Masechet Sanhedrin 91a-97b

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Olam Haba
12 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 91a-b

The Gemara on today’s daf tells of a Second Temple celebration that took place on the 24th of Nissan, after the people of Afrikiya challenged the Jewish people before Alexander Mokdon, claiming the land of Israel as their own. These people – apparently descendants of the Canaanites who had moved to Africa – argued that the Torah itself testified that the land belonged to the Canaanites (Bamidbar 34:2). In response, the Sages agreed that Geviha ben Pesisa would represent them and he argued that if their proof was from the Torah, then they must accept the Torah’s decree that Canaan would forever be a slave to his brothers (Bereshit 9:25), and that whatever a slave possessed truly belongs to his masters. In recognition of this victory, a minor holiday was established, as recorded in Megillat Ta’anit.

Megillat Ta’anit is a little known collection of statements about minor holidays and fasts that commemorate events which took place during the Second Temple period. On the minor holidays, fasting and eulogies were forbidden. Most of the events that are commemorated are from the period of the Hasmonean monarchy – a prime example being the story of Hanukkah – although there are also events from earlier and later periods included, as well.

This work is set up chronologically, and it includes the date and a brief account of the incident written in Aramaic, followed by a fuller description of the event in Hebrew.

It appears that this work is the oldest example of the Oral Torah being committed to writing; the Sages of the Mishnah do not only discuss the rulings that appear in it, but also the language that was used. (Although it is not part of the standard texts of Talmud, the Steinsaltz Talmud includes it as an addendum to the volume that contains Masechet Ta’anit).

The halacha is that Megillat Ta’anit no longer applies, except for the holidays of Chanukah and Purim (see Masechet Rosh Hashanah 18b-19a).

Sanhedrin 92a-b

One of the most powerful prophetic images – one that served as an inspiration to Rabbis and preachers through the ages to the time of the early Zionist movement – appears in Sefer Yechezkel (chapter 37). There we find that God takes the prophet Yechezkel to a valley of dry bones and commands him prophesy to those dry bones, informing them that God would breathe life into them and they would live.

Did this prophetic vision actually take place? And if it did, what happened to those resurrected people?
These questions are discussed by the Sages on today’s daf of Gemara.

In the context of searching for a source for the idea of resurrection, the Gemara asks why the resurrected dry bones of Yechezkel could not be used as a source. The Gemara explains that this follows the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda who taught that the story of the dead bones was truly a mashal – an allegory, a prophetic vision experienced by Yechezkel – but it did not actually take place.

Not all of the Sages agree, however. Rabbi Eliezer taught that the dead stood as living beings for a short time, sang a song of praise to God – according to Rabbi Yehoshua their song consisted of the passage “God kills and brings to life, He  brings down to the grave and brings up” (I Shmuel 2:6) – and then returned to the dead. Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yossi HaGlili taught that the resurrected people moved to Israel, married and raised families. In support of this position, Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira stood up and identified himself as a descendant of one of those people and showed the Tefillin that he had received from his father from them.

Several positions are offered in the Gemara identifying who these people were before they were resurrected. Rav, for example, suggests that they were from the tribe of Ephraim. According to the midrash quoted by Rashi, the tribe of Ephraim miscalculated the time that they were to be enslaved in Egypt and they planned their own exodus, but were slaughtered in the land of the Plishtim on their way to Israel, which is why the Torah instructs the Children of Israel to avoid that road when they leave Egypt (see Shemot 13:17).

Sanhedrin 93a-b

The Gemara on today’s daf relates that Bar Kuziba ruled for two-and-a-half years and then approached the Sages declaring himself to be the Messiah. The Sages replied that the Messiah was expected to be able to judge based on smell (see Yeshayahu 11:1-3), i.e. that he would have a unique sense of truth and justice. Finding that he was unable to do so, the Sages rejected his claim and he was killed.

According to the simple reading of the Gemara it sounds as if the Sages themselves killed Bar Kuziba, in contrast with the story that appears in various midrashim (Eicha and others) that report that he was killed by the Roman enemy. The Ra’avad accepts the simple version of our Gemara, but the Rambam rejects it entirely – either because he relies on the other midrashim or, if he accepts our Gemara, views the actions of the Sages as badly mistaken. Thus, the Rambam presents Bar Kuziba as the model of what we look for in the Messiah. Some suggest that the Rambam may interpret our Gemara differently, understanding that the Sages rejected him as the Messiah, and without their support he was ultimately killed by the enemy.

The individual who is known to the Gemara as Bar Kuziba is the same person who is known to us – as he was called by Rabbi Akiva – as Bar Kochba. In letters written by him that have been unearthed in archaeological excavations, we find that he signed his name Shimon bar Kusba. Apparently, the other names that he had “played off” of his actual name. His supporters called him Bar Kochba – “the son of the star” – basing themselves on the passage recited by the prophet, Balaam (Bamidbar 24:17), darach kochav mi-Yaakov. Those who opposed his revolt – especially after it failed – called him Bar Kuziba – “the son of falsehood.”

Sanhedrin 94a-b

Among the descendants of King David who ruled during the First Temple period there were those who were praised for following in his path and those who were condemned for not doing so. King Hizkiyahu was one of the righteous kings, and, according to the Gemara on our daf, God was planning to anoint him as the Messiah.

Rabbi Tanhum quotes a homily taught by Bar Kappara in the city of Tzippori: The letter mem in the word le-marbeh (see Yeshayahu 9:6) – in a passage that refers to the dynasty of King David and the Messiah – is written in an unusual way. While all such letters are open at the bottom, this one is closed. The explanation offered is that God wanted to anoint King Chizkiyahu as Messiah and his attacker, Sanheriv as Gog U’Magog – turning their war into the war of the End of Days – but was kept from doing so.

There are a number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet that appear in two forms – an ordinary letter and the letter as it appears at the end of a word. The letter mem appears as a closed square at the end of a word and with an open space in the middle of a word. The Ramah explains that had the mem appeared as it ordinarily does in this passage it would have hinted to the word Moshiach – “the Messiah” – but in its closed fashion it indicates that Chizkiyahu would not merit that honor.

The Gemara explains that God chose not to anoint Chizkiyahu to be Moshiach because He accepted the argument put forward by midat ha-din – the heavenly attribute of justice – that Chizkiyahu did not deserve the honor since he did not respond to the miraculous victory over Sancheirev appropriately by singing praises to God – something that King David did on a regular basis without becoming the Messiah. Why might Chizkiyahu have neglected to respond to the victory with song? In his Tzafnat Pane’ach, Rav Yosef Razin suggests that with the Ten Tribes already exiled, King Chizkiyahu felt that a full song of thanksgiving would be inappropriate, since the miracle had not benefitted the entire Jewish People, but only a single tribe.

Sanhedrin 95a-b

On yesterday’s daf we learned that God had intended to make the war between Sancheirev and Chizkiyahu into Milchemet Gog U’Magog – the war of the End of Days – and chose not to do so because of King Chizkiyahu’s failure to recognize God’s role in the miraculous victory with a song of praise and thanksgiving. The Gemara on today’s daf offers further Rabbinic traditions regarding the war with Sancheirev.

Rav Yehudah quoted Rav as teaching: The wicked Sancheirev advanced against them with a force consisting of forty-five thousand princes, each enthroned in a golden chariot and accompanied by his ladies and harlots, eighty thousand warriors in coat-of-mail, and sixty thousand swordsmen of the front line, the rest cavalrymen. A similar host attacked Abraham (see Bereshit ch. 14) and a similar force will accompany Gog and Magog. A baraita taught: The length of his army was four hundred parsangs, the horses standing neck to neck formed a line forty parsangs long, and the grand total of his army two million, six hundred thousand less one. Abayye asked whether the intent of “less one” was less one ribbo [ten thousand], one thousand, one hundred, or one? The Gemara does not reach a conclusion regarding this question.

Abayye’s question appears to be without meaning, for what difference does it make how many soldiers were in Sancheirev’s army when he attacked Jerusalem? In his Melo ha-Ro’im, Rav Yaakov Tzvi Yalish suggests that it is important so that if someone vows to give an amount of money to charity that is equivalent to the number of soldier’s in Sancheirev’s army he will know how much he owes. The Chida wrote similarly, that if such an expression appears in a contract of legal document, we will know what it means.

Rav’s tradition had Sancheirev’s army “eighty thousand warriors in coat-of-mail.” The coat-of-mail consisted of metal scales that were sewn together so that they would protect the soldier while giving him some level of movement and flexibility.

Sanhedrin 96a-b

Our Gemara describes the attack of the Babylonian general Nebuzaradan on Jerusalem at the time of the destruction of the first Temple.
Rava said: Nebuchadnezzar sent Nebuzaradan three hundred mules laden with iron axes that could break iron, but they were all shattered on a single gate of Jerusalem. Although Nebuzaradan was ready to retreat, he feared that he would be killed as was Sanheriv before him. At that time, a heavenly voice called out to him that the time has come for the Sanctuary to be destroyed and the Temple burnt. He had but one axe left, so he went and smote the gate and it opened.  Killing Jews as he went, he reached the Temple, which he set afire. He was elated with his triumph, but again a heavenly voice came down saying to him, ‘You have killed a dead people, you have burned a Temple already burned, you have ground flour already ground.’

Entering the Temple precincts, he saw the blood of the navi Zechariah seething. He demanded of the kohanim to be told what this was and they answered ‘It is the blood of sacrifices, which has been spilled.’ He instructed them to bring some animal blood so that he could compare them. He insisted that they tell him the secret, threatening to flay their skin with iron combs. Finally the kohanim told him that this was the blood of a priest and a prophet, who foretold the destruction of Jerusalem to the Israelites, and they killed him.
Intent on “appeasing” his blood, Nebuzaradan brought the scholars and slew them over him, yet it did not cease to boil. He brought schoolchildren and slew them over him, still it did not rest; he brought the young kohanim and slew them over him, and still it did not rest, until he had slain ninety four thousand, and still it did not rest. Whereupon he approached him and cried out, ‘Zechariah, Zechariah, I have destroyed the flower of them, do you want me to massacre them all?’ At that time the blood rested. At that time Nebuzaradan decided to repent saying ‘if they, who killed one person only, have been so severely punished, what will be my fate?’ So he fled, and converted.
In conclusion the Gemara shares a tradition that Nebuzaradan was a righteous convert.

The threat to flay their skin with iron combs would have been carried out with a harpago, a metal comb that was used as an instrument of torture into the Roman period.

Sanhedrin 97a-b

It is a well-known adage that there are lamed-vav tzadikim – thirty six righteous individuals – in whose merit the world continues to exist. What is the source for this idea?

On today’s daf Abayye teaches that there are thirty-six righteous individuals in every generation who merit to receive the presence of God. His source is the passage in Sefer Yeshayahu (30:18) where it says ashrei kol chochei lo – that those who wait for Him are happy. The word lo – for him – is written with the letters lamed-vav and has a numeric value in Gematria of 36.

The Gemara challenges this teaching, saying that there are clearly many more than 36, for based on a passage in Sefer Yechezkel(48:35) Rava taught that the line of righteous people waiting before God is 18,000 parsangs long. The Gemara answers that not everyone will merit the same vision of God. The smaller number refers to people who will see God be-aspaklaria ha-me’irah – by means of a bright mirror (i.e. they perceive him clearly) while the rest will only see him be-aspaklaria she-einah me’irah – by means of a dim mirror.

Even this explanation does not suffice for the Gemara, which quotes Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai who laments that he has seen the bnei aliyah – those righteous individuals who merit the highest levels of relationship with God – and there are few of them. According to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s statement it is possible that there are only one thousand, or, perhaps, one hundred or even just two – his son and himself. The Gemara concludes that there are few that can enter God’s presence without permission, but that there are more who are deserving of this closeness with God, albeit only with permission.

Some explain that the number thirty-six has other significance, as well. Given that the members of the Sanhedrin number seventy individuals, this number of righteous individuals makes up a majority of the Sanhedrin, or, alternatively, half of the Sanhedrin with the addition of the High Priest. At least half of the Sanhedrin must always be in the world in order to guarantee its continued 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.