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The Sanhedrin (Hebrew: סנהדרין; probably from the Greek συνέδριον, synedrion, meaning "sitting together", hence "assembly") is the name given to the council of seventy-one Jewish sages who constituted the supreme court and legislative body in Judea during the Roman period. The make-up of the council included a president (Nasi), vice president (Av Beit Din), and sixty-nine general members who all sat in the form of a semi-circle when in session. The constitution of seventy-one was to preclude the possibility of a tie.



Traditions of origin

The Greek root for the name suggests that the institution may have developed during the Hellenistic period. The traditional Rabbinic interpretation of certain events in the Torah assert it was founded by Moses, at the command of God. The Torah records God commanded Moses as follows:

"…Gather to me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people, and officers over them; and bring them to the Tent of Meeting, that they may stand there with you."[1]

Further, God commanded Moses to lay hands on Joshua son of Nun.[2] It is from this point, classical Rabbinic tradition holds, the Sanhedrin began: with seventy elders, headed by Moses, for a total of seventy-one. As individuals within the Sanhedrin died, or otherwise became unfit for service, new members underwent ordination, or Semicha[3]. These ordinations continued, in an unbroken line: from Moses to Joshua, the Israelite elders, the prophets (including Ezra, Nehemiah) on to all the sages of the Sanhedrin. It was not until sometime after the destruction of the Second Temple that this line was broken, and the Sanhedrin dissolved.

Function and procedures

The Sanhedrin as a body claimed powers that lesser Jewish courts did not have. As such, they were the only ones who could try the king, extend the boundaries of the Temple and Jerusalem, and were the ones to whom all questions of law were finally put. It was presided over by an officer called the Nasi. After the time of Hillel (late 1st century BCE and early 1st century CE), the Nasi was almost invariably a descendant of Hillel. The second highest-ranking member of the Sanhedrin was called the Av Beit Din, or "father of the house of justice", who presided over the Sanhedrin when it sat as a criminal court.[4]

The Sanhedrin met in a building known as Lishkat Ha-Gazith or the Hall of Hewn Stones, which has been placed by many scholars as built into the north wall of the Temple Mount, half inside the sanctuary and half outside, with doors providing access both to the Temple and to the outside. The name presumably arises to distinguish it from the buildings in the Temple complex used for ritual purposes, which had to be constructed of stones unhewn by any iron implements.

The minimum number of Sanhedrin Judges that could preside over any one case was three. Two could not judge, lest they differ on the matter at hand an no verdict be reached. Nor was it lawful for one to judge, for in the eyes of the Sanhedrin, only God may judge without council. In some cases a 23-member panel of judges of judges where convened. The fully 71-member court was convened only for matters of such difficulty that a 3 member panel, nor a 23 member panel could reach a verdict. Also, only the full Sanhedrin possessed the power to condemn a man to death. [5]


It is especially used of judicial or representative assemblies, is the name by which (or by its Hebrew transcription, 1'11,mo, sanhedrin, sanhedrim) that Jewish body is known which in its origin was the municipal council of Jerusalem, but acquired extended functions and no small authority and influence over the Jews at large (see 13. 424 seq.). In the Mishnah it is called "the sanhedrin," "the great sanhedrin," "the sanhedrin of seventy-one [members]" and "the great court of justice" (beth din haggadol).

The oldest testimony to the existence and constitution of the synedrium of Jerusalem is probably to be found in 2 Chron. 19:8; for the priests, Levites and hereditary heads of houses there spoken of as sitting at Jerusalem as a court of appeal from the local judicatories does not correspond with anything mentioned in the old history, and it is the practice of the chronicler to refer the institutions of his own time to an origin in ancient Israel. And just such an aristocratic council is what seems to be meant by the gerousia or senate of "elders" repeatedly mentioned in the history of the Jews, both under the Greeks from the time of Antiochus the Great (Jos. Ant. 12:3) and under the Hasmonean high priests and princes. The high priest as the head of the state was doubtless also the head of the senate, which, according to Eastern usage, exercised both judicial and administrative or political functions (see: 1 Macc. 12:6, 14:20). The exact measure of its authority must have varied from time to time at first with the measure of autonomy left to the nation by its foreign lords and afterwards with the more or less autocratic power claimed by the native sovereigns.

The original aristocratic constitution of the senate began to be modified under the later Hasmoneans by the inevitable introduction of representatives of the rising party of the Pharisees, and this new element gained strength under Herod the Great, the bitter enemy of the priestly aristocracy. Finally under the Roman procurators the synedrium was left under the presidency of the chief priest as the highest native tribunal, though without the power of life and death (John 18:31). The aristocratic and Sadducean element now again preponderated, as appears from Josephus and from the New Testament, in which "chief priests" and "rulers" are synonymous expressions. But with these there sat also "scribes" or trained legal doctors of the Pharisees and other notables, who are simply called "elders" (Mark 15:1).

The Jewish tradition which regards the synedrium as entirely composed of rabbins sitting under the presidency and vice-presidency of a pair of chief doctors, the nasi and ab beth din, is inconsistent with the evidence of Josephus and the New Testament. It is generally held that it was after the fall of the state that a merely rabbinical beth din sat at Yavne and afterwards at Tiberias, and gave legal responses to those who chose to admit a judicature not recognized by the civil power. Dr A Buehler has sought to reconcile the various accounts by the theory that there were two great tribunals in Jerusalem, one wielding religious, the other civil authority (Das Synedrion in Jerusalem, Vienna, 1902).

The council chamber where the synedrium usually sat was between the Xystus and the Temple, probably on the Temple-hill, the Mishnah states that the meetings were held within the inner court. The meeting in the palace of the high priest which condemned Jesus was exceptional. The proceedings also on this occasion were highly irregular, if measured by the rules of procedure which, according to Jewish tradition, were laid down to secure order and a fair trial for the accused.

Of the older literature of the subject it is enough to cite Selden, De synedriis. The most important critical discussion is that of Kuenen in the Verslagen, etc., of the Amsterdam Academy (1866), p. 131 seq. A good summary is given by Schürer, Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes, 4th ed., 23. See also GA Smith, Jerusalem (1907), volume 1, chapter 9.

This article incorporates text from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, a publication in the public domain.

Early Christianity

In the New Testament

The Sanhedrin is mentioned frequently in the New Testament. According to the Gospels, the council conspired to have Jesus killed by paying one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, thirty pieces of silver in exchange for delivery of Jesus into their hands. When the Sanhedrin was unable to provide evidence that Jesus had committed a capital crime, the Christian Bible states that false witnesses came forward and accused the Nazarene of blasphemy — a capital crime under Jewish law. But, because the Sanhedrin was not of Roman authority, it could not condemn criminals to death. For more information on this subject, see Jesus' Sanhedrin Trial.

Circa 30 CE, the New Testament continues, Jesus was brought before the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, for an official decision. The Christian account says that Pilate disagreed with the Sanhedrin's decision, and found no fault — but that the crowd (with the Sanhedrin present) demanded crucifixion. Pilate, it is speculated, gave in because he was concerned about his career and about revolt — and conveyed the death sentence of crucifixion on Jesus. For more information on this subject, see Jesus' Roman Trial.

The Christian accounts of the Sanhedrin, and role the council played in the crucifixion of Jesus, is a sensitive issue.

Opposition to Christian historical accounts

Although the New Testament's account of the Sanhedrin's involvement in Jesus' crucifixion is detailed, the factual accuracy is disputed. Some scholars believe that these passages present a caricature of the Pharisees and were not written during Jesus' lifetime but rather some time after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE - a time when it had become clear that most Jews did not consider Jesus to be the messiah. Also, this was a time Christians sought most new converts from among the gentiles - thus adding to the likelihood that the New Testament's account would be more sympathetic to Romans than to the Jews. Furthermore, it was only after 70 that Phariseeism emerged as the dominant form of Judaism. The New Testament portrays the Sanhedrin as a corrupt group of Pharisees, although it was predominantly made up of Sadducees at the time. In order for the Christian leaders of the time to present Christianity as the legitimate heir to the Hebrew Scriptures, they had to devalue Rabbinic Judaism. In addition to the New Testament, other Christian writings relate that the Apostles Peter, John, Stephen, and Paul were all brought before the Sanhedrin for the blasphemous crime (from the Jewish perspective) of spreading their Gospel. However, the Gospels exist, and do give an account of events that happened well before the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, although most scholars consider them to have been penned after the Temple was destroyed (however, see Gospel of Mark and Gospel of Matthew for views on earlier historical dating). Those scholars may believe them to have been based on earlier sources, rather than giving a first-person account; though the Gospels are not entirely dismissed, they are presumed to be biased rather than factual.However, it must now be acknowledged that Streeter and others of the Tuebingen school have established that Christian NT writtings which discuss the Sanhedrin actually date much earlier than previously thought. Given this development, the NT accounts quite possibly are more accurate that thought heretofore. Specifically the writings of Luke and the Apostle Paul have been established as published in the 40's and 50's CE. Therefore, it is quite possible that these early Christian writings are accurate contemporary accounts of the Sanhedrin and could reflect the socio-political dynamics which surrounded this institution in Judean society.

Sanhedrin at Yavne and in the Galilee

After the destruction of the Temple, the Sanhedrin was reconvened at Yavne by Yohanan ben Zakkai. It (in some form or another) continued to meet periodically in Yavne and later in Sepphoris and Tiberias. It was presided over by a Nasi of the house of Hillel until 415 CE, when the Nasi Gamliel VI was deposed by joint decree of Emperors Theodosius and Honorius. Some of the earliest work of the reconstituted Sanhedrin was determining how to replace the rituals of the now-destroyed Temple while still honoring their spirit; organized daily prayer began to be codified in this period. The Sanhedrin in the post-Temple age concerned itself primarily with codifying the ancient traditions of the Oral Torah; its members were instrumental in the drafting of the Mishna and the Jerusalem Talmud.

Subsequent attempts to revive the Sanhedrin

See also: Attempts to revive classical semicha

The Jewish anticipation for the arrival of the Messiah includes the reconstitution of this body of sages. Maimonides and other medieval commentators suggested that, although the line of Semicha from Moses had been broken at the dissolution of the Sanhedrin, if the sages of the Land of Israel united in promoting a single candidate as Nasi (leader), that individual would have Semicha, and could then grant it to others — thus re-establishing the Sanhedrin. An attempt was made in the 16th century under the initiative of Rabbi Jacob Birav, but this failed due to opposition from the rabbi of Jerusalem, Levy Ben Haviv.

Napoleon Bonaparte's "Grand Sanhedrin"

This section contains text adapted from the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia.

The "Grand Sanhedrin" was a Jewish high court convened by Napoleon I to give legal sanction to the principles expressed by the Assembly of Notables in answer to the twelve questions submitted to it by the government (see Jew. Encyc. v. 468, s.v. France). These questions were:

Cover page to siddur used at the Grand Sanhedrin of Napoleon, 1807.
Cover page to siddur used at the Grand Sanhedrin of Napoleon, 1807.
  1. Is it lawful for Jews to have more than one wife?
  2. Is divorce allowed by the Jewish religion? Is divorce valid, although pronounced not by courts of justice but by virtue of laws in contradiction to the French code?
  3. May a Jewess marry a Christian, or a Jew a Christian woman? or does Jewish law order that the Jews should only intermarry among themselves?
  4. In the eyes of Jews are Frenchmen not of the Jewish religion considered as brethren or as strangers?
  5. What conduct does Jewish law prescribe toward Frenchmen not of the Jewish religion?
  6. Do the Jews born in France, and treated by the law as French citizens, acknowledge France as their country? Are they bound to defend it? Are they bound to obey the laws and follow the directions of the civil code?
  7. Who elects the rabbis?
  8. What kind of police jurisdiction do the rabbis exercise over the Jews? What judicial power do they exercise over them?
  9. Are the police jurisdiction of the rabbis and the forms of the election regulated by Jewish law, or are they only sanctioned by custom?
  10. Are there professions from which the Jews are excluded by their law?
  11. Does Jewish law forbid the Jews to take usury from their brethren?
  12. Does it forbid, or does it allow, usury in dealings with strangers?

At one of the meetings of the Notables, Commissioner Comte Louis Matthieu Molé expressed the satisfaction of the emperor with their answers, and announced that the emperor, requiring a pledge of strict adherence to these principles, had resolved to call together a great sanhedrin which should convert the answers into decisions and make them the basis of the future status of the Jews, create a new organization, and condemn all false interpretations of their religious laws. In order that this sanhedrin, reviving the old Sanhedrin of Jerusalem, might be vested with the same sacred character as that time-honored institution, it was to be constituted on a similar pattern: it was to be composed of seventy-one members—two-thirds of them rabbis and one-third laymen. The Assembly of Notables, which was to continue its sessions, was to elect the members of the sanhedrin, and notify the several communities of Europe of its meeting, "that they may send deputies worthy of communicating with you and able to give to the government additional information." The Assembly of Notables was to appoint also a committee of nine, whose duty it would be to prepare the work of the sanhedrin and devise a plan for the future organization of the Jews in France and Italy (see Jewish Encyclopedia iv. 232, s.v. Consistory).

On October 6, 1806, the Assembly of Notables issued a proclamation to all the Jewish communities of Europe, inviting them to send delegates to the sanhedrin, to convene on October 20. This proclamation, written in Hebrew, French, German, and Italian, speaks in extravagant terms of the importance of this revived institution and of the greatness of its imperial protector. While the action of Napoleon aroused in many Jews of Germany the hope that, influenced by it, their governments also would grant them the rights of citizenship, others looked upon it as a political contrivance. When in the war against Prussia (1806-7) the emperor invaded Poland and the Jews rendered great services to his army, he remarked, laughing, "The sanhedrin is at least useful to me." David Friedländer and his friends in Berlin described it as a spectacle that Napoleon offered to the Parisians.

Medallion struck in commemoration of the Grand Sanhedrin.
Medallion struck in commemoration of the Grand Sanhedrin.

The opening of the sanhedrin was delayed until Feb. 9, 1807, four days after the adjournment of the Assembly of Notables. Its seventy-one members included the rabbis sitting in the Assembly, to whom were added twenty-nine other rabbis and twenty-five laymen. Its presiding officers, appointed by the minister of the interior, were: David Sinzheim, rabbi of Strasbourg (president); Joshua Benzion Segre, rabbi, and member of the municipal council of Vercelli (first vice-president); Abraham de Cologna, rabbi of Mantua (second vice-president). After a solemn religious service in the synagogue, the members assembled in the Hötel de Ville, in a hall specially prepared for them. Following the ancient custom, they took their seats in a semicircle, according to age, on both sides of the presiding officers, the laymen behind the rabbis. They were attired in black garments, with silk capes and three-cornered hats. The sittings were public, and many visitors were present. The first meeting was opened with a Hebrew prayer written by David Sinzheim; after the address of the president and of Furtado, chairman of the Assembly of Notables, it was adjourned. At the second sitting, Feb. 12, 1807, deputies Asser, Lemon, and Litwack, of the newly constituted Amsterdam Reform congregation Adat Jeshurun, addressed the sanhedrin, Litwack in Hebrew, the others in French, expressing their entire approval of the Assembly and promising their hearty support. But the deputies were greatly disappointed when the president, after having answered them in Hebrew, invited them to be silent listeners instead of taking part in the debates as the proclamation of the Notables had caused them to expect. Addresses from congregations in France, Italy, and the Rhenish Confederation, especially from Neuwied and Dresden, were also presented.

In the sittings of Feb. 16, 19, 23, 26, and March 2, the sanhedrin voted without discussion on the replies of the Assembly of Notables, and passed them as laws. At the eighth meeting, on March 9, Hildesheimer, deputy from Frankfurt-am-Main, and Asser of Amsterdam delivered addresses, to which the president responded in Hebrew expressing great hopes for the future. After having received the thanks of the members, he closed the sanhedrin. The Notables convened again on March 25, prepared an official report, and presented it on April 6, 1807; then the imperial commissioners declared the dissolution of the Assembly of Notables.

The decisions of the sanhedrin, formulated in nine articles and drawn up in French and Hebrew, were as follows:

  1. that, in conformity with the decree of R. Gershom, polygamy is forbidden to the Israelites;
  2. that divorce by the Jewish law is valid only after previous decision of the civil authorities;
  3. that the religious act of marriage must be preceded by a civil contract;
  4. that marriages contracted between Israelites and Christians are binding, although they can not be celebrated with religious forms;
  5. that every Israelite is religiously bound to consider his non-Jewish fellow citizens as brothers, and to aid, protect, and love them as though they were coreligionists;
  6. that the Israelite is required to consider the land of his birth or adoption as his fatherland, and shall love and defend it when called upon;
  7. that Judaism does not forbid any kind of handicraft or occupation;
  8. that it is commendable for Israelites to engage in agriculture, manual labor, and the arts, as their ancestors in Palestine were wont to do;
  9. that, finally, Israelites are forbidden to exact usury from Jew or Christian.

In the introduction to these resolutions the sanhedrin declared that, by virtue of the right conferred upon it by ancient custom and law, it constituted, like the ancient Sanhedrin, a legal assembly vested with the power of passing ordinances in order to promote the welfare of Israel and inculcate obedience to the laws of the state. These resolutions formed the basis of all subsequent laws and regulations of the French government in regard to the religious affairs of the Jews, although Napoleon, in spite of the declarations, issued a decree on March 17, 1808, restricting the Jews' legal rights. The plan of organization prepared by the committee of nine, having for its object the creation of consistories, was not submitted to the Sanhedrin, but was promulgated by Napoleon's decree of March 17, 1808.

A "New" Sanhedrin?

Following the establishment of the State of Israel, the new minister of religion, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Hacohen Maimon, was in favour of the idea, but was unable to persuade ultra-Orthodox groups.

In October 2004 (Tishrei 5765), a group of rabbis claiming to represent varied communities in Israel undertook a ceremony in Tiberias, where the original Sanhedrin was disbanded, which they claim re-establishes the body. This new Sanhedrin was established by Rabbi Dov Levanoni, who received ordination from Moshe Halberstam, a leader of the Eda Haredit's Beit Din Zedek religious court. Levanoni ordained Rabbi Tzvi Idan as temporary Nasi, but he soon stepped aside in favour of well-known Jewish author Adin Steinsaltz. However, this "reinstated Sanhedrin" is not recognized by the Israeli government nor by the vast majority of Jews, regardless of their level of observance. Even in the Haredi world, most people do not accept its authority. However, a year after its establishment, it was reported that the body was in "dialogue with the Ministry of Education over the Bible and Scriptures curriculum".

Though the majority of the membership of the 71-member "new" Sanhedrin remain anonymous, seven members have been selected to represent the body to the public. Three of these seven are leaders of the Temple Mount Movement who advocate demolishing the Al-Aqsa Mosque to make way for a Third Temple in Jerusalem. Further, the "new" Sanhedrin has confirmed its place within the Temple Mount Movement by announcing its intention to take steps to prepare for the rebuilding of the Temple. Subscribers to the Temple Mount Movement believe that the obligation to build the Temple is still in force, and that Jews have an obligation to work towards that end. Some of them also believe that by rebuilding of the Temple, they can usher in a Messianic Era of eternal peace.

On the other hand, apparently few Sanhedrin members see the new Sanhedrin with such an extreme messianism. According to Arutz Sheva correspondent Ezra HaLevi, reporting from the November Sanhedrin session open to the public, the Nassi [Persident of the Sanhedrin] Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz clearly comes from a far-more conservative perspective: "He expressed his opinion that the project should steer clear of political pronouncements. This point that was challenged by Rabbi Yisrael Ariel of the Temple Institute, who said that publicly opposing the expulsion and supporting those Jews expelled from Gaza and northern Samaria could not be referred to as political. The diverging viewpoints gave those in attendance a glimpse of the manner in which Sanhedrin members disagree with one another, recognizing their responsibility to enable the body to provide a wide spectrum of religious Jewish thought." Representing this more conservative view, Rabbi Bar-Ron writes, "The rebirth of the Sanhedrin is a slow, ongoing process. Although it makes headlines and many like to highlight its controversy, it is in truth a humble project by rabbis from all sides of the Torah world joining together simply to fulfill a Torah commandment. Rather than a source of religious division, G-d forbid, it is a vehicle to bring about Jewish unity and civil justice, to help repair some of the deepest rifts in our society, and to provide an active, exemplary and unified Torah leadership so lacking in our times."

The Sanhedrin has also selected a group of non-Jewish leaders, scholars and teachers from the Noachide movement - the best-known of these is Dr. Vendyl Jones, to form a High Council of Noahides responsible for outreach education from within the non-Jewish world. In 2005 the Sanhedrin sent Rabbi Michael Bar-Ron to the USA to liase with Jones and other Noachide groups; he told Arutz Sheva that the plan was to

transform the Noahide movement from a religious phenomenon - a curiosity many have not heard of - into a powerful international movement that can successfully compete with other religious movements, and with G-d's help restore the original authentic faith to mankind that was given to humanity through Noach, the father of us all..

Some Christians, like evangelist Hal Lindsey, see the reinstated Sanhedrin as good news. Believing that the Sanhedrin would be responsible for the rebuilding of the Temple, which would eventually be desecrated by the false Messiah during the end times.

Footnotes Notes

1.^ Numbers 11:16 [6]
2.^ Numbers 27:23 [7]
3.^ Babylonian Talmud: Sanhedrin 13b-14a
5.^ Babylonian Talmud: Sanhedrin 2a.


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