Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel they begin deliberations with three, debate the matter with five, and conclude with seven judges. Nevertheless, if the decision was made with three judges it will also suffice.

    While the commonly used calendar – the Gregorian calendar – is a solar calendar that reflects the relationship between the earth and the sun (a single revolution of the earth around the sun – just over 365 days – is considered a year), and the Muslim calendar reflects the relationship between the earth and the moon (a single revolution of the moon around the earth – about 29 days – is considered a month), the Jewish calendar combines the two by establishing lunar months that must coincide with the solar year.

    A leap year in the Jewish calendar involves the addition of an extra month, which serves to keep the lunar calendar in sync with the solar calendar. The court must decide – based on whether the Passover holiday will occur in the Spring, as required by the Torah (see Devarim 16:1), together with other factors – when to add the extra month.

    It should be noted that in our present situation, with neither an operating Sanhedrin nor the ability of a single group of Sages to represent the Jewish People, we rely on a set calendar established by Hillel the Second, which is based on astronomical calculations. According to the set calendar, the extra month is inserted seven times every 19 years.

  11. Sanhedrin 11a-b: The End of Prophecy

    Our Gemara describes the end of prophecy by stating that from the time that Haggai, Zekhariah and Malakhi died, clear prophecy no longer existed, although a bat kol – a heavenly voice – was still used.

    The baraita offers two stories of bat kol use. In the first, the Sages were gathered in the loft of Beit Gurya in Yeriḥo and a heavenly voice came out that said that among them sat an individual who was worthy of receiving prophecy, but he did not because the generation was not worthy. Those present understood that the reference was to Hillel HaZaken, a student of Ezra. In the second story the Sages were gathered in a loft in Yavne, and the heavenly voice again pointed to one of them as being worthy of prophecy, were it not for the undeserving generation. This time the reference was understood to be to Shmuel HaKatan, who was Hillel’s student.

    The Talmud Yerushalmi brings other examples of a bat kol announcing information to the Jewish people. From our Gemara it is clear that the bat kol not only made statements, but also acted as the source for the information that the generation no longer merited true prophecy.

    Gatherings of the Sages in various lofts or attics – in the aliya, or the second story of the houses at that time – are mentioned on many occasions throughout the Talmud. It appears that such meetings were arranged when the Sages wanted to discuss a matter privately, or, perhaps, even secretly. One example is the decision to add a “leap month” to the calendar, something that was always done privately with specifically invited guests. Others are things that could not be discussed publicly because of political ramifications.

    Shmuel HaKatan was one of the tanna’im who lived during the period of the destruction of the second Temple. The source for his title as HaKatan (the small one) is unclear. It may refer to his modesty, or, perhaps, to the claim that he was only slightly “smaller” – i.e. inferior – to the biblical Shmu’el.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, as published in the English Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  12. Sanhedrin 12a-b: Sending Secret Messages

    As we learned above (see daf 10), one of the important responsibilities of the Jewish court in Israel was to establish leap years in order to keep the Jewish calendar in sync with the solar calendar. The Gemara on our daf describes how messages were sent between Israel and Bavel under Roman rule when the persecutions of the Jews reached such a height that, as in the days of Hadrian, all religious exercises, including the computation of the calendar, were forbidden under pain of severe punishment. The messages were sent in an obscure form to prevent them from being stopped by the Government under the reign of Constantius II (337-361 C.E.).

    Rava received the following message:

    A pair [of scholars] came from Rakkat [that is, Teveriya, whose biblical name was Rakkat, where the Sanhedrin was operating at that time] and they were captured by an eagle [i.e. by Roman soldiers, whose symbol was an eagle]. In the hands of the messengers were things made in Luz [apparently, aside from their message they were also transporting tekhelet, sky-blue dye, for the religious needs of the Jewish community in Bavel]. Yet through Divine mercy and their own merits they escaped safely [and were not put to death – yet they were unsuccessful in sharing the information with the Jewish community in the Diaspora].

    Several explanations are offered to explain the eagle – the nesher – that kept these messengers from fulfilling their mission. It could refer to the Roman Caesar, or king, as in Yeḥezkel 17, although the Ramah suggests that it is a reference to bandits who preyed on travelers going through the forests. We know that the eagle was one of the primary symbols of Roman rule that appeared on the staff carried together with every Roman legion. Such “eagles” were much more than flags; they became an icon for that particular legion, and ultimately the symbol of the Roman army.

  13. Sanhedrin 13a-b: Conferring Rabbinic Ordination

    According to the Mishna, among the ceremonies that require the participation of three judges is semikhat zekenim – rabbinic ordination.

    In searching for a source for this requirement, Abaye points out a difficulty – if the source is the passage (Bamidbar 27:23) where Moshe lays his hands on Yehoshua to declare him his successor, then it would appear that a single judge would suffice. And if we saw that Moshe embodies the Sanhedrin and is considered the equivalent of its 71 members, then we should need a full Sanhedrin to confer rabbinic ordination.

    Although the Gemara does not offer a response to that question, some suggest that there must have been others standing together with Moshe who are not mentioned because of the great honor given to Moshe. This answer is based on the continuation of the Gemara that describes a unique situation of semikhat zekenim.

    Rav Yehuda quotes Rav as telling about Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava who must be remembered for keeping the laws of kenasot – penalties – from being forgotten. The Gemara explains that under Hadrian the Roman government forbade the conferring of rabbinic ordination. They announced that anyone giving or receiving ordination would be killed and nearby cities and provinces would be destroyed and uprooted. Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava gathered five students to a place midway between large cities and mountains and conferred rabbinic ordination on Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yosei and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua. While he was killed for his efforts, his students survived to act as teachers and judges.

    In this case the Gemara explains that he had other partners in this act, but they are not mentioned due to the honor that they wanted to give to Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava. Many rishonim believe that only one of the three people giving semikha needs to have ordination himself, in which case Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava did not need other people as he could have had his students participate in granting ordination to their friends, and then have them switch positions to confer ordination on the rest of the group.

  14. Sanhedrin 14a-b: To Ordain Or Not To Ordain

    On yesterday’s daf we learned about the importance of semikha – of receiving rabbinic ordination. Yet our Gemara discusses a number of situations where people could not receive semikha, or even tried to avoid receiving ordination.

    Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught that no semikha can be given outside of the land of Israel. In explanation of this ruling, the Talmud Yerushalmi says that the Torah requires that the Jewish court system should be be-khol moshvoteikhem – in all of your settlements – and that the Jewish communities in the Diaspora do not fully meet that requirement. The Ge’onim suggest that given its source, which is entrenched in a relationship reaching back to Moshe Rabbeinu, semikha contains an element of ru’aḥ ha-kodesh – some level of prophecy. Given the accepted dictum that ein ha-Shekhina shorah be-ḥutz la’aretz – that God’s presence does not dwell in the Diaspora, semikha cannot be given there.

    The Gemara relates that the Babylonian amora, Rabbi Zeira, who moved to Israel and was deserving of semikha, tried to avoid receiving ordination due to his modesty, following the teaching of Rabbi Elazar that it is advisable to remain modest and unknown. When he heard, however, another teaching of Rabbi Elazar, that someone who rises to greatness receives forgiveness for all of his sins, he agreed to receive ordination.

    The Talmud Yerushalmi offers a source for the idea that someone who is recognized as a sage, someone who becomes a groom, and someone who is anointed as king receives forgiveness for all of his sins from the juxtaposition of the passage ve-hadarta pnei zaken – “and you should honor the elder” (Vayikra 19:32) – with ve-khi yagur itkha ger – “and when a convert lives among you” (Vayikra 19:33). Since a convert is considered to have begun a new life with a clean slate, so someone recognized as an elder also is perceived as having a new beginning. The Maharsha suggests that if God decreed that this individual should be recognized as a leader, we must assume that He has forgiven his sins.

  15. Sanhedrin 15a-b: Putting an Animal on Trial

    According to the Mishna (2a) all capital crimes are judged by a court of 23. The Mishna continues and teaches that when an ox gores and kills a person, the ox will be taken before a court of 23 who will pass judgment on the animal and kill it if it is found to be responsible for the person’s death. The source for this, according to the Mishna, is the passage (Shemot 21:29) that teaches ha-shor yisakel ve-gam be’alav yumat – “the ox will be stoned and its owner will be killed, as well.” Rather than decreeing a death penalty on someone whose ox killed a person, this pasuk is understood to teach that the ox will be tried in the same manner as a person would be tried, under these circumstances.

    The idea that an animal that kills a person should be treated as a “murderer” rather than as someone’s property that the court needs to destroy is explained by the Ramban as stemming from the Torah’s declaration in Sefer Bereshit (9:5-6) that the blood of someone who was killed will be “demanded” by God from the perpetrator, whether man or beast. The Torah clearly states that this is necessary because of man’s creation be-tzelem Elokim – in the image of God.

    The Talmud Yerushalmi takes a different approach and suggests that we would view the entire incident as a monetary trial – that the owner of the animal is being judged simply to clarify whether the court will need to destroy his property. The court of 23 judges is necessary because of the gezeirat ha-katuv – the Torah’s requirement – but not because we view this trial as a capital crime. This is likely the position taken by those Sages who rule that the animal is put on trial only if there is an owner. If the animal has no owner, these Sages see no need for a trial or a formal death sentence on the animal – although the court may choose to destroy the animal in order to remove a dangerous creature.

  16. Sanhedrin 16a-b: The Decision To Go To War

    According to the Mishna (2a) one of the tasks assigned to the Great Sanhedrin of 71 judges is to make a decision regarding embarking on a milḥemet reshut – a war that is not required. The Meiri explains that a milḥemet mitzva – a war that is obligatory – would be one that involves capturing or defending the Land of Israel from its enemies or fighting against the nation of Amalek. Such situations are left to the discretion of the king who will decide if the army should go to war. A war that would engage the Jewish army in a fight between two other countries, would illustrate Israel’s might to its enemies or would stem from economic factors would be a milḥemet reshut that would require a decision to be made by the Great Sanhedrin.

    To illustrate this point, the Gemara shares a story about a day in the life of King David, who awoke at midnight and was visited by the elders at dawn. The elders described the need to invigorate the economic base of the people. David’s first suggestion – that the people would do business with each other – was rejected as insufficient with the parables “a single handful of food does not satisfy a lion, and a pit will not be filled merely from its mouth.” Upon hearing their responses, King David suggested calling up the army and going out to war. This was done only after a series of consultations – with the king’s advisor, Aḥitophel, with the Great Sanhedrin and with the prophecy of the Urim VeTummim.

    The parable “a pit will not be filled merely from its mouth,” is explained by the Ge’onim as referring to a water pit whose source is rainwater. It is clear that the opening of the pit – its mouth – is not large enough for the water that falls directly into the pit to fill it up. It is therefore necessary for a piping system to be built that will bring water to the pit from a number of other places, as well.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  17. Sanhedrin 17a-b: Choosing Elders

    As we have learned in the Mishna, the Great Sanhedrin was a group of 71 Sages that sat on the Temple Mount and dealt with serious legal questions that affected the entire Jewish people. The source for the establishment of the Great Sanhedrin in this format is based on the group that Moshe was initially commanded to assemble to assist him in leading the Children of Israel in the desert (see Bamidbar 11:16-17). Moshe is commanded to choose 70 elders, and the Gemara explains that including Moshe we find 71 judges in the group.

    Our Gemara continues and explains the process that took place when Moshe chose the elders, and specifically the enigmatic story regarding two of the elders – Eldad and Medad – who, according to the Torah (see Bamidbar 11:26-29) remained removed from the rest of the group, and nevertheless prophesized in a manner that brought Yehoshua to demand that they be shut up.

    One suggestion brought by the Gemara is that Moshe was concerned with how to appropriately fulfill the command to choose 70 elders. He wanted to divide the elders as equally as possible among the different tribes, but if he chose six from each of the 12 tribes he would have an extra two elders. In order to solve the problem he arranged for a lottery whereby each tribe chose six candidates who took a slip of paper from a box that contained 72 pieces of paper – 70 that said “elder” and two that were blank.

    Another suggestion was made by Rabbi Shimon, who said simply that due to their modesty Eldad and Medad remained behind and did not want to claim the position of judges.

    In either case, the prophecy that they gave showed that they were truly deserving to be included in the Sanhedrin.

    What was their prophecy? Three possibilities are suggested by the Gemara –

    1. They said that Moshe would die and that Yehoshua would lead them into Israel

    2. They prophesized about the quail that were about to be sent to feed the people

    3. They talked about the war of Gog U’Magog at the end of days.

    The Maharsha suggests that the source for these different possibilities stems from the Torah’s statement that their prophecy was ba-maḥaneh – that it dealt with the encampment – either that the Jewish encampment would have a new leader, that they would all be fed or in reference to the encampment of the armies of Gog U’Magog.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  18. Sanhedrin 18a-b: Special Status

    The second perek of Massekhet Sanhedrin begins on today’s daf. Entitled Kohen Gadol, this chapter focuses on some of the unique laws affecting the High Priest and the anointed King of Israel.

    The general principle in Jewish law is that all are equal before the law, as evidenced by the passage that forbids a judge from recognizing the higher status of any person (see Vayikra 19:15). The Torah, of course, does recognize differences between different types of people within the community. Is someone a kohen, a levi or a yisra’el? Is he a righteous convert or, perhaps, someone who lives among the Jews having accepted the seven commandments pertaining to the Noachides? Is someone a learned, knowledgeable person or is he a boor? All of these differences will impact on the mutual rights and responsibilities of the individual within the larger community or on the mitzvot that they are obligated to perform. Nevertheless, from a strictly legal perspective, all are equal before the Jewish court of law.

    There are only two individuals who stand out as having a unique legal status, based on their position in the community – a King and a High Priest. As head of state, the King represents the government of Israel and stands as a symbol to its political independence and statehood. The High Priest represents the religious, spiritual holiness of the nation. He embodies the sanctity of the Jewish people in a way that no other individual can. Only he can enter the Holy of Holies and perform the sacrificial service of Yom Kippur on behalf of the nation. Both King and High Priest are installed in their respective positions by means of a ceremony in which they are anointed, imbuing them with an element of holiness beyond the office that they hold.

    The Torah separates these two individuals from the rest of the nation with regard to certain legal issues. The first Mishna in Massekhet Sanhedrin noted that they will be judged only by the Great Sanhedrin; in fact each of them heads a justice system of their own. Do these factors indicate that the King and the High Priest are “above the law” or are these simply exceptions to the general rule that obligates them, as well?

    These questions are the focus of the second perek of Massekhet Sanhedrin.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  19. Sanhedrin 19a-b: Judging a King

    Among the rules that are unique to a Jewish king are laws that relate to the king’s place in the courthouse. According to the Mishna (18a), a king can neither act as a judge nor can he be judged, similarly he cannot testify nor can others testify against him.

    The Gemara on today’s daf clarifies that the limitation on being judged does not apply to Jewish kings from the Davidic monarchy; it only applies to other kings. The fact that kings from King David’s family do judge is based on a clear passage in Sefer Yirmiyahu (21:12) that charges those kings with meting out justice and protecting the oppressed in the courtroom.

    The Gemara relates further that the law limiting a Jewish king who is not from the House of King David from being judged or acting as a judge is based on a story that took place with King Yannai. The Gemara relates that once a slave belonging to King Yannai killed someone and was brought to trial. Shimon ben Shataḥ, the presiding judge, commanded King Yannai to attend, since it was his property that was on trial. Shimon ben Shataḥ insisted that King Yannai stand in the courtroom, but King Yannai agreed to do so only if the other judges agreed to make him do so. No one aside from Shimon ben Shataḥ was willing to make such a demand of King Yannai, leading Shimon ben Shataḥ to threaten them with punishment, which, according to the Gemara, brought the angel Gavriel down to smite them.

    King Yannai, following in the footsteps of his father, John Hyrcanus, was a supporter of the Sadducees who was always at odds with the Rabbinic Sages. After his losses in battle, and the king – who also acted as the High Priest – refused to perform the Sukkot water libation in the Temple according to the Rabbinic interpretation, the tension led to civil war in which many of the Sages were killed. Some fled the Land of Israel, while others – including his brother-in-law, Shimon ben Shataḥ – went into hiding.

  20. Sanhedrin 20a-b: Are We Commanded to Establish a Monarchy?

    As we have learned, Jewish law recognizes the unique position of the King, who has special laws and dispensations that apply only to him. Does the halakha view the institution of a Jewish monarchy as the ideal state of affairs for governing the Jewish people?

    At first glance, this question seems hardly tenable. The Torah clearly commands the appointment of a king upon entering the Land of Israel (see Devarim 17:14-20). Nevertheless, this most basic question is debated on today’s daf.

    The Mishna teaches that the king can confiscate fields that belong to others in order to set up a path to his own field. This rule is based on a lengthy passage in Sefer Shmu’el (see I Shmu’el chapter 8) where the prophet Shmu’el replies to the request for a king by describing in detail what the king will do. While Rav Yehuda quotes Shmuel as teaching that the king has the right to do all that is described there, Rav believes that it was said in response to the request for a king in order to frighten the people into rescinding their request.

    A parallel disagreement between tanna’im is brought by the Gemara, with Rabbi Yehuda listing the commandment of establishing a king as one of three mitzvot that the Jewish people had to do upon entering the Land of Israel (along with destroying the nation of Amalek and building the Temple), while Rabbi Nehorai says that the laws of appointing a king were only taught in response to the complaints of the people.

    Some of the rishonim understand that Rabbi Nehorai’s teaching applies not so much to the statements in Sefer Shmu’el, but to the commandment that appears in Sefer Devarim. Thus, the Torah is not understood to be obligating the people to establish a monarchy, rather it is teaching what the parameters of the monarchy should be if the people choose to request a king.

    This may depend on the intention of the petitioners. The Gemara brings the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer who distinguishes between the elders who requested that Shmu’el establish a king “to judge us” (see I Shmu’el 8:6) and the rabble who insisted that they needed a king so that they could be “like the other nations” (ibid 19-20).

  21. Sanhedrin 21a-b: Marrying Many Wives

    The Mishna on today’s daf discusses one of the laws of a Jewish king – that he cannot marry many wives (see Devarim 17:16), lest they lead him astray. Based on this passage, the Mishna limits a king to having 18 wives. Rabbi Yehuda suggests that if they do not lead him astray then it would be permissible to marry many wives. Rabbi Shimon disagrees, pointing out that even a single wife who leads him astray would be forbidden, thus the Torah must mean that even many righteous wives, like King David’s wife Avigail, would be forbidden.

    In the continuation of the Gemara we are taught that although King David appears to have married many wives – see II Shmuel 5:13 – nevertheless the number did not exceed 18. In explanation of the pasuk‘s reference to nashim (wives) and pilagshim (concubines), Rav Yehuda quotes Rav as explaining that nashim are properly married with ketuba and kiddushin, while pilagshim have neither ketuba nor kiddushin. Furthermore, Rav Yehuda quotes Rav as teaching that there were 400 soldiers in King David’s army who were the offspring of his relations with an eshet yefat to’ar (see Devarim 21:10) who behaved like non-Jews, cutting their hair, for example, in the fashion of non-Jews, and growing a blorit.

    Many suggestions are offered to define the term blorit, but no word in Greek or Latin is a perfect match for it. The hairstyle involved allowed the hair to grow long particularly on the sides and in the back of the head, and the hair was tied and braided into different shapes. Later on, the braided hair was shaved off in a special pagan ritual ceremony.

    While it is difficult to imagine that King David could have limited himself to 18 wives yet fathered 400 children from his relations with neshot yefat to’ar, Rashi in Massekhet Kiddushin (76b) suggests that the children referred to in this story were not King David’s own. Rashi suggests that King David took responsibility for the children fathered by his soldiers under those circumstances so they were raised in his home.

  22. Sanhedrin 22a-b: A Special Haircut

    Among the unique laws that apply to a king and a kohen gadol are rules regarding their haircuts. Our Gemara quotes a baraita that teaches that a king must have his hair cut on a daily basis, while the kohen gadol would get his hair cut once a week. The source for the king’s special grooming stems from the Gemara’s interpretation of the passage in Sefer Yeshayahu (33:17) that states that a king should be seen in his beauty; the kohen gadol needs to prepare himself for the new group of priests that come to work in the Temple.

    Some of the rules regarding the proper deportment of the kohen gadol have their source in Chapter 44 in Sefer Yeḥezkel where the prophet lists what the kohen can and cannot do. In pasuk 20 , for example, the navi says regarding a kohen that kasom yiksemu et rashekhem – that he must keep the hair on his head trimmed. Our Gemara asks how that statement should be understood, and we are told that he has a tisporet lulyanit – a unique haircut – which is explained by Rav Ashi to mean that the tip of one hair reached the root of the next one. Rabbi [Yehuda HaNasi] pointed to his son-in-law, Ben Elasa, as someone who spent significant sums of money on his haircut, and said that he did it for the sole purpose of showing off the haircut of the kohen gadol.

    We have little information on Ben Elasa from Talmudic sources, although it appears that he was a wealthy person and not a scholar. It appears that there was tension between him and the students, and Rabbi’s statement about his haircut is an example of Rabbi’s attempts to defuse that tension.

    The description of the haircut is not very clear. From the Rambam it appears that all of the hairs were cut to a short, uniform height. The Ra’avad appears to suggest that the hair was set up in a series of curls that were cut in such a way as to allow the tip of one to reach the root of the next one.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  23. Sanhedrin 23a-b: Picking a Court

    The first Mishna in Massekhet Sanhedrin (2a) taught that there are three types of courts in Jewish law:
    •Ordinary courts of three judges whose purview is limited to monetary matters and kenasot – monetary penalties
    •Sanhedrin ketana – courts of 23 judges, who ruled on issues of capital crimes
    •Sanhedria gedola – the supreme court of 71 judges that sat in the Lishkat HaGazit on the Temple Mount.

    While the higher courts were established institutions whose members were chosen by the senior judges themselves, the ordinary courts that ruled on most mundane matters were not as permanently set, and, in fact, were often pulled together to hear and rule on a specific case. How were the judges in such a case to be chosen? What criteria existed to determine who could sit on such a court? Can anyone serve on such a court? Must they be ordained? The third perek of Massekhet Sanhedrin deals with these issues.

    According to the Mishna on today’s daf, in civil cases dealing with monetary matters, the court will be chosen with the agreement of each of the sides in the case. Rabbi Meir says that each side in the case chooses a single judge and then agree on the third judge. The Ḥakhamim rule that the two judges will agree on who the third judge should be.

    Tosafot and the Ran ask why there is a need to establish a court in this manner – shouldn’t the established court force the two parties to come before it and be judged? They answer that the court’s power to force the defendant to appear before them exists only in cases where the defendant is not willing to come to court at all. In a case, however, where the defendant says that he is willing to come to court, but he refuses to be tried before this particular court, then his argument is accepted, and the court cannot force him to accept their jurisdiction in the case.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  24. Sanhedrin 24a-b: Disqualified for Monetary Transgressions

    The Mishna on today’s daf lists people who will not be accepted as witnesses in a Jewish court, because they are involved in monetary shenanigans that are forbidden by the Sages. These people include dice players, money lenders who take interest, people who gamble on pigeon races, and those who market produce from the Sabbatical year. Rabbi Yehuda says: ba-meh devarim amurim – “under what circumstances is this rule taught?” When this is their livelihood. If a person has another occupation and participates in these activities only occasionally, then he still could be trusted as a witness in court.

    Unlike modern courtrooms where witnesses are asked to swear prior to their testimony in order to ensure that they will tell the truth, a Jewish courtroom believes that every witness who is called to testify will tell the truth. Nevertheless, there are several types of people, enumerated in the Mishnayot of Massekhet Sanhedrin, who cannot testify. Close relatives, for example, cannot testify, no matter how upstanding and honest we know them to be. There are also people whose behavior does not allow the court to accept them. Among them are untrustworthy people who have committed sins that put them in the Biblical category of a rasha.

    According to most rishonim, the people mentioned in this Mishna are only disqualified on a rabbinic level. The Mishna is teaching that aside from those individuals who have transgressed biblical law which disqualifies them from testifying in court, there are other people whose participation in activities that show them to be susceptible to the influence of monetary gain makes us fear that they could be bribed or similarly influenced to change their testimony. According to this approach, the “interest” levied by a lender must be forbidden only by rabbinic decree. Others understand the Mishna to also include people who are disqualified on a Torah level. They explain that the Mishna does not mention, for example, thieves and robbers since it is only teaching about cases where the issue is not so obvious, for in all of the Mishna’s cases the victim of the crime hands the money over to his oppressor willingly.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  25. Sanhedrin 25a-b: Gamblers and Thieves

    The Mishna on yesterday’s daf listed people who are disqualified as witnesses in a Jewish court, because they are involved in activities that are forbidden by the Sages. Included in the list were mafriḥei yonim – “people who make birds fly.” What was this activity and why would it disqualify a witness?

    The Gemara offers two explanations for this. One approach is to explain that it is pigeon racing; the other approach suggests that it is ara – that is, training a pigeon to entice other birds to follow it. The Ran explains that these two reasons are dependent on how we define the underlying problem with gambling. The Mishna taught that a mesaḥek bekubbiyya – a dice player – is disqualified from testifying in court. Rami bar Ḥama taught that the problem with a dice player is one of asmakhta (inconclusive consent) – when gambling, neither side thinks that he will lose which will lead to a situation where the winner takes the loser’s money against his will. It is possible that in different types of betting players recognize different levels of possibility that they might lose. The Mishna therefore needs to mention different types of gambling separately. Rav Sheshet, on the other hand, taught that the problem with a dice player is that he is eino osek be-yishuvo shel olam – that someone who makes his living by gambling is not involved in productive occupations that demand hard work (and therefore may not be scrupulous about someone else’s money). This explanation applies equally to dice playing and pigeon racing, so according to this approach we must have an alternative explanation for the case of mafriḥei yonim.

    The practice of ara – where a hunter trains his animals to entice others to return with it – would be permissible in settings where the animal brings wild animals back to its owner. The problem comes when the trained bird entices domesticated birds to return with it. Those domesticated birds that grow up in dovecotes are considered to be the property of the person who raises them – at least on a rabbinic level. Thus, someone who lives in a city or another populated area and trains his birds to bring home other birds, is assumed to be a thief and cannot be trusted to testify in court.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  26. Sanhedrin 26a-b: Gathering and Marketing Sabbatical Produce

    The Mishna on daf 24b listed people who are disqualified as witnesses in a Jewish court, because they are involved in activities that are forbidden by the Sages. Included in the list were soḥarei shevi’it – those who market produce from the Sabbatical year. Rabbi Shimon distinguished between osfei shvi’it – those who gather produce from the Sabbatical year – and soḥarei shevi’it – those who market that produce.

    The Gemara on today’s daf explains that originally both osfei shvi’it and soḥarei shevi’it were disqualified as witnesses, but because of the establishment of arnona – special taxes levied by the authorities – the poor had no choice but to gather crops even during the Sabbatical year. In fact, the Gemara relates that Rabbi Yannai announced that farmers could sow on the Sabbatical year in order to be able to pay arnona. For that reason the Mishna rules that osfei shvi’it are not disqualified as witnesses in court; only soḥarei shevi’it would be disqualified.

    There are those who limit this ruling only to places where – or only according to opinions that – the Sabbatical laws are rabbinic in our day and age. From the Talmud Yerushalmi it appears, however, that even if the laws still have biblical authority, nevertheless they would have been permitted if the situation was deemed to be piku’aḥ nefesh – a possible threat to life. Even though the ruling of the Sages ordinarily forbade Jews from publicly abrogating a mitzva, even if it meant risking their lives, that would not be true in this case where the intent of the non-Jewish government was solely for their own monetary benefit and had no anti-religious goal at all.

    It is likely that in places where the Sabbatical year was kept as Torah law only minimal work was permitted – just enough to fulfill the requirements of the king.

  27. Sanhedrin 27a-b: An Exceptional Argument

    Of all the amora’im, Abaye and Rava are presented as epitomizing the discussions that take place in the Gemara. In all of their arguments in the Gemara, the halakha always follows Rava’s opinion, with only six exceptions. Those six are referred to by the Gemara by the acronym YAL KGM:

    Ye’ush shelo me-da’at (Massekhet Bava Metzia 21b) – When a person does not realize that he has lost an object until after it is picked up by someone else, and he gives up ownership when he realizes it, can we apply it retroactively?

    Aid zomem lemafrei hu nifsal (Massekhet Bava Kamma 73a) – When witnesses are found to be unreliable, does their status change as of that time or from the time that their false testimony was made?

    Leḥi ha-omed me-elav (Massekhet Eiruvin 15a) – When a pole is standing on its own (it was not placed there by a person), can it be used as part of the structure that will create a legal private domain on Shabbat for the purpose of carrying?

    Kiddushin she-lo nimseru le-bi’ah (Massekhet Kiddushin 51a) – If a couple gets married, but will be unable to consummate their marriage, does it have legal significance?

    Gilui da’at be-giṭṭin (Massekhet Gittin 34a) – If a person makes a statement that can be understood as affecting the divorce that has been sent to his wife, must we take it into consideration when ruling on the validity of the divorce?

    Mumar la’avor aveira le-hakh’is (our daf today) – Can a person who commits sins be trusted to testify in court?

    The disagreements between Abaye and Rava are among the most important in the Gemara, to the extent that deep, significant Talmudic discussions are called ḥavayot d’Abaye ve-Rava. Although it is difficult to discern two clear distinctive approaches, generally speaking we find that Abaye was more formalistic, while Rava is more open and his opinions are based more on logical thinking.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, as published in the English Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  28. Sanhedrin 28a-b: Relative Testimony

    The Mishna (27b) teaches that people who are closely related – by blood or by marriage – will be disqualified from testifying about one another. Thus a person cannot testify for or against his brother or his sister’s husband, similarly he cannot be a witness regarding a case involving his uncle, whether it is his mother’s brother or his father’s brother, or, for that matter his mother’s sister’s husband or his father’s sister’s husband.

    Why are relatives limited in this way?

    The Gemara quotes Devarim 24:16 as a pasuk that can be interpreted to serve as the source for this law. It appears clear, however, that this is considered a gezeirat ha-katuv – a biblical rule that is not related to a suspicion that the relative may lie on behalf of his brother or his uncle. Even Moshe and Aharon, who we would not suspect of lying, cannot testify about each other.

    The Gemara on today’s daf asks about the status of an engaged couple (ishto arusah – “a man’s wife to whom he is engaged” – is already a situation of partial marriage, and is a much closer relationship than what an engagement is today). Rabba bar bar Ḥana believes that a man can testify about ishto arusah. Ravina differentiates between testifying on her behalf or to her detriment. The Gemara concludes that he cannot testify about her at all, explaining that their relationship is one of ikruvei da’ata – that their engagement leads to a sense of affinity, a close emotional relationship, which precludes such testimony.

    This explanation appears to suggest that the disqualification from testimony stems from their emotional closeness rather than from the relationship itself. Some suggest that the case of ishto arusah is unique in that the emotional closeness attests to the relationship between the engaged couple, but does not extend to other relatives by marriage (e.g. he could testify about his brother-in-law in such a case).

  29. Sanhedrin 29a-b: Love or Hate Disqualifies

    As we have learned, the Mishna (27b) offers a list of relatives who cannot testify about one another. The Mishna concludes with the teaching of Rabbi Yehuda that someone who has a very close friend or an enemy cannot testify about that person. The Sages of the Mishna reject Rabbi Yehuda’s teaching, arguing that we do not suspect that members of the Jewish community will lie about someone simply because they like or dislike him.

    The example that Rabbi Yehuda offered for someone who is a very close friend, or, in the language of the Mishna, who loves him, is shushbino – his “best man.” Shushbinin referred to in this case are the closest friend that a man has. In Talmudic times the custom was that when a man was to get married, his closest friend would accompany him throughout the days of the celebration. He also bought generous gifts for him and arranged a celebratory meal. This relationship obligated the groom – both morally and legally – to return the favor of shushbinut when his friend or his friend’s son invited him to their wedding. In modern Hebrew the word shushbinin still refers to the close friends of the groom who attend his wedding, but the relationship is not the same as what the Talmud is describing.

    The example that Rabbi Yehuda offers for someone who is an enemy is a person who has not talked to his friend for three days out of hatred. The source for this ruling that appears in the baraita is based on the pasuk in Sefer Bamidbar (35:23) that states that someone who kills another person by accident will be sent to an ir miklat – a City of Refuge – rather than be punished, since we know that he was not his enemy and did not wish that anything bad would happen to him. Rabbi Yehuda concludes from here that someone who hates – or loves – another cannot be expected to offer an objective statement about him.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  30. Sanhedrin 30a-b: Recording the Verdict

    When the judges conclude their ruling, how much information should they give the litigants about how their decision was reached?

    According to the Mishna (29a) the judges are not supposed to share much information. The Mishna states clearly that a judge should not tell one of the litigants “I was on your side but I could do nothing because the other two judges were against you” invoking the passage in Sefer Vayikra (19:16) that teaches that one should not be a talebearer, and in Sefer Mishle (11:13) that talebearers share secrets, but a loyal person keeps them.

    Given the clear ruling of the Mishna, the Gemara presents an odd disagreement. In response to the question “How is the court decision recorded?” we find three opinions:

    Rabbi Yohanan says we write that the court found the defendant innocent.

    Reish Lakish says that we enumerate the names of the judges who found the defendant innocent and those who found him guilty.

    Rabbi Eliezer says that we say that from the conclusion of their discussion the defendant was found to be innocent, language that implies that there was a disagreement in the court.

    The position presented by Reish Lakish appears to contradict the clear language of the Mishna, for if we record the different opinions, what is wrong with the judge sharing them, as well. This question is raised by the Talmud Yerushalmi, and several different answers are offered.

    The Meiri suggests that court decisions were not usually recorded; they were only set to writing if one of the litigants wanted to appeal the ruling. Therefore it would have been unusual for the litigants to find out what positions the judges had taken.

    The Ran suggests that the prohibition in the Mishna was limited to situations where the judge might chase after the party that lost the case in an attempt to flatter him, but there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the litigants learning which way each judge ruled.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, as published in the English Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  31. Sanhedrin 31a-b: Choosing a Venue

    When two litigants want to approach the court, who gets to decide the venue where the case will be considered?

    The Gemara on today’s daf deals with a situation where one litigant says “I would like the case to be heard here” and the other one wants the case to be taken to the makom ha-va’ad – the place of the Assembly. Two students came from Israel with different traditions said in the name of Rabbi Yoḥanan:

    Rav Dimi quoted Rabbi Yoḥanan as ruling that they must go to the makom ha-va’ad.

    Rav Safra quoted Rabbi Yoḥanan as saying that they should remain in their city and any difficulty could be sent to the makom ha-va’ad.

    Although Ameimar concludes by accepting Rav Safra’s ruling, he points out that there is one exception. In cases where the disagreement is between a borrower and a lender, the lender has the upper hand based on the passage in Sefer Mishle (22:7) – eved loveh le-ish malveh – that the borrower is subservient to the lender.

    The concept of a makom ha-va’ad is explained by the Meiri as referring to any place where there are judges sitting in courts that were established by the community, and did not establish themselves as judges on their own. Such courts had more power to enforce their rulings.

    The Gemara concludes with a vignette that illustrates the ruling. Mar Ukva – the head of the Jewish community in Bavel – received a letter from the court in Tiberias stating that someone named Ukvan HaBavli complained to them that his brother, Yirmeya, had taken some of Ukvan’s land to build a path for himself. The letter suggested both that he be tried in Bavel and that he be told to come before them in Tiberias. The Gemara explains this to mean that if he does not accept the local ruling, he should be brought before the court in Tiberias.

    Rav Ashi argues that the case here is a different one, since the question was one of kenas – of fines – and questions of kenas are not judged in Bavel. Rav Ashi concludes that the letter was written to Mar Ukva to honor him, but not because he would have had the power to judge the case locally.

  32. Sanhedrin 32a-b: Monetary Law and Capital Law

    The fourth perek of Massekhet Sanhedrin begins on today’s daf. Entitled Eḥad dinei mamonot…, the first Mishna continues …ve-eḥad dinei nefashot b’derisha u-vaḥakira – teaching that according to halakha, judgment of both monetary claims and capital crimes require inquiry and interrogation of witnesses.

    Thus the fourth perek moves beyond the teachings of the third perek that focused on general laws regarding the Jewish court system. This perek begins the examination of the laws regarding capital crimes, which is the main topic of Massekhet Sanhedrin.

    There are some basic differences between the way monetary laws and capital cases are treated in court. When dealing with capital cases, we are facing questions about the most valuable commodity of all – human life – which makes clear why so much care must be taken when making a judgment in such a case. The Torah, in fact, requires that the judges themselves must attempt to discover and explore every possible factor that would favor the accused (see Bamidbar 35:24-25). Moreover, when dealing with monetary matters, if a mistake is made the ruling can be overturned and the money returned to its rightful owner, while in the case of a capital crime, a death sentence cannot be undone.

    Another important difference that we find between these two types of cases is the fact that the judge cannot be “strict” or “lenient” when dealing with a monetary case, for any concession to one party will come at the expense of the other party. This obligates the court to remain totally neutral in such cases, even if one party is poor or downtrodden and we would ordinarily seek to favor him.

    Because of these differences, the Mishna in our perek enumerates ten differences in the way cases are handled by the court in dinei nefashot as opposed to dinei mamonot. These are aside from the basic rule taught in the first perek that monetary matters are presented before a simple court of three judges, while capital cases require a Sanhedrin of twenty-three.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  33. Sanhedrin 33a-b: In Light of New Evidence

    One of the differences between dinei mamonot (monetary cases) and dinei nefashot (capital cases) that is taught in the Mishna (32a) is whether we will reopen a case when someone suggests that new evidence is available. In dinei mamonot we will always be willing to reopen a case; in dinei nefashot we will only do so if the original decision found that the defendant was guilty. If he had been found innocent we will not reconsider the case, even if new evidence is forthcoming.

    The Gemara on today’s daf suggests that the source for both of these laws is based on a passage in Sefer Shemot (23:7) that says ve-naki ve-tzadik al taharog – “do not kill an innocent or a righteous person.” Thus, the reason we will reopen a capital case if the defendant had been found guilty is because of the command of the Torah – do not kill an innocent person. This obligates the court to do all that is in its power to ascertain whether someone is innocent. The reason we will not reopen a case where the defendant has been found not guilty is because the Torah also commands not to kill a righteous person, which is understood to mean that someone declared righteous cannot be killed.

    Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba quotes Rabbi Yoḥanan as limiting the law that we will not recall a decision of “not guilty” to cases where there was a true error in judgment. If the law was obvious, however (i.e. it was clearly written in the Torah) then we cannot accept such a ruling, and the case would be retried, since the ruling had no basis in halakha whatsoever.

    The expression used by the Gemara to describe a law that is clearly written in the Torah is davar she-ha-tzedokim modim bo – something that even the Sadducees agree to. The Sadducees were known to reject many of the rabbinic interpretations and oral traditions, accepting only laws that appeared in the written Torah.

  34. Sanhedrin 34a-b: Beyond Testimony

    Another one of the differences between dinei mamonot (monetary cases) and dinei nefashot (capital cases) that is taught in the Mishna (32a) is that in dinei mamonot anyone can step forward to offer evidence on behalf of either party, but in dinei nefashot we will allow anyone to speak on behalf of the accused, but not against him.

    The Gemara suggests that this follows the opinion of Rabbi Yosei bar Yehuda who learns from the passage in Sefer Bamidbar (35:30) that a single witness cannot testify that a person should die, but he can testify to allow him to live. The Sages, on the other hand, believe that we will not accept any statement from the witnesses beyond their testimony, even if they want to speak on behalf of the accused. Reish Lakish explains that the Sages will not let the witness offer any statements beyond his testimony, because it would appear as though he is biased in his testimony.

    The Meiri explains that it is possible that we are concerned that the witnesses are worried that the family of the accused might threaten them, if he is found guilty based on their testimony. Other explanations include the possibility that the witnesses are worried that someone may come and accuse them of being false witnesses.

    The Sages understand that the passage in Sefer Bamidbar refers to a student who is listening to the case being argued and wants his opinion to be considered in the decision, as well. According to this approach, the student would be listed too only if his suggestion would help the accused, but not if it would damage his case. The Ran points out that we listen to any argument that is put forward in the courtroom – even if it comes from the defendant or the plaintiff, and certainly if it comes from an objective observer. The Gemara’s intent must be to limit the student’s participation regarding the possibility of including him as a member of the court, which we will only do if he is arguing on behalf of the accused and not if he is against him.

  35. Sanhedrin 35a-b: Judging Capital Cases

    The Mishna (32a) taught that dinei nefashot – capital cases – cannot be judged at night. They are judged during the day and concluded during the day.

    The source for this, according to our Gemara, is a passage in Sefer Bamidbar (25:4) that teaches that after the Children of Israel engaged in sexual relations with the daughters of Moav, Moshe was commanded to punish the people who were involved by hanging them neged ha-shamesh – facing the sun – i.e. during the day. Having engaged in forbidden sexual relations as well as idol worship (see 25:2-3), the perpetrators were liable to receive a death penalty.

    According to today’s Gemara, this command demands explanation, for Moshe was not told to punish the perpetrators, rather he was commanded to take kol rashei ha-am – the leaders of the people. The Gemara asks: If the people sinned, what was the responsibility of the leaders?

    In response, Rav Yehuda quotes Rav as offering a radically different interpretation to the pasuk. According to Rav’s approach, the leaders were not to be punished, rather Moshe was commanded to assign them to play the role of judges and set up courts of law to try the people who sinned. The Gemara explains that the need for many courts to be established did not stem from a technical rule that forbids a court from judging two people on a given day, since Rav Ḥisda taught that many people can be tried on the same day if it is for the same offense. Rather the need for many courts was to “remove God’s anger” (as indicated in the closing words of Bamidbar 25:4).

    Rashi’s explanation of this idea is that by setting up courts to judge these cases, God will see that the nation is working zealously to defend His honor and will therefore turn away His anger. The Ramah suggests that it would take a significant amount of time were a single court to try all of the cases, and as long as evildoers exist in the world, God’s anger is manifest. By establishing many courts the evildoers could be dealt with quickly, removing God’s anger.

  36. Sanhedrin 36a-b: Opinions From the Side

    Which of the judges speaks up first during deliberations?

    According to the Mishna (32a) the eldest or greatest of the judges speaks first in all cases, aside from dinei nefashot – capital cases – where we begin “from the side” – we let others, judges from the side benches, speak up first.

    The Gemara on today’s daf brings Rav who reports that as a judge in the court of Rabbi [Yehuda HaNasi] he was the one who spoke up first. The Gemara questions why Rav would have been asked to offer his opinion first. Given that during Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s time the Sanhedrin had already stopped dealing with capital offenses it is clear the trials under discussion are ordinary cases, where Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi himself should have begun the discussion. In response Rava’s son Rabba – and some say Rabbi Hillel the son of Rabbi Valles – explained that in the courtroom of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi it was common practice that in all trials they began with one of the weaker, and less experienced judges.

    The explanation for this appears connected with the continuation of the Gemara, where we find those same amoraim describing how unique a personality Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was – that from the time of Moshe until Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi we do not find Torah scholarship and greatness (leadership and wealth) in a single person. Thus there was a serious concern lest Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s position be accepted without any dissent, were he to have spoken first.

    Another explanation that is suggested is based on the fact that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s courtroom was qualitatively different than others. As compiler and editor of the Mishna, many of the discussions that took place there dealt with decisions that would establish halakha for future generations. As such, they were serious enough to be treated like capital cases rather than like simple ones.

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    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  37. Sanhedrin 37a-b: Seeing the Good in the Bad

    What should our attitude be towards sinners? And what hope of success must we have when working with them?

    The Gemara on today’s daf quotes a passage from Shir HaShirim (4:3) “…your temples are like a pomegranate split open behind your veil,” which Reish Lakish interprets homiletically to mean that “even the emptiest among you are full of good deeds like a pomegranate [is full of seeds].”

    Similarly, Rabbi Zeira quotes a passage in Sefer Bereshit (27:27) where Yitzḥak smells Esav’s clothing that Yaakov was wearing, and concludes that they have the beautiful smell of the fields blessed by God. Rabbi Zeira interprets this pasuk homiletically to mean that even Jewish evildoers have outstanding qualities (according to the Maharsha, just as Yitzḥak was able discern Yaakov’s good qualities even though he was disguised, similarly the good qualities of an evildoer may be hidden, but they are there).

    In support of his interpretation, the Gemara relates the following story about Rabbi Zeira. In Rabbi Zeira’s neighborhood there was a group of troublemakers who Rabbi Zeira was always friendly with hoping that they would repent from their problematic ways, a position discouraged by the other Sages. Upon Rabbi Zeira’s death the troublemakers said: With the passing of ḥarikha katin shakei – “the short one with singed legs” – who will pray on our behalf? At that time, they repented and reformed their behavior.

    The reference to Rabbi Zeira as ḥarikha katin shakei refers to a story told about him following his emigration from Bavel to the Land of Israel, where he undertook a number of fasts. Enamored with the learning style in his new home, he fasted in order to forget the method of study in which he had been trained in the Diaspora. He also took upon himself a series of fasts so that he would merit avoiding the fires of Gehenna. To ensure his success, he would test himself in a hot oven, where his legs once became burned, and gained a nickname from that event.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  38. Sanhedrin 38a-b: An Individual is an Entire World

    The Mishna (37a) lists the warnings that the judges gave to witnesses who were about to testify in order to ensure that they will speak the truth in cases of dinei nefashot – capital cases. The judges point out the most basic difference between ordinary testimony and testimony in capital cases. While in money matters money that is taken unfairly can always be returned, when capital punishment is carried out unjustly “his blood and the blood of his descendants will be your responsibility forever.” The source for this idea is the passage that describes how when Kayin killed Hevel (see Bereshit 4:10) the Torah says that Hevel’s blood – demei, in the plural – was crying out to God.

    The Mishna follows this with the oft-quoted statement, that Man was created as a unique individual (as opposed to animals and plants, where the creation story indicates that many of each species were created at the same time) in order to teach that whoever destroys a single soul of Israel is considered as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whoever preserves a single soul of Israel, is considered as though he had preserved a complete world. Furthermore, the Mishna continues, creation of Man also attests to the greatness of God, for when a human being strikes coins from a mold he will always create identical coins, while God created a single Man, yet all of His creations are unique.

    The method used for making coins involved first creating blank circles of metal that were then stamped with a hammer blow.

    It should be noted that although the text of our Mishna reads “that whoever destroys a single soul of Israel is considered as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whoever preserves a single soul of Israel, is considered as though he had preserved a complete world,” alternative readings in manuscripts and other texts do not include the word “Israel” and teach simply “that whoever destroys a single soul is considered as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whoever preserves a single soul, is considered as though he had preserved a complete world.”

    The Gemara on today’s daf develops these ideas, emphasizing the importance of the uniqueness of every individual, with Rabbi Meir, for example, teaching that we find three unique qualities in every person – their voice, their appearance and their thoughts.

  39. Sanhedrin 39a-b: Questions of a Roman Emperor

    What relationships existed between the Sages and their non-Jewish contemporaries?

    One example of a close relationship can be learned from the stories told of Rabban Gamliel of Yavne, who was head of the Jewish community following the destruction of the Second Temple, and the Roman emperor – most likely one of the Caesars that followed Vespasian’s dynasty (perhaps Traianus) – whose interests included science, literature and the religious beliefs of other cultures.

    The Gemara on today’s daf lists questions posed by the Caesar to Rabban Gamliel about issues of religion and science. For example, one challenge that was posed accused God of being a thief, since the Torah describes that he put Adam to sleep in order to steal the rib from which Eve was created (see Bereshit 2:21). Before Rabban Gamliel could respond, the Caesar’s daughter asked if she could share her thoughts on the matter. She asked her father to bring a military guard to investigate a robbery that had taken place in her home. When asked for details she told him that a thief had come in the night and taken a silver pitcher, leaving a golden one in its place. The Caesar’s response was that such thieves should visit more often. When she clarified that this is what God had done to Adam – exchanging a rib for Eve – her father suggested that in that case it could have been done openly. This time she responded by calling for a piece of raw meat and preparing it before him. Having seen it in its raw state, the Caesar found it unappetizing. Yet again his daughter pointed out that God did not want Adam to find Eve repulsive.

    Another question posed by the Caesar to Rabban Gamliel related to a passage in Tehillim (147:4) that describes how God counts the stars. The Caesar found this claim unimpressive, arguing that he, too, could count the stars. Rabban Gamliel took a number of quinces and put them in a sieve that he set spinning. When the Caesar could not keep track of them, Rabban Gamliel argued that the heavens work in a similar fashion.

    Already in ancient times, astronomers attempted to map the heavens and count the visible stars. According to their count, less than 2,000 stars were visible in the northern hemisphere. The traditional view of the Rabbinic Sages was that there were many more stars, and that their number could not be counted. With modern telescopes we now know that there are many millions of stars in the heavens and that it is impossible to establish how many there are.

  40. Sanhedrin 40a-b: Questioning the Witness

    Since Jewish law gives almost no credence to circumstantial evidence and to proofs based on supposition and assumptions, direct eyewitness testimony becomes essential. This is especially clear when dealing with dinei nefashot – capital cases – since in such cases Jewish law will not even accept admission on the part of the accused. Thus, it is only through the testimony of witnesses that we can establish what happened in a given situation and how it took place.

    In previous chapters of Massekhet Sanhedrin we learned what type of person could or could not testify, removing relatives and untrustworthy individuals from entering the courtroom as witnesses. The fifth perek of Massekhet Sanhedrin, which begins on today’s daf focuses on the methods used by the courts to question the witnesses in order to verify the truthfulness and accuracy of their testimony.

    There are two basic stages in examining the witnesses’ testimony. First it is necessary to establish the basic information: the time and the place of the incident, as well as the basic question of what happened. Only after these questions have been clarified does the court delve into details of what happened and how it occurred.

    According to the Mishna, there are seven of the first type of questions, which are called ḥakirot (interrogations), and include questions about time and place. There are additional questions that deal with whether the witnesses recognize the victim and/or the accused and whether they warned the accused that he would be liable for his actions (according to Jewish law, no punishment can be given unless the accused had been warned of the consequences of his actions). It is not clear whether these questions are ḥakirot or if they are the second type of question, called bedikot (examinations). The Meiri offers an additional category that he calls derishot (clarifying questions) that have the same level of severity as ḥakirot.

  41. Sanhedrin 41a-b: Equating Examinations With Interrogations

    The Mishna (40a) taught that witnesses are questioned by the court by means of both ḥakirot (interrogations), and bedikot (examinations). There are seven specific questions under the category of ḥakirot that deal with basic questions of time and place and if a witness cannot answer any one of the questions of ḥakirot, his testimony will not be accepted. Regarding bedikot the Mishna teaches that the judges can ask whatever they want, and if the witnesses cannot answer questions of bedikot, their testimony still stands. A story is related that ben Zakkai once demanded information about the stems of figs.

    The Gemara on today’s daf presents an attempt by Rami bar Ḥama to connect the figs to the trial itself (e.g. the man was accused of picking them on Shabbat or of using them as a murder weapon), but it concludes with the words of Rav Yosef who says that ben Zakkai held a unique position that bedikot questions were the equivalent of ḥakirot questions, which allowed him to ask penetrating questions that others would not have used.

    Who is ben Zakkai?

    The Gemara is reluctant to identify him with the great tanna, Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai, since the story in the Mishna places him as a member of the Sanhedrin dealing with capital cases, while we have a tradition that of the 120 years of his life Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai spent the first 40 as a businessman, the next 40 as a student and the final 40 as a teacher. Furthermore we know that the Sanhedrin moved from its location on the Temple Mount and ceased to try capital cases 40 years before the destruction (see Rosh HaShana 31b), yet Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai was active as a teacher and leader of the Jewish community after the destruction of the Second Temple. The Gemara concludes that he must have presented his idea of asking questions of bedikot that include such detailed information while he was still a student and was called simply ben Zakkai.

  42. Sanhedrin 42a-b: Carrying Out the Death Penalty

    The previous perakim of Massekhet Sanhedrin dealt with the court system and the legal procedures necessary to try capital cases according to Jewish law. The sixth perek – Perek Nigmar HaDin – focuses on questions about how the death penalty was carried out. Before applying the court’s decision, every possible precaution was taken to ensure that there should not be a miscarriage of justice. Thus, even unlikely scenarios are considered in an attempt to ensure that even in the last moments of his life, new evidence would be considered on behalf of the convicted prisoner.

    According to Jewish law, carrying out the death penalty is not only performed out of a sense of protecting the community by removing a dangerous person from its midst, it is also the fulfillment of a Torah obligation incumbent upon the beit din, and like all mitzvot it has many requirements and details. Thus this chapter covers such topics as the location where the punishment will be carried out, the means by which it will be carried out, upon whom is it incumbent to carry out the punishment and so forth.

    The importance of fulfilling this commandment impacts not only on society at large, but aims to affect the convicted man, himself. The punishment that he receives acts as partial penance for his crime; the purpose of his viduy – admission of guilt – at the time that the death penalty is carried out is not to reassure all assembled that justice was done, rather it is the beginning of the process of the forgiveness that he will receive.

    Among the mitzvot of the Torah are some that are distasteful, yet they are included in the corpus of Torah commandments and they have significance and importance. Clarifying the rules and regulations that govern these commandments must be done with the same level of care and concern that other mitzvot receive, and even these commandments require kavanna – proper intent – to fulfill the mitzva as commanded. The principle ve-ahavta le-re’akhah kamokhah – you should love your neighbor as yourself – applies even when a person is condemned to death. Even here the Torah requires that the court concern itself with the condemned man’s best interests, to the best of its ability.

  43. Sanhedrin 43a-b: An Announcement Before Execution

    Today’s daf includes a section of the Gemara that was censored and does not appear in standard texts of the Talmud.

    The Mishna on today’s daf teaches that before the condemned man is taken to be killed a public announcement is made: So-and-so the son of So-and-so is to be taken to be killed by stoning for committing a particular capital crime. Anyone who has anything to say on his behalf should come forward to speak up for him.

    The Gemara makes a point of noting that according to the Mishna the public announcement is made at the time that the death penalty was to be carried out. This stands in apparent contradiction with the following story that appears in a baraita:

    On the eve of the Passover Jesus was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything on his behalf, let him come forward.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of the Passover.

    The Gemara concludes that Jesus’s situation was unique since he was connected with the government. Since the government was interested in his case, the Jewish court wanted to ensure that everyone would recognize that he was given every opportunity to defend himself.

    Having mentioned Jesus, the Gemara lists his five disciples, Mattai, Nakai, Netzer, Buni and Toda, all of whom are presented as offering biblical proof that they should not be killed based on how their names appear in Tanakh, and the Sages respond with corresponding passages that show that these names – and the people attached to them – can be destroyed.

    All of the Talmudic stories that refer to Jesus are confusing and difficult to understand, particularly since they do not parallel stories about Jesus that appear in other sources. It is possible that we have hints here to incidents that were not preserved in other traditions.

  44. Sanhedrin 44a-b: A Pre-Execution Confession

    Even today, when death sentences are carried out in civilized countries that have a death penalty, the condemned is asked to confess and show regret for the crime that he committed.

    The Mishna teaches that Jewish law strongly encourages this behavior. According to the Mishna (43b), when the condemned man was ten cubits from the place of execution the court-appointed individuals who escorted him would tell him to confess, since by doing so his execution would serve as an atonement for him and he would receive a share in the World-to-Come.

    The source for this, which is discussed in detail on today’s daf, is the story of Akhan who stole from the city of Yeriḥo after it was set aside for destruction by God and Joshua (the entire contents of the conquered city was declared to be ḥerem – see Sefer Yehoshua Chapter 7). We find that Akhan clearly confesses to his crime in pasuk 20, and the Mishna concludes that his confession was accepted and served as atonement based on Yehoshua’s response in pasuk 25 where he says that God would punish him “on this day,” indicating that he would receive his portion in the World-to-Come.

    By a homiletical examination of the passages that describe the process by which Akhan was found guilty, the Gemara interprets his actions to have included a wide variety of inappropriate acts, aside from stealing from the ḥerem. Rabbi Abba bar Zavda suggested that he committed adultery with a married woman; Rabbi Ile’a quoted Rabbi Yehuda bar Masparta as saying that he denied the mitzva of circumcision. Furthermore, he said that the passage listing all of the things that Akhan did (see Yehoshua 7:11) repeats five general transgressions, indicating that he violated all five books of the Torah.

    The Keli Yakar suggests that since all five of the books of the Torah teach that it is forbidden to steal, clearly Akhan transgressed them all. The Ramah points to specific commandments that appear in each of the five books: circumcision in Bereshit, stealing in Shemot, taking consecrated property in Vayikra, taking that which is not his, as appears in Bamidbar and putting it among his own possessions, as appears in Devarim.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  45. Sanhedrin 45a-b: A Hanging After Death

    According to the simple reading of the passage in Sefer Devarim (21:22), someone who receives a death penalty will subsequently be hanged (and removed by nightfall). This reading of the Torah is rejected by both Rabbi Eliezer and the Ḥakhamim in the Mishna. Rabbi Eliezer restricts it to people who are condemned to death by stoning; the Ḥakhamim limit it further, only to people who are killed for blasphemy or idol worship. Another disagreement between the tanna’im relates to hanging women. While Rabbi Eliezer requires that women who are condemned to death be hanged, albeit with their faces to the pole, the Ḥakhamim rule that women are not hanged at all. Rabbi Eliezer responds by referring to the fact that Shimon ben Shetaḥ was know to have hanged women in Ashkelon. The Ḥakhamim answered him saying that Shimon ben Shataḥ’s ruling – condemning 80 women – was clearly extra-judicial, since a beit din cannot try more than one case every day.

    The story in which Shimon ben Shataḥ hanged 80 women is Ashkelon appears in the Talmud Yerushalmi in Massekhet Ḥagiga. As related there, when Shimon ben Shataḥ was appointed as nasi he was told that there were 80 witches in a cave in Ashkelon. In order to trick them he came on a rainy day together with 80 young men who were each given a jar with a dry cloak in it. He told them that upon hearing his signal they should put on the dry cloak and come in to lift the witches off the ground, which would steal their powers from them. Shimon ben Shataḥ called for the witches to open the cave door so that he could enter. Upon doing so he impressed them, entering in a dry cloak, and told them that he came to learn and to teach. Each of the witches conjured up part of a festive meal and then inquired as to what magic he could do. He offered to make 80 young men appear in dry cloaks who would sweep them off their feet. Giving the signal, the men entered and captured the witches, who were taken off and hanged.

    The story concludes that relatives of those witches who were angered by this came forward with false testimony accusing Shimon ben Shataḥ’s son of a capital crime. Upon being convicted and led to his death the witnesses recanted, but the son insisted that the punishment be carried out, since he feared that people would suspect that the Sages showed favoritism to him by allowing the witnesses to change their minds, something that would weaken the efforts that his father had made in strengthening these laws.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  46. Sanhedrin 46a-b: The Obligation to Bury the Dead

    Among the most scrupulously kept traditions in Judaism are burial practices. Somewhat surprisingly the source for these practices is found in the laws of capital punishment.

    According to the Torah, after the death penalty is carried out by the courts, the condemned man is hanged (see Devarim 21:22-23), but then is immediately removed and buried on that same day. The Mishna on today’s daf explains that this law applies not only to individuals who are killed for committing capital crimes, but also to anyone who dies. Thus Jewish law requires burial to take place as quickly as possible, unless it will honor the deceased to arrange for his burial to be pushed off for a short time.

    The Gemara relates that Shevor Malka – the Persian King Shapur – asked Rav Ḥama if he could bring a biblical source for the Jewish law requiring burial of the dead. Rav Ḥama was unable to respond. Upon hearing this Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov became angry, arguing that Rav Ḥama should have referred to the above-mentioned passage in Sefer Devarim. In defense of Rav Ḥama the Gemara argues that the passage can be understood as a requirement to prepare a coffin, but not to actually bury the deceased. Other suggestions, e.g. that the Avot (forefathers) were all buried, or that God Himself buried Moshe Rabbeinu, are also rejected since they may only be evidence of a tradition, and not a true halakhic requirement.

    Shevor Malka was the name of a number of Persian kings. Our Gemara is apparently referring to the second king Shapur, who lived during the 3rd and 4th generation amora’im in Bavel. He was a zealous supporter of Zoroastrianism, a religion that he tried to impose on the minorities under his rule – especially Christians.

    The discussion in our Gemara should be understood in the context of the Persian belief that in-ground burial defiles the earth, which is why Rav Ḥama, who appears to have been the official Sage of the Diaspora community, was required to respond to questions about why it was so important to Jewish law and tradition.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  47. Sanhedrin 47a-b: The Dirt and Stones of Burial

    On yesterday’s daf we learned about King Shapur of Persia who made inquiries regarding the Jewish custom of burying in the ground in Bavel, a practice that stood in harsh conflict with the Persian view that the earth would be defiled by such burial.

    In contrast, the Gemara on today’s daf relates that people would go to Rav’s burial place and collect dirt that was used medicinally for a certain type of fever. When this was reported to Shmuel, with an apparent complaint that Rav’s grave was being used inappropriately, his response was to permit the practice, since the dirt is karka olam – merely earth – that does not become consecrated because he was buried there.

    Rabbeinu Yehonatan rules that this is true of any dirt around a grave, even if it was dug up and replaced to bury the corpse; once returned to the earth it remains karka olam and has no special status. Other rishonim disagree and limit this to situations where the dirt around the grave was undisturbed, e.g. when the burial took place in a cave; if it was dug up and moved around when the grave was prepared it became set aside in honor of the dead, and cannot be used.

    Another issue relating to burial discussed on today’s daf involves the time that aveilut – the mourning period – begins. Mourning begins only after the burial is complete. According to Rav Ashi, that is only after setimat ha-golel – when the golel is sealed.

    The commentaries disagree about how to define a golel. Rashi explains that it is the cover to a casket. Tosafot suggest that it is a rounded stone that was used to close up a burial cave (several such stones have been found near ancient burial caves in Israel). During the times of the Mishna, common burial practice was to place the body in a temporary grave where it would decompose. At a later date, the bones would be removed and transferred to a family burial cave. The round shape of the golel stone allowed it to be rolled, closing the cave, yet easily opened when necessary.

  48. Sanhedrin 48a-b: Killed by the King

    Much of this perek has focused on the laws that govern how the beit din carries out capital punishment. There are also extra-judicial punishments that can be meted out by the government in times of need. Thus, if a Jewish king found that an individual had sinned against the monarchy, he could arrange for him to be tried and killed.

    The Gemara on today’s daf quotes a tosefta that distinguishes between harugei malkhut – people who are put to death by the king – and harugei beit din – those who are killed by the courts. While the children of harugei beit din receive their inheritance from the condemned man as they would had he died of natural causes, the inheritance of harugei malkhut is confiscated by the king. Rabbi Yehuda disagrees, arguing that even the property of harugei malkhut would go to their children.

    The source for the first opinion, which is raised as a response to Rabbi Yehuda is the case of Navot HaYizraeli. According to the story in I Melakhim (21:18), King Aḥav wanted to purchase a vineyard from Navot, who refused to sell it to him since it was his family inheritance. Seeing how disappointed King Aḥav was, his wife Queen Izevel assured him that she would take care of the matter and arrange for false witnesses to testify that Navot had cursed the king. Once Navot was duly killed, the navi recounts that King Aḥav took possession of the field, an action that led to a sharp rebuke from the prophet Eliyahu who said ha-ratzaḥtah ve-gam yarashtah!? – have you murdered and then expect to inherit!?

    The Meiri points out that the only time that the property of harugei malkhut would be confiscated by the king was when the person was killed on account of his having rebelled against the monarchy. If, however, he was killed because of some other pressing social need, e.g. a person who was known to be a murderer based on clear evidence that was not accepted in the ordinary courts because he had not been properly warned of the punishment that he would receive, then his children would receive their inheritance as in a normal case of their father’s death.

  49. Sanhedrin 49a-b: Joining the Revolt

    One of the most complicated personalities in the Tanakh is Yoav, the Commander-in Chief of King David’s army. Although he served the king, he also refused to accept some of the king’s orders and, in fact, supported King David’s son, Adoniyahu, who tried to claim the throne prior to King David’s death. Ultimately, King David charged his son, King Solomon, to deal with him appropriately. The Gemara on today’s daf discusses how Yoav was tried before King Solomon. According to the Gemara, King Solomon accused Yoav of playing a role in the revolt led by King David’s son, Adoniyahu, even though he remained on King David’s side during Avshalom’s revolt.

    The fact that the navi emphasizes that Yoav did not join Avshalom’s revolt, which seems to imply that he might have been punished for that, as well, leads Rav Yehuda to conclude that he wanted to join the revolt, but did not do so. One of the explanations offered by the Gemara to explain why he did not join that revolt is that at that time much of King David’s strength remained. Specifically, as Rav Yehuda quotes Rav as teaching, there were 400 soldiers in King David’s army who were the offspring of relations with neshei yefat to’ar (see Devarim 21:10) who behaved like non-Jews, cutting their hair, for example, in the fashion of non-Jews, and growing a blorit. These soldiers were the leaders of the garrisons, and Yoav feared this formidable army.

    Many suggestions are offered to define the term blorit, but no word in Greek or Latin is a perfect match for it. The hairstyle involved allowing the hair to grow long particularly on the sides and in the back of the head, and the hair was tied and braided into different shapes. Later on, the braided hair was shaved off in a special pagan ritual ceremony.

  50. Sanhedrin 50a-b: Capital Punishment

    The seventh perek of Massekhet Sanhedrin, Perek “Arba Mitot,” focuses on how capital punishment is meted out by Jewish courts according to the Torah. According to the Sages, there are four types of such punishments:

    1.Sekilah – death by stoning
    2.Serefah – death by fire
    3.Hereg – death by sword
    4.Ḥenek – death by choking

    While the previous perek dealt with some of the rules and regulations of sekilah, the current perek examines the sources for all of the death penalties imposed by the Torah, how they are carried out from a technical perspective and so on.

    The question that is discussed at length on today’s daf is the order of severity of the different types of capital punishment. This question is important in order to determine what punishment to give a person whose actions make him liable for more than one such punishment. Moreover, clarifying this question will also help determine what punishment is appropriate in cases where the Torah declares that a person who does a given sinful action should receive a death penalty, but does not state clearly which of the punishments he deserves.

    According to the Mishna (49b), the order of severity of the capital punishments are Sekilah, Serefah, Hereg and Ḥenek, while Rabbi Shimon rules that Serefah is the most severe punishment, followed by Sekilah, Hereg and Ḥenek. The Gemara on today’s daf attempts to bring sources for the severity of a given punishment based on the severity of the crime committed. For example, Sekilah is considered to be the most severe punishment since it is the punishment given to someone who is a blasphemer and to someone who is an idol worshiper. Since both of these sins are rebellions against God, clearly the Torah considers them to be serious crimes.

    Tosafot point out that we should not automatically assume that a severe crime receives the most severe punishment, as it is possible that a severe crime may receive a relatively light type of death sentence, and that the “lighter” punishment will be augmented with another punishment – e.g. the people of an ir ha-nidaḥat – a city that was led to idol worship – receives hereg, since there is an additional punishment that their money is destroyed, as well.

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