The Great Sanhedrin as a National Body

According to the Torah they shall teach you and the judgment they shall tell you, you shall act. You shall not deviate from the thing that they tell you to the right or left. (Devarim 17:11)

1. The Great Sanhedrin as the guardian of the law
In Parshat Shoftim, the Torah legislates a system of courts for the Land of Israel. These courts extend to all the cities and decide all issues of law. The highest court of the land is the Great Sanhedrin. This court is composed of seventy-one judges who are the greatest Sages of the nation and is housed in a chamber adjacent to the Bait HaMikdash – the Holy Temple. What is the role of this highest court? Our passage deals with this issue. The pasuk explains that the Great Sanhedrin interprets the Torah. This court decides the meaning of the passages of the Torah and halachah derived from these passages. The Great Sanhedrin has additional responsibilities. It enacts decrees. It establishes customs.[1] In short, the Great Sanhedrin combines two related roles. It interprets the Torah and legislates new laws and customs. The court is primarily involved in the development of law. The court does not resolve legal disputes between parties, or judge a person accused of violating the Torah. Only if such a case involves some novel legal issue, might it be brought before the Great Sanhedrin.

2. The Great Sanhedrin alone may judge an Ir HaNidachat
In our parasha, there is an exception to this description of the Great Sanhedrin’s role. In order to understand this exception, we must return to last week’s parasha. Last week’s parasha – Parshat Re’eh – describes the law of the Ir HaNidachat. An Ir HaNidachat is a city in the Land of Israel whose inhabitants have adopted idolatry. If a city is judged to be an Ir HaNidachat, its residents are executed and it is entirely destroyed. Our parasha teaches that only the Great Sanhedrin can judge a city suspected as an Ir HaNidachat.

This restriction is not explicitly stated in the parasha. Instead, it is communicated through implication. The implication occurs in the parasha’s description of the execution of sekilah – stoning. In its description, the Torah explains that the court that resides at the gate of the city presides over the execution. With this statement, the Torah authorizes the court of the city to execute an individual sinner. However, the passage does not assign to the local court authority to preside over the execution of an entire community of sinners or criminals. Because the pasuk focuses exclusively on the authority of the local court to execute an individual, it implies that the authority of a local court is limited to the execution of individuals. This court may not judge or execute the punishment of an entire city. This responsibility resides with the Great Sanhedrin alone. Only the highest court can judge and punish an Ir HaNidachat.[2]

Although our parasha provides a source for the Great Sanhedrin’s role in judging an Ir HaNidachat, it provides no reason for this law. As a result, the Torah’s description of the role ascribed to the Great Sanhedrin is enigmatic. Primarily, the court deals with defining and enacting the law; it does not judge specific cases. However, there is an odd exception. In the case of an Ir HaNidachat, the court actually involves itself in judging a specific case. How can the court’s involvement with the Ir HaNidachat be reconciled with the court’s predominant role as a body that defines and enacts laws?

3. The Great Sanhedrin focuses on national issues
In order to answer this question, we must better understand the role of the Great Sanhedrin. It seems that this court is essentially responsible for areas that relate to the entire nation. It decides issues of national significance. The Great Sanhedrin interprets the Torah and creates laws and establishes customs. All of these functions are consistent with the court’s mandate to provide national leadership. The entire nation is responsible to observe the Torah and the laws and customs established by this court. These activities are of national significance. In contrast, individual disputes are not of national significance. If Reuven accuses Shimon of stealing from him, the Great Sanhedrin does not judge the case. The nation – as a whole – will not be affected by the outcome of the case. Therefore, the Great Sanhedrin does not judge individual legal disputes.

However, it is conceivable that a specific case can be relevant to the entire nation. Should such a case arise, it is fitting that the Great Sanhedrin judges it. The Ir HaNidachat is such a case. This case is relevant to the entire nation. In the instance of an Ir HaNidachat, a city is judged. If the inhabitants are found guilty, the entire city will be destroyed. The city is an element of the Land of Israel. In other words, a portion of the Land of Israel will be destroyed. The Land belongs to the entire nation. Therefore, this loss is relevant to the entire nation. Only the Great Sanhedrin – that represents the entire nation – can judge this case.

Determining the Authenticity of a Prophet

If the prophet says, in the name of Hashem, and the thing does not occur, then Hashem did not say it. The prophet has said it acting in evil. Do not fear from him. (Devarim 18:22)

1. The prophet proves his authenticity through the accuracy of his predictions
Maimonides explains that in order for a prophet to establish his or her authenticity, it is not required that any wonder be performed or that natural law be altered. Instead, it is sufficient for the claimant to demonstrate prophecy through accurately predicting the future. If the prophet is completely accurate in these predictions, his or her legitimacy is proven. However, if any of the claimant’s predictions do not occur, we know that he or she is an impostor.

This requirement only applies to positive or neutral predictions. Any and every prediction that the prophet pronounces of positive or harmless future events must come to be. If in even a single instance he is inaccurate, he is deemed to be an impostor.[3] However, predictions regarding calamity or misfortune do not serve as a basis for evaluating the claimant. If one of these negative predictions proves inaccurate, the claimant is not rejected as a false prophet. Maimonides explains the reason for this tolerance of inaccuracy. It is always possible for Hashem to forgive or forbear. Therefore, if the predicted misfortune does not occur, the credibility of the prophet is not impeached. However, any prediction that does not involve misfortune, must occur. Even a single, unfulfilled prediction disqualifies the claimant.[4]

This seems to be strange. Reduced to its essence, Maimonides’ position is that a negative prediction may be accurate – in real time – but not come to fruition because circumstances change and the foretold calamity is no longer appropriate. It seems the same reasoning should apply to positive predictions. Perhaps, the claimant making the prediction of blessing was completely accurate in real time, but the events predicted did not occur because the recipient of the predicted blessing acted poorly and forfeited his claim to this blessing. In other words, an inaccurate negative prediction does not undermine the credibility of the claimant. The inaccuracy can be attributed to a change in circumstances that altered the destiny of the recipient. Why cannot the same argument be made regarding positive prediction? Perhaps, its inaccuracy is not indicative of the fraud, but instead, is a result of a change in circumstances that altered the blessing recipient’s destiny.

2. Fulfillment of prophecies of blessing is not impacted by the spiritual demise of the recipient
Implicit in Maimonides’ reasoning is that, in the case of a positive prediction, the demise of the beneficiary to the extent that he no longer deserves the reward is not relevant to whether the blessing will be granted. In other words, even if the recipient compromises himself in some manner, Hashem will, nonetheless, fulfill the prophecy. A negative prediction – a prophecy of doom – is predicated upon the wickedness of the individual to be punished. If he repents or if some other reason for forbearance emerges, the prophesized punishment may be canceled or postponed. In contrast, a blessing once predicted, must be bestowed. The demise of the recipient does not cancel the prophesized blessing. Why are prophecies of punishment contingent in nature but not prophecies of blessing?

3. The Torah creates a basis for the authentication of prophets
Perhaps, Maimonides maintains that this distinction is essential in order to provide an absolute basis upon which the claimant of prophecy can be tested. If there is to be a means of testing the authenticity of the claimant of prophecy, some area must be demarcated in which there can be an expectation of perfect accuracy. The area demarcated or designated is positive prophecies. With this demarcation, a basis is created to the testing of any claimant to prophecy. Through the Torah’s selection of positive prophecies as the area designated for the testing of the claimant, it assures that the repentant individual is not condemned because of a past prophecy of misfortune that is no longer deserved. Yet, an absolute test exists of the claimant’s authenticity through those predictions that do not involve misfortune.

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Mamrim 1:1.
[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 4:3.
[3] There are instances in the Torah in which prophets demonstrated doubt regarding whether prophesized blessings would be bestowed. Avraham demonstrated uncertainty regarding the promise of a child from Sara. Yaakov, at various times, also expressed doubt. However, these instances are not relevant to Maimonides’ discussion. Maimonides is discussing the means through which a prophet to the nation proves his authenticity. The prophecies received by Avraham and Yaakov of future blessings were not messages communicated to them for transmission to a community. Therefore, the standard of absolute accuracy described by Maimonides does not apply to these personal prophecies.
[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Introduction.

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