Last week we attempted to outline the nature of the powers of the Sanhedrin. In brief, we defined the Sanhedrin as being both the essence of the Oral Law and as being responsive to the people. This week we will attempt to discover how much each of these factors plays a role in defining the net power of the Sanhedrin.

Our study begins with the opening mishna of Horayot (2a) and a case cited in the ensuing gemara. The Mishna presents a situation where Sanhedrin has issued a ruling allowing the people to transgress one of the laws of the Torah. Later on, they retract their ruling and once again render the action forbidden. Three different possibilities are then discussed with regard to who has to bring the sin-offering (see last week’s Chabura for details).

The first case is that of an "ordinary" Jew who acts based on the ruling of the Sanhedrin. As he can not be held liable for committing what is ultimately a forbidden act, he is considered to be relying on the court, and thus counts towards the total number of people who acted based on this ruling, possibly leading to the bringing of a communal sin-offering by the Sanhedrin. The second case is a member of the Sanhedrin or a "student fit to teach" who knows that the ruling of the Sanhedrin is erroneous. Unlike the "ordinary" Jew, this person can not claim that he is relying on the ruling of the Sanhedrin, and thus he must bring his own sin-offering if he commits the act that the Sanhedrin permitted. In the words of the Talmud, his law is such because he "relied on himself."

The third case, found as one opinion in the gemara, is that of an "ordinary" Jew who commits the forbidden act without realizing that it had been permitted. The example given is that he intended to eat something that is undoubtedly permitted, but accidentally ate the food that was temporarily permitted yet eventually forbidden as per the Torah's law. This person also has to bring his own sacrifice, as he did not consciously rely on the ruling of the Sanhedrin.

We will focus first on the second case. Based on Deuteronomy 30:12 we learn that the Torah is "not in heaven," but rather is placed in the hands of the scholars/Sanhedrin in each generation to interpret and apply. Here we are now faced with the issue of just how far their control extends. If the ruling of the Sanhedrin is to be THE law, then it should make no difference as to what is the mindset of the person following it. Whether or not he knows that they are ultimately wrong, by definition they are correct at that moment. The fact that a person who "knows better" is held responsible for his own actions clues us in to the fact that there is a limit to the all-encompassing nature of the decisions of the Sanhedrin. While those decisions may determine the law of the land, there seems to be some higher "true" law that they can not change.

(This raises a further question. If the person in case two must adhere to what he knows to be true and not follow the ruling of the Sanhedrin, does he not have an obligation to inform others about what he knows and to thus prevent them from sinning? (See Leviticus 19:14 and 19:18 for issues involved) In fact, the opposite is true - were he to teach the correct law counter to that of the Sanhedrin he would become subject to judgment as a rebellious elder (see last week) and put to death. I will not deal directly with this issue here, although it may be useful to keep in mind.)

Let us shift focus now to case three. In this situation, the person commits an act that is permitted at the moment that he commits it, yet he also may not claim that he was relying on the ruling of the Sanhedrin as he was unaware or not consciously thinking about their ruling when he acted. If their ruling defines the absolute law of the land, then in theory he broke no law and should not be required to bring his own sacrifice. Yet we see that, in fact, he is held responsible for his own actions! Given this case, how powerful can the Sanhedrin be said to be? What is the role of the Sanhedrin? What is their authority and what is the authority of the divinely-given law that they are interpreting?

There is another area that reveals even more limitations of the powers of the Sanhedrin. There are times when the Sanhedrin issues a ruling that is inherently null and void. In discussing the nature of the teaching for which the Sanhedrin would have to bring a sin-offering, Horayot 3b states that if they teach a law that uproots the entire body of a commandment found in the Torah (e.g. teaching that there is no concept of Shabbat), they would not be held responsible to bring a sacrifice if any of the people were to consciously follow this ruling. On Horayot 4a, Rav Yehuda states in the name of Shmuel that the Sanhedrin is liable only when their teaching is about a matter that the Sadducees do not agree with. The Sadducees believed that only the Written Law was divine and binding. Thus, any ruling of the Sanhedrin concerning the Oral Law or a Rabbinic ordinance, were that ruling to be wrong and subsequently followed by a majority of the people, would obligate the Sanhedrin to bring the communal sin-offering. However, if their ruling was against a law specifically stated in the written Torah, then anyone who followed that ruling would be responsible for his own sin and his own sacrifice. Why is this so? Such ordinances are considered to be of the category that even schoolchildren know to be forbidden, and in such situations each person is responsible for his own actions, even in the face of a contrary ruling by the Sanhedrin.

Several important points emerge here. First, by defining an extent of ruling at which point the ruling becomes inherently null, the Talmud effectively claims that any ruling made within this boundary is a fully effective and binding ruling. As such, any error becomes the responsibility of the Sanhedrin. More importantly, this area of inquiry leads into the question of what defines binding and non-binding? It seems that the primary yardstick being used is the obviousness of the error. What is peculiar is the terms used by the Talmud. Do we really care about the Sadducees, or are they merely a catch phrase to describe something that is explicitly stated in the written Torah? If the latter is true, then why does the Talmud not simply write that the Sanhedrin's ruling contradicted an explicit verse? In the same vein, the phrase "go ask the schoolchildren about it" as a term that defines a law as obvious is also somewhat strange. Are these phrases to be viewed merely as Talmudic idioms, or do they perhaps reveal that, to a certain degree, the objectivity of the divine "higher law" is subject to human nature?

The relationship of the people to the courts was our focus last week, and, as such, we will merely review the main points at this juncture. The people play a dual role in the workings of the Sanhedrin. First, an erroneous ruling of the Sanhedrin does not obligate them to bring a sacrifice until a majority of the people have acted based on the ruling. Second, no ruling made by the Sanhedrin can ever render them responsible to bring this sacrifice unless that ruling was issued by a Sanhedrin operating at full strength, a notion that includes their being present in their office on the Temple Mount. It is only there that they represent both the Torah and all of Israel. Only when they are acting as the representatives of the people can they be held responsible for a faulty ruling, as they then fail in their role of being the "eyes" of the nation.

Taking a closer look at what exactly the role of the Sanhedrin is furthers this idea. The Torah system is a unique one in the pantheon of law systems. In addition to the written Bible, there is an accompanying Oral Law, and the two are held in equal esteem and given equal status in Jewish jurisprudence. The obvious question is why was there a need for such a dual system? Why could the two have not been written together as one legal corpus? Obviously, the separation of the two was an intentional act, designed to create a certain construction of Jewish legal society.

We dealt last week with the formulation of Rambam in Mamrim 1:1, where he describes the Sanhedrin as being the "essence" of the Oral Law. This phraseology opens a door for our investigation. If they are the essence of the unwritten law, then perhaps a look at some of the laws pertaining to them will, by extension, shed light on the nature of the Oral Law and the Sanhedrin's relationship to it.

The first element to be dealt with is that of "ha-makom goreim," the idea that the Sanhedrin only operates at full strength when they are in their office on the Temple Mount. Their being the embodiment of the law was contingent not only on their being a group of the top legal scholars of a given generation, but also on their being in a place, and specifically THE place which was closest to Hashem. This idea is borne out by Rav Yehuda HaLevi (Kuzari 3:39) who states with regard to the Sanhedrin that "without a doubt, the divine element stuck to them...all the days of the Second Temple," but that this element departed from them once the Temple was destroyed and they were exiled from their office (the Sanhedrin was actually exiled from its office a few years before the actual destruction of the Temple - see, for example, Tosafot, Avodah Zara 8b, s.v. "Elah"). The view of the Torah Temimah cited last week now becomes of particular importance. He claimed that the situation of a rebellious elder could only occur when the elder challenged the Sanhedrin in their office, as only there did they represent both the Torah and all of Israel. It should by now be evident that this statement is rich in significance. Only when the Sanhedrin fulfills its duties on the Temple Mount can they be said to be representing both. It is only there that they can be both the essence of the Oral Law and the eyes of the people all at once. As such, the two roles must function as one, and their rulings must always take into account issues such as the moral status of the people or the ability of the people to uphold various decrees. The point is further highlighted by the gemara that states that their chamber was built in such a way that half of it was on holy ground and half on secular ground, representing their status as the point of convergence of the sacred and the mundane, the divine law and the people.

This construct will now enable us to answer the question raised earlier in this Chabura. The use of terms such as the Sadducees and the schoolchildren is, by now, very apparent. In deciding a law, the Sanhedrin has to look not only to the Torah for guidance, but also to the people and their knowledge of the law. The importance of this criteria is underscored by the terminology used - if the Sanhedrin err in a law that even schoolchildren know, then they have failed in their responsibility to fully evaluate the law under scrutiny, as they have not fully understood their yardstick, the people. As a result, such a decision must be non-binding from square one. As the people are presumed to be aware of the true law, they can not claim protection under the umbrella of the Sanhedrin, as it is the Sanhedrin that must ultimately "answer" to them.

We can now also explain the three cases that began this Chabura. The first case barely requires an explanation, as it is the classic case of a communal sin-offering brought by Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin in this case has failed in its role as the "eyes" of the people, and thus it is that which led the person astray that must make reparations for the sin that occurred.

Our subject in the second case also fits neatly into the system that has been devised. The member of Sanhedrin who knows that the ruling is incorrect wants to commit the act anyway by claiming, in effect, that he is part of the nation and not of the Sanhedrin. He seemingly wants to say that his being a member of Sanhedrin is merely a function of his knowledge of Torah, but in the long run it is merely his job and he should thus be allowed to exist as a member of the populace at large. However, we see here that he is more than just a representative of the people. When he becomes part of the decision-making body that is the Sanhedrin he also becomes part of the essence of the Oral Law. While as a representative of the people he is linked to the masses, he is not tied down to them. Rather, he transcends those whom he represents in such a way that he can no longer claim to be part of them. An intelligent and knowledgeable individual not on the Sanhedrin could claim an exemption by stating that he was relying on the Sanhedrin, even if he knew the truth, whereas a comparably intelligent member of the Sanhedrin may not do so. The latter has committed himself to representing the essence of the Oral Law and thus may not claim ignorance, whereas the former is "merely" a learned individual.

The third case reveals the outermost limits of the power of the Sanhedrin. If the Sanhedrin truly is the essence of the Oral Law, then no individual should ever be held responsible for acting as per their decision, whether or not he knew that what he was doing had been (mistakenly) permitted by them. They should be able to effect an absolute change in the law so long as they have not yet retracted their decision. However, we see that the opposite is true, that this person who intends to do something that is undoubtedly permitted is held responsible for his own actions if he unwittingly performs the act that is normally forbidden yet has been permitted by the Sanhedrin. Why is this so? It would seem to be that it is at this point that both strings pull on the Sanhedrin - their role with regard to the people and their role with regard to the "Higher Law." Were they to represent only the law, then perhaps it could be argued that they could effect a qualitative change in the law and that such an individual could claim to have been relying on them. However, they have the additional aspect of being responsive to the people. How does that element serve as a factor here? As this person was unaware of the ruling of the Sanhedrin when he made his error, he was not consciously empowering them in their role of interpreters and decisors of the Oral Law. As such, their ruling could not apply to him at that moment. It was not his "eyes" that misled him, but rather a mental lapse that was his alone. As they could not change the law without his assent, and he did not give that assent in this case, he could not claim protection under them and thus is obligated to bring his own sacrifice.

Back to Chabura-Net's Home Page