Masechet Sanhedrin 63a-69b

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Ben Sorer U'Moreh
15 Apr 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 63a-b

As we learned in the Mishnah (60b), while various types of idol worship are punishable by death, other interactions with idols are merely lavin – negative commandments – whose perpetrators are liable for lashes.

One example of the latter type is someone who uses the name of such a deity to take an oath or to fulfill an oath that was taken. According to the Gemara on today’s daf the source for this law is the passage in Sefer Shemot (23:13) ve-shem elohim aherim lo tazkiru, lo yishama al pichah – and the name of a foreign god you should not mention, it should not be heard on your mouth. The first part of this pasuk is understood to forbid even mentioning the name of a false god, for example, to give directions (e.g. “let’s meet near the statue of Zeus”); the second part of the pasuk is understood to forbid using the idol’s name in an oath, or even causing someone else to utter an oath that would be taken in the name of a false god.

This discussion leads the Gemara to bring a teaching in the name of Shmuel’s father who ruled that it is forbidden to enter into a business relationship with a non-Jew, lest it will lead to a situation where the other party will be obligated to take an oath and will swear using the name of a false god, which, as we have seen, is forbidden by the Torah.

In codifying these laws, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 156:1) accepts the ruling presented by Shmuel’s father. In his gloss, the Rama points out that it is common practice today for Jews to enter into business partnerships with non-Jews. He explains that the non-Jews with whom the Jewish community interacts are not pagans; these non-Jews believe in the holiness of the Torah and the God of the Jews. Thus, even if they include another false god in the statement of an oath that they make, nevertheless their intention is not to swear with an idol in mind, rather to the Creator, who they believe in.

Sanhedrin 64a-b

We are well aware that the longing for avodah zara – for idol worship – that we find in the stories of the first Temple period in Tanach, does not affect our community today. What happened to this yearning for idol worship? In today’s world it is difficult to understand the attraction that biblical idol worship held for the Jewish people. The Gemara on today’s daf attempts to answer this question by means of a metaphor.

The story opens as the Jewish People begin returning from the Babylonian/Persian exile and return to the Land of Israel. We find that Sefer Nehemiah describes a great prayer and cry to God (see Nehemiah 9:4) which, according to the Gemara, refers to a cry of concern lest the same situation that led to the destruction of the first Temple, the burning of the Sanctuary, the murder of the righteous and the exile of the Jewish People would recur in the time of the second Temple. That is to say, the yetzer hara of avodah zara – the lust and desire for idol worship – still remained. The leaders reasoned that the point of the existence of the yetzer hara for avodah zara was to give the Jewish People credit for resisting it; they argued that it would be better to destroy this desire, even if it meant losing the credit for resisting it. After three days of prayer and fasting a note fell from heaven with the word emet – “truth” written on it, which was understood to be the word of God agreeing to their request.

Seeing that their request was accepted, the leadership decided to continue and ask that the yetzer hara for other sins – notably sexual drives and desires – be destroyed, as well. The Gemara relates that this, too was given to them, and that it was imprisoned. After three days they discovered that chickens had stopped laying eggs, and realized that the positive elements of these drives should not be destroyed. The decision made was to blind the yetzer hara, which limited sexual desires somewhat so that lust after incestuous relationships was removed, although other desires remained.

This description is an allegory for societal changes that took place between the first and second Temples. While desire for idol worship and sexual depravity was commonplace in the earlier period, they were insignificant during the second Temple period.

Sanhedrin 65a-b

The Mishnah on today’s daf introduces the activities of a ba’al ov and a yidoni.

According to the Torah (Vayikra 20:27) someone who engages in these activities is liable to receive a death penalty; someone who approaches an ov or a yidoni for the purpose of engaging their services is liable to receive lashes (see Vayikra 19:31). The Mishnah teaches that a ba’al ov is someone who presents himself as able to tell the future by means of his wizardry. The Rambam describes his activity as follows: the ba’al ov burns incense and holds a myrtle branch in his hands, waving it and reciting a magic formula until the questioner hears what appears to him to be an answer to his request coming from the depths of the ground. Similarly, someone who takes a skull and holds it in a manner that makes it seem as though a voice was coming out from his body. A yidoni is someone who takes a bone of an animal or a bird and places it in his mouth so that it appears that a voice speaks of the future or of magical things.

One case of a ba’al ov that is mentioned by the Gemara is described in Tanach where King Shaul – who had eradicated the witches from Israel –searches out an eshet ba’alat ov in order to call up the prophet Shmuel from the dead in order to get his advice (see I Shmuel chapter 28) before a war with the Plishtim. According to the Gemara, Shmuel did not appear in an ordinary fashion, but spoke through the body of the eshet ba’alat ov.

While the description in Sefer Shmuel makes it appear as though the eshet ba’alat ov succeeded in actually calling Shmuel from the dead, the Geonim suggest that this is a combination of sleight of hand and psychology. The eshet ba’alat ov was trained to understand the personal needs of the clients who approached her. She feigned surprise at the discovery that the man standing before her was King Shaul, but the message she delivered – that he would be killed in battle – was not from the prophet, Shmuel, but was her own.

Sanhedrin 66a-b

According to the Torah (Vayikra 20:9) someone who curses his parents is liable to receive a death penalty. The Gemara on today’s daf teaches that the language of the pasuk – ish, ish asher yekalel et aviv ve-et imo – that repeats the word ish (“a man”) twice teaches that the same rule applies to a daughter, a tumtum or an androgynous.

When the Gemara discusses an androgynous, it is talking about someone who appears to have both male and female sexual organs; a tumtum is someone who does not appear to be either male or female.

Medicine recognizes two types of androgynous. A true androgynous has both male and female sexual glands, while a Pseudohermaphrodite has the appearance of both male and female sexual organs, although the individual actually has only one set of sexual glands.

The Gemara describes a tumtum as someone whose gender cannot be determined. Under certain circumstances, the physical covering that hid the sexual organ may be removed (in the language of the Gemara it is nikra, or “torn” off) and the individual can be identified as male or female. Nevertheless, the likelihood that a man whose testicles have developed within his body will be able to have children is slim at best. This is certainly the case if someone was truly a tumtum, that is to say, that their sexual organs did not develop because of a low level of hormones. In such a case, even if the person’s physical situation improves, he will not be able to father children.

If we view a tumtum and an androgynous as people of doubtful sexual status, once the Gemara determines that both sons and daughters are included in the prohibition it would appear obvious that these cases should be included, as well. While the Ran argues that there is really no need for this teaching, some suggest that we should not view them as male or as female, but as a separate gender entirely, and we need a separate source to teach the law regarding their status.

Sanhedrin 67a-b

The Mishnah on today’s daf records a second Temple period “sting” operation.

Ordinarily, Jewish courts are unable to carry out punishments unless there are a pair of witnesses who could testify that they had warned the perpetrator that the act he was about to perform was forbidden and would have consequences when raised in court. One exception is the case of a meisit (see Devarim 13:7-11), who does not need to be warned; as long as two witnesses testify that this individual tried to convince someone to worship an idol, he will be punished by the court. According to the Mishnah, if the meisit tried to convince a single individual to perform idol worship, the bet din will suggest to the person that he respond by saying that he has friends who might also be interested, so that others will hear, as well. If the meisit is reluctant to do so, then the bet din will recommend that the person who was approached should suggest that the meisit repeat the details to him privately, and arrange for witnesses to sit quietly in the dark and listen while the meisit repeats his call to idol worship. If he responds to the question “but how can we abandon the true God in heaven and worship avodah zara?” by recanting, then nothing will happen to him. But if he says “that is what is appropriate and that is what we are obligated to do” the witnesses will testify in court and he will be punished according to the law.

A section of the Gemara that does not appear in standard texts recounts that this method was used to convict ben Stada of Lod, who was found guilty and hanged on erev Pesach. The continuation of this Gemara tries to identify this individual and concludes that the person who was hanged was named ben Pandera and that his mother, Miriam Megadla Neshaya (Miriam who braided women’s hair) was also known by the derogatory nickname “Stada.”

Based on the obvious parallels between this story and Christian traditions, many – including the Christian censor – understood that the character referred to here as ben Stada/ben Pandera was Jesus, which led to the removal of the entire passage from standard Talmud texts. Tosafot view that identification as erroneous based on the chronology of the story as it is presented. Among modern scholars the suggestion has been made that ben Stada was the name of an enchanter who came from Egypt who was also mentioned in Josephus.

Sanhedrin 68a-b

The laws of a ben sorer u’moreh – a stubborn and rebellious son (see Devarim 21:18-21) – require bet din to carry out capital punishment by means of sekilah (stoning), which would place these halakhot in the seventh perek of Masechet Sanhedrin. Nevertheless, the eighth perek, called perek ben sorer u’moreh, which begins on today’s daf , focuses on these laws, because of the significant differences that exist between this case and other situations of capital crimes in Jewish law.

Under ordinary circumstances, a death penalty is meted out by the Jewish courts as punishment for crimes committed that the Torah views as anti-social and deserving of the most severe punishment. According to all opinions, however, the activities that will bring about the stoning of a ben sorer u’moreh are not so grave as to be deserving of death. The Sages explain that this is a case where the punishment will be given because of future concerns. The behavior exhibited by the ben sorer u’moreh points to a future of anti-social behavior so severe that it will threaten society. The Torah requires that such behavior be prevented, and sekilah for a ben sorer u’moreh is essentially “preventative medicine” for society and for himself.

This understanding of the underlying reasons for the laws of ben sorer u’moreh notwithstanding, according to the traditions of the Sages the rules and regulations associated with ben sorer u’moreh are to be understood in such a limited manner that they cannot be practically applied, or will apply only in very unusual circumstances. Nevertheless, examination of these laws is important, both for themselves and in order to understand related issues. We can learn how to relate to laws that have no applicable function in Jewish law and we can also understand the place of punishments whose purpose is not to punish a person for the act that he did but for the greater benefit of society.

Sanhedrin 69a-b

When faced with a question about a capital crime, do we follow rov – the majority – or not? This question is debated in our Gemara, where Ravina believes that it is obvious that we follow rov – after all, if witnesses differ in their description of an incident by a single day on the calendar, we accept their testimony, following the dictum that most people are not aware of the exact day that the new moon was declared. Rav Huna the son of Rav Yehoshua disagrees, arguing that the biblical passages requiring the Jewish court to do its utmost to find the accused innocent (see Bamidbar 35:24-25) prove that we will not follow the rov in such cases.

Rabbi Yirmiya of Difti tries to support Ravina’s ruling by quoting a baraita that teaches that a girl who gets married years before reaching physical maturity will be considered married for all purposes. We assume this to be true, even though a minority of girls will be found to be in the category of aylonit whose maturity will be delayed, and whose marriage may be annulled. Ultimately the Gemara suggests that the baraita may only be referring to cases where the husband clearly accepts this woman as his wife, even if she is an aylonit.

From the detailed discussions in the Gemara – mainly in Masechet Yevamot – it appears that an aylonit suffers from a genetic defect that does not allow her to have children.  This is a different categorization than an akarah – a barren woman – whose physical and sexual development is ordinarily normal, but cannot have children because of some other deficiency or impediment. From those descriptions it appears that an aylonit can be recognized by certain unique physical traits, including a lack of secondary sex characteristics, like pubic hairs. Furthermore, it appears from the Gemara that there are different types of aylonit, ranging from women who have an overabundance of male hormones to those who suffer from Turner syndrome, where only one X chromosome is present and fully functioning. Approximately 98% of all fetuses with Turner syndrome spontaneously abort; the incidence of Turner syndrome in live female births is believed to be about 1 in 2500.

Within Jewish law there are many discussions about the status of an aylonit, mainly because of the lack of secondary female sex characteristics and because they develop at a relatively advanced age. Thus we find questions about when an aylonit is considered to have reached the age of adulthood, which halakhah ordinarily defines as physical maturity.

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.