Masechet Sanhedrin 84a-90b

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Beit Din
06 May 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 84a-b

The tenth perek of Masechet SanhedrinElu hem ha-nechnakim – begins on today’s daf (=page). According to many rishonim the tenth chapter of this masechet is Perek Chelek, as it appears in standard mishnayot and in the Talmud Yerushalmi (in our Gemara, Perek Chelek appears as the eleventh chapter). Among the reasons given for this is that Perek Elu hem ha-nechnakim concludes with topics that lead into Masechet Makkot, which, according to many, is the concluding part of Masechet Sanhedrin. The order of the perakim that we have is likely based on the desire to place Perek Chelek — which includes discussions of basic questions of belief, resurrection of the dead and the World to Come — at the very end of Masechet Sanhedrin. Thus, after the Gemara has taught the different punishments that are meted out to sinners, the tractate concludes with teachings that will help clarify which of those sinners will still merit these ultimate rewards, and who will not.

Perek Elu hem ha-nechnakim discusses the different cases where someone receiving capital punishment will be killed by choking. Two cases that appear in the list in the first Mishnah in the perek are discussed at some length due to their importance: zaken mamrei – an elder Sage who rebels against the decision of the Sanhedrin – and navi sheker – a false prophet.

Both of these situations demand careful definitions of what constitutes an act that would lead to the death penalty, since these activities may weaken the essence of the laws of the Torah, even as both of these individuals are operating based on the system of Jewish law. In the case of the Sage who deviates from the agreed upon decision of the Sanhedrin, we must recognize that every Sage is expected to study the Torah and reach his own conclusions and that we expect there to be disagreements regarding the law. The prophet operates in a setting where the Jewish people are obligated to listen to him, even in situations where he calls for an abrogation of the accepted laws of the Torah.

Sanhedrin 85a-b

Among the transgressions for which a person may be liable to receive chenek – the punishment of death by choking – is someone who hits his mother or his father (see Shemot 21:15) or curses them (see Shemot 21:17). According to the Mishnah on today’s daf such a punishment will only be given if the child actually injures one of his parents and not if he simply makes physical contact with them.

If the parent is to receive a punishment of lashes, can that punishment be carried out by the child? That is to say, if the child works for the bet din – the Jewish court – and as part of his job he fulfills the court’s rulings and gives malkot to people who are found guilty of actions that would bring upon them a penalty of lashes, could the child perform his job in the face of the prohibition against hitting one’s parents?

This question was presented to Rav Sheshet, and the Gemara tries to respond to it in a number of different ways. The Gemara’s conclusion is that a child would never be permitted to hit his father or his mother – even under instructions from bet din – except for the unique case of a meisit – someone who convinces others to commit idolatry. In the case of meisit the Torah clearly instructs the court that the meisit must be killed and that no mercy can be shown to him (see Devarim 13:9). This includes even one’s father, as is understood from the term o rei’achah asher ke-nefshechah (see verse 7) – that one’s friend who is likened to one’s own soul refers to his father.

The Geonim dealt with a case where there is a business dispute between a parent and a child. Can the child force his father to take an oath, which includes a curse of sorts? Here, too, the recommendation is that the child should pass his claim to a third party so that he is not forced into a situation of cursing his father.

Sanhedrin 86a-b

Who authored the different mishnaic sources that appear in the Gemara? This question plays an important role in the discussion that appears on today’s daf.

The Mishnah (85b) teaches that someone who kidnaps a person and sells him will be liable for the death penalty of chenek (choking), based on the passage in Sefer Devarim (24:7). What if the kidnapper sells the person to his father? The Gemara quotes a baraita – taken from the Midrash Halakhah of the Sifri on Sefer Devarim – that rules that even if the kidnapped person is sold to his father or his brother or another relative, still the kidnapper is liable to receive the death penalty.

When this baraita was presented before Rav Sheshet he objected to this ruling based on a teaching of Rabbi Shimon who understood the Torah‘s emphasis that the person was kidnapped me-ehav – from among his brothers – to mean that the death penalty would only be meted out if he is removed from his family, which is not the case if he is sold to his father or his brother. Based on Rabbi Shimon’s teaching the Gemara concludes that the baraita must be rewritten to state that if the kidnapper sold the victim to a member of his family, the kidnapper will no longer be liable to receive capital punishment.

In response to this conclusion, the question is raised that perhaps Rabbi Shimon and the author of the baraita disagree on this point. The Gemara explains that the baraita must have been authored by Rabbi Shimon, since Rabbi Yochanan taught that in general a teaching found in a Mishnah is Rabbi Meir, in a Tosefta is Rabbi Nechemiah, in a Sifra is Rabbi Yehuda and in a Sifri is Rabbi Shimon – and all of them follow the opinion of Rabbi Akiva.

Although the final editing of all of these sources was not done by the people mentioned by name — for example, we know that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was the editor of the Mishnah — nevertheless, the final editor chose the version of each of these works that was authored by these people rather than other available versions of the oral traditions.

Sanhedrin 87a-b

When we talk about moving to Israel, the expression that we use is aliyah – moving up. Where does this concept come from?

The source for the halacha of zaken mamrei – an elder Sage who rebels against the decision of the Sanhedrin – appears in Sefer Devarim (17:8-13), where the Torah teaches that the individual who purposefully rejects the teaching of the High Priest or the judge will be killed. According to the Mishnah (86b) the Sage is brought to the courts in Jerusalem where he presents his understanding of the law, which is then clarified by one of the three courts that sit in the area of the Temple. If they disagree with his interpretation and he returns to his community where he offers a practical ruling against that of the court in Jerusalem, he will be punished. If, however, he teaches his understanding as a theoretical matter, then he will not be held liable.

The Gemara quotes a baraita that describes how this process takes place, basing itself on the pesukim in Sefer Devarim that describe how a difficult legal question will need to be brought to the priests and the judges in the place chosen by God, i.e. to Jerusalem. The language that the Torah uses is ve-kamta ve-alita – that you should rise and move upwards – which the baraita understands to mean that you must go to the Temple in Jerusalem, which is the highest place in Israel, while Israel is the highest place in the world. The Gemara notes that while the Temple is clearly identified as the highest point in Israel based on the command ve-kamta, our view that Israel is the highest land is based on the passage in Sefer Yirmiyah (23:7) that describes the ultimate return of the Jewish people up to Israel at the end of days.

Tosafot note that there are clearly other places in Israel that are higher than the Temple in Jerusalem, and hint to the fact that the concept “higher” may not be a physical elevation, but a spiritual idea of aliyah. Still, given that the Earth is a sphere, it is possible to place Israel at the top of the globe simply by properly choosing where to place one’s reference point when looking at it.

Sanhedrin 88a-b

The Gemara continues its discussion of the halacha of a zaken mamrei – an elder Sage who rebels against the decision of the Sanhedrin. Under what circumstances will a zaken mamrei be liable to receive a death penalty for his rulings? According to the Mishnah on today’s daf (=page) the situation that would lead to death is very limited.

The Mishnah teaches that for the law of zaken mamrei, if the Sage teaches that people should reject a biblical law, he is not considered to be a zaken mamrei, since no one will take seriously a ruling that negates a law that is clearly written in the Torah. It is only if he rejects the rabbinic interpretation of a Torah law – what the Mishnah refers to as divrei soferim – that he will get that status. The example given by the Mishnah is the case of tefillin – phylacteries. If he teaches that tefillin should not be worn, he will not be considered a zaken mamrei, since that is a law that is clearly taught in the Torah in a number of places (see Shemot 13:9, 16; Devarim 6:8 and 11:18). If, however, he rejects the rabbinic understanding that there are four totafot – “frontlets” – containing four sections of the Torah, and he rules that there must be five, then he will be considered a zaken mamrei.

In the Gemara we find Rabbi Elazar quoting Rabbi Oshaya as teaching that the only case where someone can become a zaken mamrei is a situation where the source of the law is biblical and its details are interpreted by the Sages – divrei soferim – and that adding to their interpretation would ruin the mitzvah. Furthermore, the only case where such a situation is found is with regard to Tefillin. In response to the Gemara’s question that even if a fifth section was added, perhaps we should view it as an irrelevant addition and focus only on the four sections that make up the Tefillin, Rabbi Zeira‘s teaching is quoted: If the outer section of the Tefillin is covered and is not exposed to the air, then the Tefillin are pasul – they are disqualified.

Sanhedrin 89a-b

Another case of someone who will receive the death penalty of chenek – choking – is a navi sheker – a false prophet. According to the Mishna on today’s daf, someone who offers a prophecy that he did not hear, one that was not directed to him by God, will be charged and prosecuted by the courts. Other cases of prophecy – e.g., if a navi refuses to share his prophecy (like Yonah) or if someone makes light of a true prophecy, or if the navi does not keep the instructions that he receives as a prophecy – these situations are left for God to mete out punishment.

How can someone know whether a prophecy that is being told is true or not?

One example that is offered by the Gemara is the case of Tzidkiyahu ben Kena’anah. According to the story in the Navi, (see I Melakhim, or Kings, chapter 22 and  II Divrei HaYamim chapter 18 ) Achav, the king of Israel, the northern kingdom and Yehoshafat, the king of Judah, the southern kingdom were poised to join forces in a war against Aram, the northern power. King Yehoshafat suggested that before beginning the attack it would be appropriate to turn to hear the word of God. In response, King Achav called 400 prophets and put the question to them: ‘Shall I go against Ramot-Gilead to battle, or shall I forbear?’ And they said: ‘Go up; for the Lord will deliver it into the hand of the king.’

Hearing the words of the prophets, King Yehoshafat asked: ‘Is there not a prophet of the Lord, that we might inquire of him?’

Before Michayahu ben Yimlah could be brought before them, Tzidkiyahu ben Kena’anah stepped forward with horns of iron, and said: ‘Thus said the Lord: With these you will gore the Arameans, until they be consumed.’

The Gemara explains that King Yehoshafat recognized the falseness of the prophecies based on a principle set out by Rabbi Yitzhak, that although several prophets may receive and share the same prophecy, no two nevi’im will prophecy using precisely the same language. The Maharsha explains that Yehoshafat could not have known all of the nevi’im brought by Achav, so there must have been another reason that he knew that they were false prophets. The Aruch la-Ner adds that Tzidkiyahu ben Kena’anah must have been among the original 400 who spoke in unison, but upon hearing King Yehoshafat’s request for a true navi stepped forward to offer a different version of the false prophecy.

Sanhedrin 90a-b

Following the examination of the commandments that relate to capital crimes in Jewish law that appeared in the last several perakim of Masechet Sanhedrin, the Gemara has taught a broad framework of the mitzvot that are central to Judaism. Nevertheless, the focus of this framework has been on areas of halacha that involve actions and the subsequent intervention of bet din – the Jewish court system. To complete the picture of Jewish life and Jewish law, we must also examine the realm of belief, an area of basic core values that are central to the Torah. The last perek of Masechet Sanhedrin, which begins on today’s daf (=page), deals with these issues, presenting historical periods and personalities that illustrate these ideals.

The first Mishnah opens with the statement kol Yisrael yesh la-hem chelek ba-olam ha-ba – all Jewish people have a share in the World to Come. The underlying assumption in that statement is that within the framework of reward and punishment, every Jewish person is guaranteed an eternal spiritual existence whose ultimate purpose is embodied in the Resurrection of the Dead and the World to Come. This guarantee relates only to a person who works to remain within the framework of God and Torah. Even if he errs and commits sins, he does not lose this eternal existence, although someone who consciously chooses to remove himself from this structure will lose his share in the World to Come and will receive the ultimate punishment – a complete and total death, in which nothing is left of the soul and there is no possibility of resurrection or continued spiritual life.

As far as the terms themselves are concerned, the Rambam believes that olam ha-ba – the World to Come – is the world of the souls, where those deserving souls reside after they are separated from their physical bodies. In that spiritual realm the souls enjoy a deep understanding of – and relationship with – the Creator, together with eternal, spiritual pleasure. In contrast, the Ramban, Ramah and others understand that olam ha-ba refers to the world that will exist after the Resurrection of the Dead, when people will live physical lives, but that it will be a totally different type of existence.

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.