LECTURE 186: PLACING THE SANHEDRIN NEXT TO THE ALTAR (II)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

            In the previous shiur, we discussed the sources of the exposition that demands that the Sanhedrin be placed next to the altar and with various expositions that link justice and the Sanhedrin to the altar. In this shiur, we will explore the spiritual significance of this linkage.

 

The Authority to Judge Capital Cases

 

If there arise a matter too hard for you in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between plague and plague, matters of controversy within your gates. Then shall you arise and go up to the place which the Lord your God shall choose. And you shall come to the priests the Levites and to the judge that shall be in those days, and inquire; and they shall tell you the sentence of judgment. And you shall do according to the sentence which they of that place which the Lord shall choose shall tell you; and you shall observe to do according to all that they inform you. (Devarim 17:8-10)

 

There are many expositions associated with these verses. The gemara in Avoda Zara (8b) derives from here that the Sanhedrin must sit in close proximity to the Chamber of Hewn Stone (Lishkat Ha-Gazit) in the Temple. It also learns from here that capital cases can be adjudicated by a court of twenty three judges anywhere in Eretz Yisrael only when the Sanhedrin sits in its designated place.

 

A parallel exposition is associated with the verse:

 

But if a man shall come presumptuously upon his neighbor, to slay him with guile, you shall take him from My altar, that he may die. (Shemot 21:14)

 

We find in the Midrash Ha-Gadol:

 

Another explanation: "From My altar" – From were do we know that the Sanhedrin must be next to the altar? The verse states: "You shall take him from My altar." From here: If there is an altar, you put him to death; but if not, you do not put him to death. From here [the Sages] said: Forty years before the destruction of the Second Temple, they ceased to judge capital cases in Israel, because the Sanhedrin was banished and did not sit in its seat in the Temple.

 

The midrash establishes that the existence of the altar and the Sanhedrin's proximity to it are what determine whether or not criminals can be put to death.

 

In light of these expositions, the gemara in Avoda Zara states:

 

Forty years before the Temple was destroyed, the Sanhedrin was banished [from its place] and sat in Chanut. R. Yitzchak bar Avdimi said: This indicates that [from that time onward], they did not deal with cases of fines… But R. Nachman bar Yitzchak said: Say not that "cases of fines" ceased, but that capital cases ceased. Why? Because when the Sanhedrin saw that murderers were so prevalent that they could not be properly dealt with judicially, they said: Rather, let us be exiled from place to place than pronounce them guilty [of capital offenses], for it is written: "And you shall do according to the sentence which they of that place which the Lord shall choose shall tell you," which implies that it is the place that matters. (Avoda Zara 8b)

 

Rashi writes (ad loc.):

 

Rather than pronounce them guilty [of capital offenses] – For capital cases are only judged by the Minor Sanhedrin in each city when the Great Sanhedrin sit in its designated place, i.e., the Chamber of Hewn Stone.

 

Later, he adds:

 

It is the place that matters to convict the defendant. But if they are not there, he is not judged. And this verse refers to capital cases: "If there arises a matter too hard for you" in Parashat Shofetim regarding a rebellious elder.

 

            Tosafot (ad loc.) ask:

 

This implies that it is the place that matters. You might ask: Surely Jerusalem is also called the place with respect to eating consecrated food and second-tithe, and it is written: "In the place which the Lord your God shall choose."

 

In other words, the word "place" denotes all of Jerusalem and not only the Temple. The Tosafot answer:

 

It may be suggested that regarding capital cases, only the Chamber of Hewn Stone is called "place," as it was half in the holy area and half in the non-holy area. This is the reason - that the Sanhedrin must be next to the Shekhina. Thus also we say (Avoda Zara 52a): Whoever appoints an unworthy judge is as though he plants an Ashera next to the altar, as it is written: "Judges and officers [shall you make you in all your gates]" and near it [is stated]: "You shall not plant you an Ashera of any kind of tree." Therefore, they were banished and they sat in Chanut. Even though Chanut itself was on the Temple Mount, nevertheless it was not close to the Shekhina like the Chamber of Hewn Stone. You might say: From where do we know that the place matters for other capital cases other than a rebellious elder, as the verse refers exclusively to a rebellious elder? It may be suggested that we expound: As long as the Great Sanhedrin is in its proper place next to the altar, then you shall place judges in all your gates to judge capital cases. When they were removed from there, they ceased to judge all capital cases.

 

The gemara establishes that "the place matters." In other words, there is practical spiritual meaning to the very sitting of the Sanhedrin in the Chamber of Hewn Stone, and it is only by force of this sitting that it is possible to judge capital cases throughout Eretz Yisrael. Torah law in capital cases depends on the Sanhedrin's proximity to the altar.

 

The Sanhedrin's Departure from the Chamber of Hewn Stone

 

As we saw above, the Talmud says that the Sanhedrin left the Chamber of Hewn Stone because there were so many murderers; they said that it is better that the Sanhedrin should be exiled than that criminals should be pronounced guilty. Was the concern that the number of murderers would be so great that they would not be able to judge them all?

 

The author of the Torah Temima deals with this issue in his commentary to the Torah, explaining that the concern was not that they would not be able to judge all the murderers, but rather that owing to the many murderers, the court was no longer authorized to judge capital cases. In other words, the spiritual reality of the great number of murderers impacts upon the court's authority and does not allow them to judge capital cases.

 

On the face of it, it would seem that when there are many murderers, more courts should be established in order to judge them all. Why do Chazal say just the opposite? This matter can be explained in several ways:

 

1.       The Sanhedrin did not want to be a deadly court, and therefore it refrained from sitting in judgment and left the Chamber of Hewn Stone in the Temple. Hearing all the cases would have led to the loss of the court's power of deterrence.

2.       Realistically, it was impossible to judge all the cases, and they did not want to judge only some of them, as this might have been construed as outright injustice.

3.       The harsh reality proved to the Sanhedrin that its rulings lacked any force. In a certain sense, their authority ceased, and therefore they were unfit in that spiritual situation to judge at all.

 

Executing True Justice is More Important than Offering Sacrifices

 

The author of the Torah Temima,in his explanation of the Yerushalmi (2:6), deals with the issue of the Sanhedrin's proximity to the altar:

 

As for the reason that the Sanhedrin must be close to the altar, this may be understood based on Mishlei 21:3: "To do justice and judgment is more acceptable to the Lord than a sacrifice." This place comes to teach and allude that executing true justice is more important than offering sacrifices. According to this, we can well understand what they said in the first chapter of Sanhedrin (7b) that whoever appoints an unworthy judge is as though he plants an Ashera next to the altar. This is because the place of the Sanhedrin was next to the altar.

 

In a certain sense, it is relatively easy to be content with the offering of sacrifices. The real question is: What is the fundamental demand made of man and of the people of Israel, with respect to the inner meaning of God's closeness and the obligation that stems from that closeness? Many prophets addressed the relationship between sacrifices and the doing of justice. According to the Torah Temima,this is the meaning of the connection between the two: to teach that the execution of true justice is more important than offering sacrifices. Thus, the prophet Hoshea says: "For I desired loyal love and not sacrifice" (Hoshea 6:6), and the prophet Yirmeyahu says:

 

Behold, you trust in lying words that cannot profit. Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense to the Baal, and walk after other gods… and come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, “We are delivered,” that you may do all these abominations? Is this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? (Yirmeyahu 7:8-10)

 

We cannot fulfill the will of God merely by bringing offerings and sacrifices, as this is not the sum total of His laws. Only after we fulfill the word of God and obey His voice can we find grace in His eyes. The sacrifices do not stand on their own, but rather are part of a whole set of behaviors toward God that includes the execution of mercy and justice. According to the Torah Temima, this is the principle that the requirement that the Sanhedrin be next to the altar comes to teach us.

 

In this context, we find in Midrash Devarim Rabba:

 

This is what the verse states: "To do justice and judgment is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice." It is not written, "Like a sacrifice," but rather "more than a sacrifice." How so? Sacrifices were only offered during the time of the Temple, but justice and judgments apply during the time of the Temple and not during the time of the Temple. Alternatively, sacrifices only atone for inadvertent sins, but justice and judgments atone for both inadvertent and intentional sins. Alternatively, sacrifices only apply in the lower world, but justice and judgments apply both in the upper and in the lower worlds. Alternatively, sacrifices only apply in this world, but justice and judgments apply both in this world and in the World to Come. R. Shmuel bar Nachmani said: When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Natan: "Go and tell David My servant, ‘Thus says the Lord, You shall not build Me a house to dwell in, for I have not dwelt in a house since the day that I brought up Israel to this day, but have gone from tent to tent, and from one tabernacle to another’" (I Divrei Ha-Yamim 17:4-5) - whoever wished to curse David, what would he do? He would say to him: It would be good if [God's] house were built. Know that this is true. What did David say: "I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord’" (Tehillim 122:1)… The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: By your life, I will not reduce one hour from your life. From where do we know this? As it is stated: "And when the days are fulfilled and you shall sleep with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who shall issue from your bowels and I will establish his kingdom" (II Shmuel 7:23). The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: The justice and judgments that you do are dearer to Me than the Temple. From where do we now this? As it is stated: "And David executed judgment and justice to all his people" (ibid. 8:15). What is "judgment and justice to all his people"? R. Yehuda and R. Nachman [disagreed]. One said: He judged the case, absolving the innocent and obligating the guilty. If the guilty did not have that with which to pay, David would give him of his own money. This is judgment and justice. R. Nachman said to him: If so, he would bring Israel to deception. What is justice and judgment? He would judge the case, absolving the innocent and obligating the guilty. This is justice and judgment, as he would remove the stolen property from his hand. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: Children, since judgments are so dear to Me, be careful with them.  (5:3)

 

The midrash compares justice and judgment to the altar and sacrifices, and indicates the superiority of the former to the latter.

 

Occupation With Justice will Take the Place of Sacrifices

 

The Midrash Ha-Gadol expounds the juxtaposition of Parashat Mishpatim to the laws governing the altar as follows:

 

"And these are the judgments." What is written previously? "An altar of earth you shall make to Me." Because it is stated: "To do justice and judgment is more acceptable to the Lord than a sacrifice" (Mishlei 21:3). Israel said: The sacrifices will cease. What shall we do? He said to them: Occupy yourselves with judgment, and I will credit it to you as if you offered all the sacrifices. Similarly, it says: "For I desired loyal love and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt-offerings" (Hoshea 6:6).

 

The midrash relates to the question of what will substitute for the sacrifices when they will cease, and it answers that the alternative to sacrifices will be occupation with justice. As proof, the midrash cites the verse in Mishlei,which states that God desires loyal love and knowledge of God, and not only sacrifices and burnt-offerings. According to the simple understanding, the verse states that at a time when sacrifices are brought, the sacrifices do not substitute for loyal love and knowledge of God. Rather, one who brings a sacrifice is obligated first and foremost in loyal love and knowledge of God. But the midrash expounds the verse as referring to a time when sacrifices will no longer be brought; at that time, justice and judgments will substitute for the sacrificial service.

 

The Altar and Justice Make Peace Between Israel and their Father in Heaven

 

The Maharal says:

 

This teaches that you shall set the Sanhedrin next to the altar. You might say that this too is difficult: Why should the Sanhedrin be next to the altar? This is not difficult, as they are entirely equivalent. For the altar makes peace between Israel and their Father in heaven, for the sacrifices are offered on the altar, and a sacrifice is called korban because it draws a person near (mekarev) to the Creator. And the altar on which the sacrifice is offered is what makes peace between Israel and their Father in heaven. And similarly in the Mekhilta (above 20:22): "'You shall not lift up any iron tool upon them' (Devarim 27:5): If the stones of the altar which neither see, nor hear, [but] because they make peace between Israel and their Father in Heaven, the Torah said: 'You shall not lift up any iron tool upon them' – he who makes peace between man and his fellow, between husband and wife, between one city and another, between one nation and another, all the more so, will no misfortune come to him." And similarly judgments make peace in the world. And thus they said in the Mekhilta: "What did they see that judgments should come before all the other mitzvot in the Torah? When there is a judgment pending between a man and his fellow, there is strife between them. When the judgment has been issued, there is peace between them." It turns out that the altar and justice are connected and make peace in the world. For it is necessary that there be peace between Israel and their Father in heaven, and afterwards there must be peace between man and his fellow. It turns out that it is all connected. And for this reason the altar and the Chamber of Hewn Stone was at the center of the world. As they expounded (Sanhedrin 37a): "'Your navel is like a round goblet' - that is the Chamber of Hewn Stone." Just as the navel is at the center of man's body, so the Chamber of Hewn Stone is at the center of the world. For the center connects all the parts, since it is in the center. It turns out that the altar and the Chamber of Hewn Stone unite and bind everything.

 

            The Maharal highlights the fact that sacrifices draw man closer to God. The priest serves as an intermediary between Israel and their Father in heaven, and the altar and the service performed there embody man's closeness to his Creator.

 

Just as an iron tool may not be lifted up over the altar since it makes peace between one man and his fellow, between a man and his wife, and between one nation and another, so too the judgments make peace in the world.

 

The altar and judgments are linked as peacemakers in the world. Peace between Israel and God necessitates peace among Israel, between one man and his fellow. Only when the people of Israel are one nation will it be possible for there to be peace and perfect connection with God. The altar and the Chamber of Hewn Stone unite and connect everything.

 

 

(Translated by David Strauss)