Masechet Sanhedrin 21a-27b

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03 Mar 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 21a-b

The Mishnah 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 Mishnah 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 ketubah and kiddushin, while pilagshim have neither ketubah 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 Masechet 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.

Sanhedrin 22a-b

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 Yechezkel where the prophet lists what the kohen can and cannot do. In pasuk (=verse) 20, for example, the navi says regarding a kohen that kasom yiksemu et rashehem – 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 ha-Nasi] pointed to his son-in-law, Ben Elasha, 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 Elasha 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.

Sanhedrin 23a-b

The first Mishnah in Masechet 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

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 Masechet Sanhedrin deals with these issues.

According to the Mishnah 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. Rabbi Yehuda rules 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.

Sanhedrin 24a-b

The Mishnah 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 Masechet 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 people who have committed sins that put them in the Biblical category of a Rasha — an evil person — who cannot be trusted.

According to most rishonim, the people mentioned in this Mishnah are only disqualified on a rabbinic level. The Mishnah 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 Mishnah to also include people who are disqualified on a Torah level. They explain that the Mishnah 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 Mishnah’s cases the victim of the crime hands the money over to his oppressor willingly.

Sanhedrin 25a-b

The Mishnah 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 mafrichei 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 Mishnah taught that a mesahek b’kuvya – a dice player – is disqualified from testifying in court. Rami bar Hama taught that the problem with a dice player is one of asmachta – 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 Mishnah 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 positive community activities. 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 mafrichei 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.

Sanhedrin 26a-b

The Mishnah 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 socharei shevi’it – those who market produce from the Sabbatical year. Rabbi Shimon distinguished between osfei shevi’it – those who gather produce from the Sabbatical year – and socharei shevi’it – those who market that produce.

The Gemara on today’s daf explains that originally both osfei shevi’it and socharei 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 Mishnah rules that osfei shevi’it are not disqualified as witnesses in court; only socharei 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’ach nefesh – a possible threat to life. Even though the ruling of the Sages ordinarily forbade Jews from publicly abrogating a mitzvah, 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.

Sanhedrin 27a-b

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

Yei’ush shelo me-da’at (Bava Metzia 22b) – 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?

Ade zomem lemafrei hu nifsal (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?

Lehi ha-omed me-elav (Eruvin 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 (Kiddushin 51a) – if a couple gets married, but will be unable to consummate their marriage, does it have legal significance?

Gilui da’at be-gittin (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 l’hach’is (on our daf) – Can a person who commits sins be trusted to testify in court?

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

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.