Masechet Sanhedrin 14a-20b

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Kohen Gadol
25 Feb 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.

Sanhedrin 14a-b

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-chol 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 ruach ha-kodesh – some level of prophecy. Given the accepted dictum that ein ha-Shechina shorah be-chutz 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.

Sanhedrin 15a-b

According to the Mishnah (2a) all capital crimes are judged by a court of 23. The Mishnah 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 Mishnah, 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 b’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 gezerat 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.

Sanhedrin 16a-b

According to the Mishnah (2a) one of the tasks assigned to the Great Sanhedrin of 71 judges is to make a decision regarding embarking on a milchemet reshut – a war that is not required. The Me’iri explains that a milchemet mitzvah – 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 milchemet 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, Achitofel, with the Great Sanhedrin and with the prophecy of the Urim V’Tumim.

The parable “a pit will not be filled merely from its mouth,” is explained by the Geonim 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.

Sanhedrin 17a-b

As we have learned in the Mishnah, 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 Meidad 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-machaneh – 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.

Sanhedrin 18a-b

The second perek of Masechet 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 Mishnah in Masechet 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 Masechet Sanhedrin.

Sanhedrin 19a-b

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 Mishnah (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 Shetach, the presiding judge, commanded King Yannai to attend, since it was his property that was on trial. Shimon ben Shetah 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 Shetach was willing to make such a demand of King Yannai, leading Shimon ben Shetach 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 Shetach, went into hiding.

Sanhedrin 20a-b

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 halacha 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 Mishnah 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 Shmuel (see I Shmuel chapter 8) where the prophet Shmuel replies to the request for a king by describing in detail what the king will do. While Rav Yehudah 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 Shmuel, 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 Shmuel establish a king “to judge us” (see I Shmuel 8:6) and the rabble who insisted that they needed a king so that they could be “like the other nations” (ibid 19-20).

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.