LECTURE 187: PLACING THE SANHEDRIN NEXT TO THE ALTAR (III)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

In the previous shiur,we brought different views about the spiritual significance of the Sanhedrin convening in close proximity to the altar. In this shiur,we shall present additional opinions on this matter and then focus on one main explanation - namely, the assertion that judgment belongs to God. This assertion has various dimensions and meanings, as we shall see in detail below.

 

The Altar and Divine Justice

 

The Maharal addresses this issue in his Netiv Ha-Din, where he writes as follows:

 

This is what [the Rabbis] said in tractate Pesachim (54b) that the depth of divine judgment is hidden from man. This means that a person should not think that he will reach the full depth of judgment, for there is judgment the depths of which man is incapable of reaching. For this reason it is fitting that the judgment be God's, because the depth of judgment is hidden from man, and therefore judgment requires deliberation so that he be able to understand and reach the depth of that judgment… For it was already explained that justice is like the altar; just like the altar is God's, so too justice. Therefore, they said (Mekhilta Mishpatim) that the Sanhedrin should be right next to the altar. (chap. 1)

 

The altar is the means through which man turns to God; it is our only address for turning to God. We turn to no one else but God. In similar fashion, the depth of judgment is known only to God. Man is incapable of reaching the depth of judgment on his own, and therefore in this matter as well he is totally dependent upon God.

 

According to this, the similarity between the altar and justice lies in the fact that both belong absolutely to God. So writes the Maharal in his Derekh Ha-Chayyim:

 

These two things, the sacrificial service and justice, both belong to God in particular. For just as the sacrificial service is His, so too does justice belong to God. As it is stated: "For judgment is God's" (Devarim 1:17)… For these two things are unique to God. (1:18)

 

The Altar and Justice - The Foundation of Justice and Humanity

 

R. S.R. Hirsch writes as follows:

 

"Now these are the judgments." Immediately preceding, in the construction of the altar, the symbolic expression of the fundamental basic principle was given, viz., that our whole relationship to God is to be taken as one through which justice and humaneness for building up human society and morality and decency for the work of each individual on himself are to be gained and formed, on a firm, unshatterable basis. To that principle, the vav adds the mishpatim, the legal laws by which the building up of Jewish society on the basis of justice and humaneness is first of all ordered. The "sword," forceand harshness, are thereby to be banned from the Jewish state; only then can they be worthy to erect an altar to God in their midst. This is why these laws come before the building of the Mishkan. The laws which then are dedicated to the banning of forbidden sexual relations in its wider sense, the controlling and restraining of the animal in man, which hinders and checks the "way up to the heights of the altar," i.e., perfecting the individuals by the principles of morality and decency, then follow in the book of Vayikra. (Commentary to Shemot 21:1)

 

In the continuation of what he says in his commentary to the end of Parashat Yitro, where he relates to the special mitzvot that the Torah emphasizes in connection to the altar, R. Hirsch stresses that just as justice and humaneness issue from the altar, so too do morality and decency issue from it. Without the latter, the search for justice and humaneness in society will be in vain.

 

Regarding the laws pertaining to the altar that were given immediately after the Ten Commandments, R. Hirsch explains that they are directed toward the three main transgressions that undermine our relationship with God on the plains between man and God, between man and his fellow, and between man and himself. At the beginning of Parashat Mishpatim, he explains the spiritual significance of the juxtaposition of "the judgments" to the issue of the altar. These judgments are intended to organize the building of Jewish society on the principles of justice and humaneness, which is also the idea underlying the altar. Only in a world that distances itself from the sword, from violence and cruelty, is it befitting to establish an altar in its midst. For this reason, the judgments of Mishpatim come before the building of the Mishkan and the book of Vayikra,which dedicates many laws to the distancing of forbidden sexual relations, thus allowing the perfection of the individual on the basis of the principles of morality and decency.

 

The Altar Symbolizes Extreme Distancing from the Three Severe Transgressions

 

R. Kasher writes as follows in his Torah Sheleima (end of Parashat Yitro):

 

In my opinion, we must add the idea that the Sanhedrin was next to the altar because the building of the altar symbolizes extreme distancing from the three transgressions for which one must give up his life rather than transgress, i.e., idolatry, forbidden sexual relations, and murder.

1. In the verse, "An altar of earth you shall make to Me," the reason is clearly that it was the way of the nations of the world to build an image of their idol out of stones. Therefore, we were commanded to build an altar of earth or of stones that were not hewn…

2. Forbidden sexual relations [is referred to in] the mitzva not to go up by steps to the altar so as not to expose one's nakedness on it. Even though the priests wore breeches, nevertheless the Torah forbids even a large stride, all this so that the people be distanced from actual forbidden sexual relations.

3. Murder: A stone that was touched by an iron tool is disqualified for use in the altar, because an iron tool shortens a person's life, and the altar was created to lengthen it, and it would not be right to lift that which shortens life over that which lengthens it. From this we see the extent to which one must distance himself from murder and anything related to it. Therefore, the Torah wishes that the altar be close to the seat of the Sanhedrin, the eyes of the congregation, who must judge capital cases, so that they should always remember the Torah's desire that is revealed in the laws governing the altar, that a person must distance himself to the extreme from these three transgressions. And the Midrash Ha-Gadol concludes the aforementioned statement: Be deliberate in judgment, saying: So Iyov says: "The cause that I knew not I searched out" (Iyov 29:16), provided that he not delay judgment. May the Merciful save us from delay in judgment, from perversion in judgment, and from distortion in judgment, and allow us to fulfill: "He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well with him: was not this to know Me? says the Lord" (Yirmeyahu 22:16). (no. 574)   

 

According to this understanding, the reason that the Sanhedrin convened in close proximity to the altar is that the altar itself, with the laws that are associated with it, necessitates extreme distancing from the three severe transgressions: idolatry, forbidden sexual relations, and murder.  Since the laws governing the altar are fashioned so  that the altar itself stands in opposition to idolatry, in opposition to forbidden sexual relationships, and in opposition to murder, the Torah wanted the altar to be near the seat of the Sanhedrin, which judges capital cases. The supreme spiritual institution of the nation must be next to the altar, which in its structure and laws represents distancing from the three severe prohibitions regarding which one must sacrifice his life rather than transgress.

 

Judgment is God's

 

Another reason for setting the Sanhedrin in the Chamber of Hewn Stone in close proximity to the altar is that judgment is God's. The physical closeness teaches that Israel's halakhic authorities decide the Halakha in such a way that gives expression to the Divine law, to the word of God in this world.

 

There are many proofs to this assertion:[1]

 

1. The midrash says:

 

Another explanation: "And these are the judgments." This is what is written: "He declares His word to Yaakov" (Tehillim 147:19) – these are the [Ten] Commandments; "His statutes and judgments to Israel” (ibid.) – these are the judgments. For the attributes of God are not those of flesh and blood. It is the attribute of flesh and blood to instruct others to do, while he himself does nothing, but the Holy One, blessed be He, is not like that; rather, that which He does, He tells Israel to do. (Shemot Rabba 30:9)

 

In other words, God asks Israel to keep and do His own judgments.

 

According to this understanding, it is possible to explain God's words regarding Avraham: "For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the ways of the Lord, to do justice and judgment" (Bereishit 18:19). God's system of justice was given to Avraham and his descendents so that they should preserve it for future generations.

 

2. In Moshe's blessing to the tribe of Gad, we read: "And he came with the heads of the people, he executed the justice of the Lord, and His judgments with Israel" (Devarim 33:21). The Seforno explains (ad loc.):

 

"He executed the justice of the Lord, and His judgments with Israel" – There the lawgiver did the justice of the Lord with Israel, for there he explained His Torah, and there the people of Israel were judged, and the judgments and laws of God were proven right to them, as with Shemuel when he says: "Now, therefore stand still, that I may plead with you before the Lord concerning all the righteous acts of God" (I Shemuel 12:7). 

 

The verse informs us that Moshe explained God's Torah and there the people of Israel were judged. The judgments and righteous acts of God are the foundation of the laws that will be applied in Israel and that will form the basis of Israel's judicial system, which will embody Divine justice in its laws and judgments.

 

3. We find in Parashat Mishpatim:

 

Then his master shall bring him to the elohim; he shall also bring him to the door, or to the doorpost; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him forever. (Shemot 21:6)

 

The Mekhilta (ad loc.) explains: "'Then his master shall bring him to the elohim' – to the judges, so that he should consult with those who sold him." The identification of the elohim as judges has two meanings, one of which being that the judges, by virtue of the fact that they judge a true judgment, resemble God.  

 

4.

Every judge who judges an absolutely true judgment, even for a single hour, Scripture gives him credit as though he had become a partner to the Holy One, blessed be He, in the creation. (Shabbat 10a)

 

Similarly, the gemara in Sanhedrin (7a) says:

 

R. Shemuel bar Nachmani said in the name of R. Yonatan: Every judge who judges an absolutely true judgment causes the Shekhina to rest in Israel, as it is stated: "God [Elohim] stands in the congregation of God; in the midst of the judges [elohim] He judges" (Tehillim 82:1). And every judge who does not judge an absolutely true judgment causes the Shekhina to remove itself from Israel, as it is stated: "For the violence done to the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, says the Lord" (Tehillim 12:6).

 

These two rabbinic statements deal with a judge who delivers an absolutely true judgment. One statement gives him credit as if he became a partner of God in the act of creation, while the second statement says that he causes the Shekhina to rest in Israel. The two statements, each in its own style, give expression to the relationship between a judge's act of true judgment and God's partnership in that act. It would seem that each judgment involves a new creation, and the judge is a partner in that creation; in that sense, he is, as it were, God's partner. According to the second statement, through his true judgment, the judge, as it were, causes God to reveal Himself and be present.

 

The Maharal explains these two statements:

 

In the first chapter of Sanhedrin (7a): "R. Shemuel bar Nachmani said in the name of R. Yonatan: Every judge who judges an absolutely true judgment causes the Shekhina to rest in Israel, as it is stated: 'God [Elohim] stands in the congregation of God' (Tehillim 82:1). And every judge who does not judge an absolutely true judgment causes the Shekhina to remove itself from Israel, as it is stated: 'For the violence done to the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, etc.'" What this means is that God is with the judge, as it is written: "God stands in the congregation of God," as we explained above. This is because judgment is God's more than anything else. And therefore God is with judgment. It has already been explained in what sense judgment is God's more than anything else, because judgment is necessary, and God is necessary, and everything else beside Him is not necessary, except for God. And therefore judgment which is necessary is God's, and there is no intermediary and no barrier, only judgment which is God's entirely. For this very reason, the Shekhina removes itself from the lower world as a result of a perversion of justice. Since the attribute of God is judgment and judgment is God's, when judgment is removed from the lower world, God removes His Shekhina from the lower world, for God is with judgment, and this matter is clear.

And in the first chapter of Shabbat (10a): "R. Ammi and R. Assi were sitting and studying between the pillars; every now and then they knocked at the side of the door and announced: If anyone has a lawsuit, let him enter and come. R. Chisda and Rabba son of R. Huna were sitting all day [engaged] in judgments, and their hearts grew faint, [at which time] R. Chiyya bar Rav of Difti recited to them: 'And the people stood about Moshe from the morning into the evening.' Now, can you really think that Moshe sat and judged all day? When was his learning done? But it is to teach you that every judge who judges an absolutely true judgment even for a single hour, Scripture gives him credit as though he had become a partner to the Holy One, blessed be He, in the creation. [For] here it is written: 'And the people stood about Moshe from the morning into the evening' and elsewhere it is written: 'And there was evening, and there was morning, one day." We explained this that whoever judges an absolutely true judgment is called elohim, as it is written: 'Then the master of the house shall be brought to the elohim,' 'the cause of both parties shall come before the elohim.' And it is known that the name Elohim denotes the attribute of justice, and with this name the Holy One, blessed be He, created His world, as it is stated: 'In the beginning,  God [Elohim] created,' for the world was created through a judgment, for He decreed that they be created, and they were created with the attribute of justice. And a judge who judges an absolutely true judgment becomes a partner of the Holy One, blessed be He, in the act of creation, for a judge is called by the name elohim, and in this way he joins with His name which created everything. Justice is not like kindness, for there is kindness above kindness and God's kindness is greater than the kindness of man. Even when a person performs kindness, this kindness is not entirely like the kindness of God, and it is not pertinent to say about this that he becomes a partner of God. But judgment that is true judgment, you cannot say about this that one judgment is greater than another. Therefore, when a person judges an absolutely true judgment, he becomes joined to the Judge, who created the world with justice, and it is to that extent that the attribute of judgment reaches when the judge judges an absolutely true judgment. You must understand the proof that he brings, that it is written here: 'And the people stood about Moshe from the morning into the evening' and elsewhere it is written: 'And there was evening, and there was morning." This is a matter of superlative wisdom. For God created the world with an attribute that includes evening and morning, and from it were created evening and morning. And a judge also adheres to this attribute, and therefore a judge who judges an absolutely true judgment becomes God's partner in the act of creation. As for "judging a true judgment," it is not as is found among certain commentators, that if he delivered a judgment, and the litigant was a cheater, so that the judgment issued was not true, even though the judge did what he was supposed to do, that this in not called a true judgment. For it is certainly also called a true judgment when the judgment is true in the opinion of the judge. Rather, the meaning of judging a true judgment is that he strives for the absolute truth. This is judging a true judgment. Had he not said emet la-amito, it would have implied that he judged a true judgment even though he did not strive for the truth, but he merely wished to acquit his friend, but in truth that was the law. This is not so, but rather he must strive for the truth of judgment. (Netiv Ha-Din, chap. 1)

 

The Maharal explains that the first statement means that God is with the judge and with the judgment, because God's existence is necessary and there are no intermediaries, and God Himself is judgment. Regarding the second statement, the Maharal draws a practical connection between judging a true judgment and creating the world with the attribute of justice that embraces everything.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 



[1] R. Meir Gruzman deals with this issue in his book on Parashat Ha-Shavua (Parashat Mishpatim). Some of the sources that he mentions have been integrated into our presentation.