The Court System

Sanhedrin (1:1) | Yisrael Bankier | 12 years ago

With the beginning of masechet Sanhedrin we get an insight into the distributed and hierarchal court system that was used throughout Eretz Yisrael. The following is a brief description of this system with some examples of the cases dealt with in each of the courts. The small courts consisting of either amateur or expert judges, deal with financial or civil law respectively (1:1). For capital cases however a larger beit din of twenty-three judges was required (1:4) – also known as Sanhedri Katan. These batei dinim however were restricted to cities of a particular size, yet still distributed in every such city throughout the country (1:6). Finally a single Sanhedrin Ha’Gadol, a beit din of seventy-one (or seventy) judges was seated in Yerushalaim by the Beit Ha’Mikdash and dealt with “high profile” cases or cases having a national impact (1:5).

The Mishnah (1:5) also explains that one of the unique tasks of the Sanhedrin was to “establish sanhedrayot [i.e., batei dinim of twenty-three judges] for the tribes”. The Bartenura explains that just as Moshe, who took the place of the Sanhedrin Ha’Gadol, formed these batei dinim himself, such a task can only be performed by the Sanhedrin.

The Gemara cites the source for the requirement of these batei dinim (Devarim ):

Judges and offices shall you appoint in all your cities which Hashem your G-d gives you, for your tribes; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 16b) understands that “for all your tribes” expresses the need for judges for each of the “tribes” while “in all your cites” highlights the need for judges in each city.

What is this unique Sanhedrin for a “tribe”? Is this a new layer just below the Sanhedrin Ha’Gadol in the legal system?

The Meiri explains that there is no reference to a new beit din but rather the Mishnah teaches that any beit din of twenty-three must only be formed by the Sanhedrin Ha’Gadol. The reference to the sanhedrayot for the tribes must be understood loosely as referring to all batei dinim of twenty-three.

According to the Meiri how then do we understand the Gemara’s distinction between the judges for the tribes and the judges for the cities. Quite simply one could explain that there are two mitzvot. As the Meiri maintains, there is a mitzvah to have a Sanhedri Katan in every city that is large enough to have one, and for all other smaller cities, there is a mitzvah to have a beit din of three judges.

While the Tosfot agree that a tribal Sanhedrin still refers to a regular Sanhedri Katan, they however explain that having a Sanhedrin for each tribe has a practical ramification. They understand that if one large city contains two different tribes then two batei dinim of twenty-three must be established for each tribe. Rav Taragin explains that this is supported by the opinion of Rav Shimon ben Gamliel that maintains it is a mitzvah to consult a court comprised of judges from one’s own tribe.

The Ramban (Devarim ) provides the same answer as the Tosfot yet then suggests a different explanation. He explains that indeed each tribe had a special Sanhedri Katan. While it had the same number of judges as the other batei dinim of twenty-three in the tribe’s cities, it served a different function. It would act as a supreme court for the tribe, such that if a city’s Sanhedri had a doubt about a case, it would confer with its tribe’s Sanhedri. Another example is if there was a need for a tribe-wide gezeirah this Sanhedri would be responsible much like the Sanhedrin Ha’Gadol that instituted nation-wide enactments.17 Therefore, according to the Ramban, we have another layer within the legal system.

Therefore we have seen different understandings of how tribal association impacts on the legal system and structure. The Meiri maintains it has little impact. The Tosfot understand that it does not effect the structure yet each tribe would still rule on their own cases. Lastly the Ramban maintains it introduced another level to the legal structure.


17 The Ramban refers to a Mishnah in Horayot (5a) in support for his position. Also see the Ramban for more of this Sanhedri’s unique roles.

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