|Index of Scriptural References|
|Transliteration of Hebrew Letters|
[page xi] The word Sanhedrin in the tractate which bears its name has a specialised meaning somewhat remote from that of its Greek original ([G]). It designates the higher courts of law which in the latter part of the period of the Second Temple administered justice in Palestine according to the Mosaic law in the more serious criminal, and especially capital cases. The main subject of our tractate is the composition, powers, and functions of these courts. Incidentally, as is only natural, it deals in some detail with the conduct of criminal cases; and in this way it forms, along with Makkoth, the chief repository of the criminal law of the Talmud.
When the Mishnah was compiled, towards the end of the second century CE., the Sanhedrin was already a thing of the more or less distant past. As an institution it does not seem to have survived the destruction of the Second Temple; it may even have been falling into decay for some time before that event. Consequently, the information about it given in the Talmud, in this and other tractates, has neither the fulness nor the precision that we could desire. Both Josephus and the New Testament contain references to what is called the "Synhedrion" of the Jewish people, which it is not easy to reconcile with what we are told about any of the Sanhedrin mentioned in the Talmud.
From this tractate itself we learn that there were two kinds of Sanhedrin — the Great Sanhedrin, with 71 members, and the Lesser, with 23. Both, according to tradition, were instituted by Moses, but the first date at which a Sanhedrin is mentioned as actually functioning is 57 B.C.E. In the Talmud the Sanhedrin is almost always spoken of as a purely judicial institution, and the name seems in fact to be interchangeable with Beth Din Haggadol…the great Court of Justice. The Great Sanhedrin met in the Lishkath Hagazith [Chamber of Hewn Stone] in the Temple at Jerusalem; the Lesser Sanhedrin [there seem to have been several of them] met both in Jerusalem and at other places. The Lesser Sanhedrin was also competent to try capital cases, but the Great Sanhedrin was the
[page xii] supreme Court of Appeal on all disputed points of law or religious practice. By whom members of the Sanhedrin were appointed is not clear from the Talmud. Naturally they were chosen primarily on account of their learning, but it seems that priests had a prior claim, other things being equal. In the period of the Hasmoneans. Sadducean or Pharisaic elements seem to have predominated in the Great Sanhedrin according to the disposition of the ruling prince.
According to the Talmud, the two most distinguished members of the Great Sanhedrin were known as Nasi [Prince] and Ab-beth-din [Father of the Beth din], while there was a third known as Mufla [distinguished]. The last named may have been a kind of expert adviser; the other two titles seem to have been purely honorary, and not to have denoted any official position. Certain it is that in Josephus and the New Testament it is the High Priest who is spoken of as the President of the Synhedrion, and this in itself seems inherently probable. Josephus and the New Testament also picture the Synhedrion as an institution of some political importance; whether this institution was identical with the Great Sanhedrin of the Talmud it is difficult to say.1
In the eyes of Christian students, Sanhedrin has always occupied a favoured place among the tractates of the Talmud on account of the light which it is capable of throwing on the trial of Jesus of Nazareth. It is not without significance that when Reuchlin. the Christian champion of Jewish learning, searched Europe to find a copy of the Talmud, the only Treatise he could find was Sanhedrin. For the Jewish student also, in spite of the fact that its main theme was already at the time of its compilation one of academic interest only, it possesses a peculiar fascination, partly on account of the fundamental importance of the legal principles with which it deals, partly on account of the wide range of its digressions and the exceptionally high quality of its aggadic material. In particular in view of their influence on the teaching of Maimonides, may be mentioned its famous statement on the limits of monarchic power, [page xiii] with the consequent disputation on the reasons for the Mosaic laws, and the celebrated eleventh chapter. which is the locus classicus for the problem of Dogma.
CHAPTER I. This chapter deals with the composition of Courts enumerating the cases, civil, criminal, religious or political, which are brought before either a court of three, a minor, or a major Sanhedrin. The Biblical sources for the number of judges in each of these courts are then quoted, leading to an interesting discussion on the question whether Mikra or Massora is the determinant in Biblical exegesis. The status of the specially authorised judge [Mumhe] is defined, as well as that of the Palestinian and Babylonian authorisations. The attitude of the judge towards the litigants, as well as the merit, or otherwise, of settlement by compromise, is elaborately dealt with, these discussions being intermingled with many moral maxims, indicating among other things the serious consequences of appointing incompetent judges. A considerable part of this chapter is devoted to the procedure and conditions governing intercalation, which became the basis for the compilation of our calendar, and in this connection many incidents of interest are cited. The chapter concludes with references to the Urim and Tummim and David's council of war, and specifies the qualifications required from members of the Sanhedrin, and from a city to be eligible for a seat of the Sanhedrin.
CHAPTER II. The privileges of the High Priest and King. in judicial courts and elsewhere, are here discussed. The aggadic portion covers such subjects as the original script and language of the Torah. the deciphering of the 'writing on the wall,' and the non revelation of reasons for the Biblical commands, and contains touching homilies on the sanctity of a first marriage and the evils of divorce.
CHAPTER III discusses the rights of the parties to a suit to choose or reject judges in courts of arbitration, as well as the rejection of witnesses. The discussions are interwoven with aggadic passages regarding Babylonian and Palestinian scholars, Included are also rulings on omissions in the drafting of documents. The grounds on which judges or witnesses are disqualified are given [page xiv] in extenso, and these are followed by the rules governing procedure and the admonition of witnesses, and laws as to when and how evidence can be upset and the manner in which the verdict is announced. The chapter concludes with the general procedure in the event of a dispute arising between the litigants regarding the place of trial.
CHAPTER IV begins with differentiating between the procedures in civil and capital cases. The legal principle of the judges' liability to compensation or revocation of judgment in cases of error is discussed in detail, and the position in which the Sanhedrin, their secretaries, and supplementary members were seated, is described. The aggadic portion of this chapter contains some beautiful stories, historic and folkloristic, as in connection with the creation of man, and disputations with heretics.
CHAPTER V gives the rules for the cross-examination of witnesses, and refers also to the cases which render them subject to the law of retaliation. The procedure in cases of discrepancies or contradictions in the evidence is also discussed. This chapter also deals with the mode of procedure on the part of the judges at the voting and at the promulgation of the sentence.
CHAPTER VI describes how the condemned man was led to the place of execution, and how a last opportunity was offered to him by the court for the revocation of the sentence. Such details as the announcement of the execution by a herald, confession of sins before the execution and the benumbing of the criminal's senses before execution are vividly portrayed. Hanging as a posthumous addition and the different procedure in the case of women criminals, to lessen shame, are also discussed. The burial of the condemned in special cemeteries and the resignation of their relatives to the verdict are referred to, leading to an extensive discussion on the practice of burial as a whole. The chapter concludes by raising the interesting point to what extent one may act in self-defence.
CHAPTER VII deals with the four modes of execution practised in ancient Israel — stoning, burning, decapitation and strangulation — and proceeds to describe the methods of the last three, stoning having already been dealt with in the previous chapter. In the [page xv] discussion on decapitation, the important principle is laid down that a practice derived from the Torah is not to be rejected merely because it is similar to non-Jewish practice.
The Noachian precepts form also one of the main subjects of discussion in this chapter.
CHAPTER VIII treats of the stubborn and rebellious son, and lays down the age limits within which the term 'son' is applicable and the conditions that must be fulfilled before he incurs the supreme penalty. By a natural transition the right to kill a housebreaker in self-defence is discussed, and this leads to a list of those who may be killed to prevent them from sinning, followed by a discussion on the sins which may not be committed even under threat of death.
The Aggada treats of the age at which childbirth was possible in ancient days, the insidious dangers of wine, and the nature of the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden.
CHAPTER IX continues with the four modes of execution, and burning is stated to be the penalty of certain forms of incest. Those who are decapitated follow, viz., a murderer and the inhabitants of a condemned city. Noteworthy are the statements that a person who was twice flagellated and a murderer whose guilt, though adequately proved, was not attested with all the minutiae of the law, were irregularly put to death. This leads to the enumeration of other offences likewise punished irregularly. The Aggada deals at some length with the sinning of Israel at Baal Peor and Phineas's revenge.
CHAPTER X deals with the last of the four deaths, viz., strangulation, and the crimes for which it is imposed. The rebellious elder we are told, was put to death only for giving a practical ruling [as opposed to stating a mere theoretical view] in conflict with th accepted Rabbinical interpretation of a Biblical Law, but not if he denied the Biblical law itself. An interesting Baraitha relates how halachic disputes arose when the two schools of Shatnmai and Hills sprang up, consisting largely of immature disciples. The Aggad treats of the false prophesying of Zedekiah the son of Chenaanal and also contains a fanciful elaboration of the Biblical narrative Isaac's sacrifice. [page xvi]
CHAPTER Xl consists almost entirely of Aggada. Commencing with the principle that all Israel have a portion in the world come, the Mishnah proceeds to enumerate those who forfeit it. Of the interesting portions of the Aggada may be mentioned the stories of Gebiha b. Passisa, the conversations between Rabbi and Antoninus on sin and other subjects, the praise of knowledge and study, the stories of Bar Coziba, Sennacherib's siege of Jerusalem and Nebuchadnezzar's siege and conquest of Jerusalem, the picture of the times preceding the coming of the Messiah, and the discussion whether Israel's redemption through the Messiah depends on repentance.
Rabbi J. Shachter wishes to record his indebtedness to Professor J. Ernest Davey. MA.. D.D.. of Belfast, who spent much of his valuable time in reading the manuscript and proofs and by whose suggestions this work has greatly benefited. His thanks are also due to his son Chaim for his technical assistance in preparing work for the press.
The Indices of this Tractate have been compiled by Judah J. Slotki, M.A.
PREFATORY NOTE BY THE EDITOR
The Editor desires to state that the translation of the several Tractates, and the notes thereon, are the work of the individual contributors and that he has not attempted to secure general uniformity in style or mode of rendering. He has, nevertheless, revised and supplemented, at his own discretion, their interpretation and elucidation of the original text, and has himself added the notes in square brackets containing alternative explanations and matter of historical and geographical interest.