LECTURE 188: PLACING THE SANHEDRIN NEXT TO THE ALTAR (IV)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

Introduction

 

            In this shiur,we will continue with our explanation of the reason that the Sanhedrin convened in close proximity to the altar. In the second part of the previous shiur, we cited an explanation that the reason that the Sanhedrinmet in the Chamber of Hewn Stone close to the altar is that judgment belongs to God. The physical closeness between the Sanhedrin and the altar teaches that the Sages of Israel decide the law in a manner that gives expression to divine law, the word of God, in this world.

 

In this shiur,we will further investigate the meaning of the assertion that judgment belongs to God.

 

Human Justice – Revelation of Divine Judgment

 

The justice administered by the court is divine justice. One of the ways through which God reveals Himself in this world is through justice and judgment.

 

This point is found in the explanations of the Rishonim regarding the verse referring to a Jewish slave who wishes to remain with his master: "His master shall bring him to the Elohim… and his master shall bore his ear" (Shemot 21:6). The Rishonim (ad loc.), each in his own style, clarify this point. Thus, for example, the Rashbam writes: "'To the Elohim' – the judges."

 

The Ibn Ezra writes:

The word Elohim refers to those who uphold God's judgment on earth.

 

The Tur on the Torah explains:

 

Since they uphold God's judgment on earth, i.e., because judgment belongs to God.

 

The Abravanel in his commentary to the Torah suggests:

 

"His master shall bring him to the Elohim" – That is, he should excuse himself before the court, and proclaim that he does not want this man, and that he is not keeping him through flattery or deception. The commentaries explain the name of God mentioned here as referring to the judges. I have already explained in Parshat Bereishit that Scripture does not use the term Elohim for the judges, but for the site of judgment. Since they administered God's judgments there, they called that place Elohim.

 

In contrast to the Mekhilta and several Rishonim (Rashi, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Tur), who explain the term Elohim as referring to the judges, the Abravanel argues that the term refers not to the judges, but to the site of judgment.

 

The Ramban in his commentary to our verse writes:

 

R. Avraham [Ibn Ezra] says that the judges are called Elohim because they uphold God's judgment on earth. In my opinion, Scripture says, "And his master shall bring him to the Elohim" and "The case of both parties shall come before Elohim" (Shemot 22:8), to intimate that God will be with them in judgment; He shall vindicate and He shall condemn. This is what it says, "Whom Elohim shall condemn." Similarly, Moshe said, "For the judgment is to Elohim" (Devarim 1:17). And thus said Yehoshafat, "For you do not judge for man, but for the Lord" (II Divrei Ha-Yamim 19:6).And similarly the verse says, "God stands in the congregation of God; He judges among the Elohim" (Tehillim 82:1) - that is, He judges among the congregation of God, because God is the judge. And similarly it says, "Then both the men, between whom is the controversy, shall stand before the Lord" (Devarim 19:17). And this is the meaning of "For I will not justify the wicked" (Shemot 23:7), according to the correct explanation. In Shemot Rabba (30:24) I saw: "When the judge sits and issues a true judgment, it is as it the Holy One, blessed be He, leaves the firmament of heaven and rests His Shekhina alongside him, as it is stated: ‘And when the Lord raised them up judges, then the Lord was with the judge’ (Shofetim 2:18).”


            In addition to the plain meaning of the verse, according to which the importance of God's presence in the court lies in the fact that it allows the judges to reach true judgment, His presence also helps the judges apply and execute God's judgments. This is also the way to understand the words of King Yehoshafat:

 

And he set judges in the land throughout all the fortified cities of Yehuda, city by city. And he said to the judges, “Take heed what you do, for you do not judge for man, but for the Lord, who is with you in judgment. And now let the fear of the Lord be upon you; take heed and do it. For there is no iniquity with the Lord our God, nor respect of persons, nor taking of gifts.” (II Divrei Ha-Yamim 19:5-7)

 

            The words, "for you do not judge for man, but for the Lord, who is with you in judgment," can be understood to mean that God is the source of judgment, but it can also mean that God Himself is present at the time of judgment.

 

R. Gruzman suggests that when the people asked Shemuel to appoint a king over them, "Make us a king to judge us like all the nations" (I Shemuel 8:5), they were essentially asking that their system of judgment should be like that of all the nations. God's reaction, "For they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me," indicates that the people had rejected the divine system of judgment. The removal of divine judgment is essentially a cessation of knowledge of God.

 

The Midrash Ha-Gadol at the beginning of Parashat Mishpatim relates to this point:

 

This is what the verse says: "But the Lord of hosts shall be exalted in the judgment, and God who is holy shall be sanctified in righteousness" (Yeshaya 5:16).

Great is judgment, for the Holy One, blessed be He, created many virtuous attributes in His world, e.g., truth, peace, lovingkindness, humility, faith, and blessing, and among all of them He assigned His name only to judgment, as it is stated: "Where is the God of judgment" (Malakhi 2:17).

Great is judgment, for the Holy One, blessed be He, exalts Himself in it, as it is written: "But the Lord of hosts shall be exalted in the judgment." He did not hand it over to an angel or to a seraph, but rather left it in His place, as it is stated: "Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne" (Tehillim 89:15). And out of His great love for justice, He gave it to Adam, as it is written: "And the Lord commanded the man" (Bereishit 2:16). And out of His great love for justice, He gave it to Israel, who are God's beloved. And so it says: "He declares His word to Yaakov, His statutes and His judgments to Israel" (Tehillim 147:19); "He declares His word to Yaakov" – these are the Ten Commandments; "His statutes and His judgments to Israel" – these are the laws. You might say: Just as He gave them to Israel, so He gave them to the nations of the world. God forbid. "He has not dealt so with any other nation" (ibid. v. 20). But only to Israel, as it is written: "And these are the judgments which you shall set before them" (Shemot 21:1), and not before others. To what may this be compared? To a king of flesh and blood who had many sons and he loves the youngest one. And he had many orchards and he loved one of them. He said: I will not give the orchard that I love to anyone but my son whom I love. Thus, the Holy One, blessed be He, loves judgment, as it is written: "He loves righteousness and judgment; the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord" (Tehillim 33:5). And of the nations He loves Israel, as it is written: "I have loved you, says the Lord" (Malakhi 1:2), and it says: "Yet I loved Yaakov" (ibid.). Therefore, He gave them the laws.

Great is judgment, in which the Holy One, blessed be He, prides Himself, as it is written: "For the Lord is a God of judgment: happy are all those who wait for Him" (Yeshaya 30:18). Avraham prided himself in nothing but judgment, as it is written: "For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment" (Bereishit 18:19). Moshe prided himself in nothing but judgment, as it is written: "He executed the justice of the Lord, and His judgments with Israel" (Devarim 33:21). David prided himself in nothing but judgment, as it is written: "And David executed judgment and justice to all his people" (II Shemuel 8:15). Shelomo prided himself in nothing but judgment, as it is written: "And Shelomo ruled over all of Israel, and he executed judgment and justice." Yehoshafat prided himself in nothing but judgment, as it is written: "And he said to the judges, ‘Take heed what you do, for you do not judge for man, but for the Lord" (II Divrei Ha-Yamim 19:6)

Great is judgment, for the Holy One, blessed be He, gave it as a gift to David, as it is written: "For Shelomo: Give the king your judgments" (Tehillim 72:1).

Great is judgment, for it brings the redemption closer, as it is written: "Keep judgment, and do justice, for My salvation is near to come, and My righteousness to be revealed" (Yeshaya 56:1).

Great is judgment, for with it the sins of Israel are pardoned, as it is written: "When the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall have purged the blood of Jerusalem from its midst by the spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of burning" (Yeshaya 4:4).

Great is judgment, for with it the Temple will be rebuilt, as it is written: "Zion shall be redeemed with judgment" (Yeshaya 1:27).

Great is judgment, for with it the kingdom of the messianic king will endure, as it is written: "The king who faithfully judges the poor, his throne shall be established forever" (Mishlei 29:14).

Great is judgment, for the messianic king prides himself in it, as it is written: "With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth" (Yeshaya 11:4); "And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither decide after the hearing of his ears" (ibid. v. 3).

 

From this midrash, we see, on the one hand, the strong connection between the glory and essence of God and justice and judgment, and, on the other hand, how because of this special connection God bestows justice and judgment on Israel.

 

Sanhedrin – The Site of Resolution and Unity

 

The gemara says:

 

It has been taught: R. Yose said: Originally, there were not many disputes in Israel, but one court of seventy-one members sat in the Chamber of Hewn Stone, and two courts of twenty-three sat, one at the entrance of the Temple Mount and one at the door of the [Temple] Court, and other courts of twenty-three sat in all Jewish cities. If a matter of inquiry arose, the local court was consulted. If they had a tradition [thereon], they stated it; if not, they went to the nearest court. If they had a tradition thereon, they stated it; if not, they went to the court situated at the entrance to the Temple Mount; if they had a tradition, they stated it; if not, they went to the one situated at the entrance of the Court. He [who differed from his colleagues] declared: Thus have I expounded, and thus have my colleagues expounded; thus have I taught, and thus have they taught. If they had a tradition thereon, they stated it, and if not, they all proceeded to the Chamber of Hewn Stones, where they [i.e., the Great Sanhedrin] sat from the daily morning offering until the daily evening offering; on Shabbat and festivals they sat within the chel. The question was then put before them: if they had a tradition thereon, they stated it; if not, they took a vote. If the majority voted "unclean," they declared it so; if "clean," they ruled even so. But when Shammai and Hillel’ disciples, who  had insufficiently studied, increased [in number], disputes multiplied in Israel, and the Torah became as two Torahs. From there [the Hall of Hewn Stones], documents were written and sent to all Israel, appointing men of wisdom and humility who were esteemed by their fellowmen as local judges. From there [the local court], they were promoted to [the court of] the Temple Mount, thence to the Court, and thence to the Hall of Hewn Stones. (Sanhedrin 88b)

 

It is interesting that the passage begins with the assertion that "originally, there were not many disputes in Israel," and one of the main reasons for this is that a court of seventy-one judges sat in the Chamber of Hewn Stone, a court of twenty-three judges sat at the entrance to the Temple Court, and a court of twenty-three judges sat at the entrance to the Temple Mount. The Talmud describes a situation in which a question that was asked before a court in a particular city is brought to the court at the entrance to the Temple Mount and from there to court at the entrance to the Temple Court, and then finally to the Chamber of Hewn Stone, where the matter is decided. In this united reality, the supreme spiritual center of halakhic decision making is found in the Temple, and the judges sitting on the courts of twenty three across the country all send their questions to Jerusalem.

 

The gemara points to a direct connection between the prevention of controversy and the Sanhedrin's sitting in the Chamber of Hewn Stone, and this is directly connected to the fact that there is a court that is supreme with respect to the number of judges, their wisdom, and its location, that allows for a resolution to be reached regarding all the questions and uncertainties arising in all of Israel.

 

The Rambam brings a ramification of this talmudic passage in his Hilkhot Mamrim (1:4):

 

When the Sanhedrin was in session, there were never any prolonged differences of opinion among the Jewish People. Instead, if a doubt arose in a Jew's mind over any law, he would inquire of the court in his city. If they know [the answer], they would reply to him. If not, the questioner and that court - or its agents - ascend to Jerusalem and ask the court which holds sessions on the Temple Mount. If they know, they reply to him, if they do not know, everyone comes to the court that holds sessions at the entrance to the Temple Courtyard. If they know, they will reply to him, if they do not know, everyone comes to the Chamber of Hewn Stone, to the Sanhedrin, and presents the question. If the matter that was unresolved by all the others was known to the Sanhedrin - either as part of the Oral Tradition or because of its derivation through the principles of exegesis - they relate the decision immediately. If, however, the decision was unclear to the Sanhedrin, they deliberate about the matter at that time and debate it back and forth until they reach a uniform decision, or until a vote is taken. In such a situation, they follow the majority and then tell all the questioners: "This is the halakha." The questioners then all depart.

After the Sanhedrin was nullified, differences of opinion multiplied among the Jewish People. One would rule an article is impure and support his ruling with a rationale and another would rule that it is pure and support his ruling with a rationale. This one would rule an article is forbidden and this would rule that it is permitted.

 

The Rambam's account implies that the very fact that the Sanhedrin sat in the Chamber of Hewn Stone prevented the proliferation of controversy in Israel and increased unity.

 

It may be suggested, in the wake of the extensive evidence brought above, that judgment belongs to God, and that the role of the judges is to bring about the revelation of divine judgment in the fullest way. There is a connection between setting the Sanhedrin close to the altar and the statement that judgment belongs to God. Since judgment belongs to God, it is revealed in its ideal and supreme form only when the Sanhedrin sits in its designated place in the Chamber of Hewn Stone, near the altar. It is only then that the divinity of the judgment becomes apparent.

 

One clear expression of this is the decisive resolution of doubts and the prevention of disputes. In one place, in the Chamber of Hewn Stone, the Sanhedrin decides the Halakha and reveals, owing to its proximity to the site of the resting of the Shekhina, the revelation of the Shekhina through the unity of Halakha and its singular revelation to all of Israel.

 

According to this understanding, controversy is the result of the destruction of the Temple and the Sanhedrin's departure from the Chamber of Hewn Stone. God's word was originally one, and this unity revealed itself when the Sanhedrin convened in the Chamber of Hewn Stone.

 

"From Zion Shall go Forth Torah and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem"  

 

In his book Kakh Darkha shel Torah,[1] Judge Zilberg explains the connection between the Sanhedrin and the Temple. He argues that this connection is related to the fundamental difference between the role of a judge in general law and his role in Jewish law. General law leaves ample space for the judge's discretion; it can therefore allow vague criteria, e.g., "reasonable caution," "reasonable period of time," and the like. This is not the case with Jewish law. Here, the judge's role when he sits in judgment is to establish the word of God. Therefore, Chazal expounded various laws that apply in practice from the verse: "From Zion shall go forth Torah and the world of the Lord from Jerusalem" (Yeshaya 2:3; Mikha 4:2).

 

The proximity of the Sanhedrin to the site of the resting of the Shekhina allows the judges to discover the word of God and issue it as ruling.

 

This, of course, raises the issue regarding the role played by the human judge in revealing the word of God. How and to what extent can the judge use his own powers of discernment to uncover God's word in this world?

 

Why was the Sanhedrin Set in Close Proximity to the Altar Rather than Near the Holy of Holies?

 

This question can be answered in several directions:

 

1) More than anything else, it is the altar that reflects man's turning to and service of God. Man turns to God, and only to Him, knowing that He alone is the source of atonement, pardon, providence, and blessing in the entire world.

 

The Torah emphasizes that an altar must be made to God: "An altar of earth you shall make to Me" (Shemot 20:21). Regarding no other vessel in the Mishkan is it stated that the vessel must be made to God – not the ark, nor the candlestick, nor the table, nor the incense altar, nor the laver. Man's turning to God must be directed straight to God, and only to Him.[2]

 

2) The role of the Sanhedrin and judgment is based on the human desire and the legal discretion to bring about the revelation of God's word in this world, to direct our judgment to God's judgments. The justice executed by man must be directed toward the will of God. Man's duty toward moral conduct does not stand on its own; it is an inseparable part of his service of God and the proper relationship between man and his Maker.

 

God reveals Himself through justice, and for that reason the performance of justice is the path leading to closeness to god. Justice cannot be detached from the will of God.

 

For this reason, the Sanhedrin must be near the altar, rather than the Holy of Holies. The altar expresses human action in the profoundest and most comprehensive way, reflecting that which is cast upon man to do for God. Unlike the Holy of Holies, which represents the lowering of the Shekhina from heaven to earth, the altar symbolizes human activity, which leads to a revelation of the divine in the world. This accounts for the similarity between the Sanhedrin and the altar. Their linkage is so strong that if the Sanhedrin is not sitting in its designated place, there is no possibility of judging capital cases anywhere in the land of Israel.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 



[1] M. Zilberg, Kakh Darkha shel Torah (Jerusalem, 1964), pp. 55-56.

[2] We saw various explanations of the prohibition to plant an ashera next to the altar, according to which it is prohibited to join anything else to the altar. The altar must be directed exclusively to God, by itself and with nothing else joined to it.