ט״ז באב ה׳תשע״ז (August 8, 2017)

Sanhedrin 23a-b: Picking a Court

The first Mishna in Massekhet (2a) taught that there are three types of courts in Jewish law:

  • Ordinary courts of three judges whose purview is limited to monetary matters and kenasot – monetary penalties
  • Sanhedrin ketana – courts of 23 judges, who ruled on issues of capital crimes
  • Sanhedria gedola – the supreme court of 71 judges that sat in the Lishkat HaGazit on the Temple Mount.

While the higher courts were established institutions whose members were chosen by the senior judges themselves, the ordinary courts that ruled on most mundane matters were not as permanently set, and, in fact, were often pulled together to hear and rule on a specific case. How were the judges in such a case to be chosen? What criteria existed to determine who could sit on such a court? Can anyone serve on such a court? Must they be ordained? The third perek of Massekhet Sanhedrin deals with these issues.

According to the Mishna on today’s daf, in civil cases dealing with monetary matters, the court will be chosen with the agreement of each of the sides in the case. Rabbi Meir says that each side in the case chooses a single judge and then agree on the third judge. The rule that the two judges will agree on who the third judge should be.

Tosafot and the Ran ask why there is a need to establish a court in this manner – shouldn’t the established court force the two parties to come before it and be judged? They answer that the court’s power to force the defendant to appear before them exists only in cases where the defendant is not willing to come to court at all. In a case, however, where the defendant says that he is willing to come to court, but he refuses to be tried before this particular court, then his argument is accepted, and the court cannot force him to accept their jurisdiction in the case.

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