Masechet Horayot 2a-7b

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Beit Din
27 Oct 2010

The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.

Horayot 2a-b: Following an erroneous ruling

When an individual performs a forbidden act based on the erroneous ruling of the High Court, who is to blame?

According to the first Mishnah in Masechet Horayot, when an individual follows the ruling of the court, leading to a transgression, the individual will not be held liable to bring a sin offering, since he acted appropriately, relying on the court’s ruling. The sacrifice will be brought by the court on behalf of everyone who followed their mistaken ruling. The Mishnah does teach that if the individual who sinned was a scholar who realized that the High Court had erred, and if he nevertheless followed their ruling, then he cannot lay the blame on the court and he will have to bring his own sacrifice.

The Gemara explains that the mistake made by the scholar in this case must have been a misunderstanding of the law of mitzvah lishmo’ah divrei chachamim – that an individual is obligated to accept the words of the Sages. As Rashi explains, this scholar thought that this requires him to follow the High Court’s ruling even if he is certain that they are mistaken.

Many of the commentaries point out that there is a serious difficulty with this approach, given the Rabbinic interpretation of the Biblical passage lo tasur min ha-davar asher yagidu lecha yamin u’semol – “You shall not turn away from their words to the right or to the left” (Devarim 17:11) – as meaning that the High Court must be accepted under all circumstances. In his Chefetz Hashem, Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar explains that although the scholar cannot publicly offer a ruling that contradicts the agreed-upon decision of the High Court, nevertheless on a personal level he cannot follow their ruling if he is convinced that it is incorrect. Someone who does so is responsible for his own actions and must bring his own sin offering.

Later in the Gemara, the Mishnah’s teaching is limited to the opinion of a single tanna, explaining that the Chachamim disagree and only free the transgressor from a sacrifice if the erroneous ruling led the majority of the Jewish community to transgress. If a single individual – or a minority of the community – sinned because of the court’s ruling, then they would still need to bring a sin offering.

Horayot 3a-b: Must all the judges agree?

As we learned on yesterday’s daf when the High Court rules erroneously and that decision is acted upon by the majority of the Jewish community, the High Court will be obligated to bring a sin offering on behalf of the community, but the individuals will be free of the obligation to do so. What are the conditions necessary for the court’s ruling to be accepted?

Rabbi Yonatan suggests that the Biblical passage that introduces this law – v’im kol adat Yisrael yishgu – “And if all of Israel errs…” (Vayikra 4:16) – should be understood as teaching that the decision must have been made by the court unanimously, that even if one hundred judges sat together in making this decision, all must agree to the ruling if the court is to become responsible for the community’s actions. When challenged with the Mishnah‘s teaching that a single scholar who disagrees with the court’s decision will be liable for his own actions, which clearly indicates that the ruling stands even if there was minority dissent (see the discussion on yesterday’s daf), the Gemara suggests that that scholar must have been present at the deliberations and have nodded in assent when the decision was made. Ultimately, Rabbi Yonatan’s position is rejected and the Gemara concludes that “if all Israel errs” should be understood to mean that the full court must be present, even if the decision is made based on majority opinion.

The Talmud Yerushalmi discusses a similar situation, deliberating whether a decision taken by one hundred judges needs to be unanimous, and even whether they need to agree on the reasoning underlying their decision. The Bet Shmuel asks, however, how we will ever find a court of one hundred judges? The Great Sanhedrin, who are the ones making the decisions in these cases, are required to be a group of 71 judges, and it is forbidden to add to this number.

In his Hok Natan, the Tunisian scholar Rabbi Natan Bourgil suggests that saying “even if there are one hundred judges, they must all agree” is clearly an expression of exaggeration rather than a ruling about a specific number of sitting judges. The Maharatz Chayot argues that on occasion court decisions were made with more than 71 judges, as we find in the Gemara in a number of places that the Anshei Knesset ha-Gedolah consisted of 120 scholars who legislated laws for the Jewish people.

Horayot 4a-b: Judicial leadership

As we have seen our Gemara is deliberating the conditions necessary for the High Court’s ruling to be accepted so that when it rules erroneously and that decision is acted upon by the majority of the Jewish community, the High Court will be obligated to bring a sin offering on behalf of the community, but the individuals will be free of the obligation to do so. The Mishnah on today’s daf teaches that if the muflah shel bet din – if the senior scholar among the judges – was missing when the decision was made, then the ruling will not be considered fully legitimate, and the court will not bring the sin offering on behalf of the community.

The muflah shel bet din heads the yeshiva, and the court scholars were all considered to be his students. Generally speaking, he was the person who was chosen to preside over the Sanhedrin. Rashi explains that we must be talking about a case where the muflah shel bet din was called away from the court for some reason, and another was appointed temporarily in his place, since all agree that were the court missing the full cohort of judges, their ruling would not be significant for the purposes of a communal sin offering.

Rashi, however, offers a different explanation, as well, suggesting that the muflah shel bet din may not have been a member of the Sanhedrin at all, perhaps because for technical reasons he could not have been appointed as a judge (e.g. he could not have children, which, as Rashi explains in Masechet Sanhedrin, causes us to fear that he does not have the requisite compassion and sensitivity needed for judgment as a member of the Sanhedrin). Nevertheless, due to his unique status as a scholar whose wisdom was needed by all, decisions should not have been made without consulting him. The Ri”d offers a similar explanation, pointing out that the Gemara occasionally talks of 72 scholars who legislate, indicating that there was an additional scholar who joined the Sanhedrin in decision making.

Horayot 5a-b: Is it true that “We are One”? Perhaps there are many “Jewish communities”

Up until this point we have worked with the assumption that when the High Court rules erroneously and that decision is acted upon by the majority of the Jewish community, the High Court will be obligated to bring a sin offering on behalf of the community, but the individuals will be free of the obligation to do so. The Mishnah on today’s daf explains that this understanding follows the opinion of Rabbi Meir. There are other positions on the matter, however. According to Rabbi Yehuda, it is not the court that brings the sacrifice, but the community, so that twelve sin offerings must be brought – one by each of the twelve tribes. Rabbi Shimon says that thirteen sacrifices must be brought – one by each of the twelve tribes and an additional one by the High Court who made the erroneous ruling.

The Gemara asks how Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon derive that each tribe is considered to be a kahal – a community – in itself, which obligates them in individual community sin offerings.

One suggestion is that the source is a passage in Sefer Divrei HaYamim II, or Chronicles II (20:5) that refers to King Yehoshafat standing in the midst of kahal Yehuda – the community of the tribe of Yehuda – in Jerusalem. Although only a single tribe was there, nevertheless they were called a kahal. The Gemara rejects this source, arguing that Jerusalem cannot be brought as a proof, since the tribe of Binyamin was there, as well. Rav Aha bar Yaakov suggests another source, pointing out that the patriarch Yaakov refers to a promise made by God to grant him a kahal (see Bereshit 48:4, as well as 35:11) and only a single child, Binyamin, was yet to be born.

With regard to the situation in Jerusalem, following King Solomon’s reign during the first Temple period, the monarchy in Israel was divided between the Davidic house in Southern Israel – the kingdom of Judea – and the Northern Kingdom – Israel – that underwent constant political upheaval and was ruled by a number of successive families. The Southern Kingdom was comprised of two tribes, Binyamin and Yehuda, and the city of Jerusalem, which was originally mainly the territory of the tribe of Binyamin, served as the religious and political capital of these two united tribes.

Horayot 6a-b: Errors made by the High Priest

The same set of passages in Sefer Vayikra that teach about the unique responsibilities of the High Court when ruling on issues that may cause a large swath of the Jewish community to sin (see Vayikra 4:13-21), includes two other situations where out-of-the ordinary sin offerings will be brought by individuals who mistakenly err in their judgment and their actions. These two individuals are the High Priest (ha-kohen ha-moshiach – see Vayikra 4:1-7) and the king (nasi see Vayikra 4:22-26). The focus of the second perek of Masechet Horayot, which begins on today’s daf is on these two unique individuals and the circumstances under which they would bring these sacrifices.

The first Mishnah opens with the kohen gadol, teaching that he will bring his sin offering only if both the decision and the forbidden action were made in error. The Mishnah teaches specifically that if either were done purposefully – if the decision to permit a forbidden action were done intentionally, but the act was done accidentally or if the decision was made by accident but the act was done on purpose – then the sacrifice would not be brought.

Tosafot question how it is possible to have a situation where the decision to permit the act was done with malice aforethought, yet the act is considered to be accidental. Since the kohen gadol has the status to rule on questions of Jewish law for himself, if he purposely ruled incorrectly then it follows that the forbidden act would be done on purpose, as well. The Ramah suggests that we are discussing a case where at the time of the action he remembered that he had once ruled in this situation, but did not remember his reasoning. Thus, at the time of his action he believed that he was performing a permissible act based on an earlier, reliable ruling. The Tzofnat Pa’ane’ah, based on the discussion in the Talmud Yerushalmi,  suggests that we are discussing a case where the kohen gadol was relying on the ruling of a previous High Priest, so it is clear that the erroneous ruling could have been made on purpose, but the forbidden act may have been done accidentally.

Horayot 7a-b – The High Priest and the High Court

An ordinary sin-offering is brought by an individual who accidentally performs an act forbidden by the Torah. As we have learned, Masechet Horayot discusses the passages in Sefer Vayikra (4:1-26) that teach about three exceptional sin-offerings:

The Mishnah on today’s daf teaches that the cases of the High Priest and the High Court are parallel. When the High Court rules erroneously and that decision is acted upon by the majority of the Jewish community, the High Court will be obligated to bring a sin offering on behalf of the community. Similarly, when the High Priest made a decision on Jewish law in error and acts upon his ruling he will bring a unique sin offering. In both of these cases it is not the forbidden act itself that creates an obligation to bring the sacrifice, rather it is specifically the mistaken ruling that precipitates the forbidden act that creates that obligation.

The Gemara brings a source for this law from the passage (Vayikra 4:13) that teaches yishgu, v’ne’elam davar – that a mistake was made because something was “hidden” or misunderstood – therefore we conclude that a mistaken action will not obligate the unique sacrifice, only an action that is caused by a mistaken legal decision.

Tosafot point out that the Gemara has already taught many rules from which it is clear that the sacrifice will be brought only if an erroneous decision was made. For example, if no legal decision was involved, how could the court be obligated to bring a sacrifice for a forbidden act done by the majority of the community? If the court played no role at all Tuvia chata ve-Zigud mingad?! Is there any logic to say that Tuvia sinned but Zigud should receive lashes!? Tosafot answer that without this passage we may have thought that it would not have been the court, but the community who would be obligated to bring the sacrifice. The pasuk quoted by our Gemara teaches that it is the court who will bring the sacrifice, but only in a case where they played a role, i.e. where the erroneous decision was theirs.

In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.