י״ח בתשרי ה׳תשע״ח (October 8, 2017)

Sanhedrin 84a-b: Death by Choking

The tenth perek of Massekhet Elu hem ha-neḥnakim – begins on today’s daf. According to many rishonim the tenth chapter of this massekhet is Perek Ḥelek, as it appears in standard mishnayot and in the Talmud Yerushalmi (in our Gemara, Perek Ḥelek appears as the eleventh chapter). Among the reasons given for this is that Perek Elu hem ha-neḥnakim concludes with topics that lead into Massekhet Makkot, which, according to many, is the concluding part of Massekhet Sanhedrin. The order of the perakim that we have is likely based on the desire to place Perek Ḥelek – which includes discussions of basic questions of belief, resurrection of the dead and the World to Come – at the very end of Massekhet Sanhedrin. Thus, after the Gemara has taught the different punishments that are meted out to sinners, the tractate concludes with teachings that will help clarify which of those sinners will still merit these ultimate rewards, and who will not.

Perek Elu hem ha-neḥnakim discusses the different cases where someone receiving capital punishment will be killed by choking. Two cases that appear in the list in the first Mishna in the perek are discussed at some length due to their importance: zaken mamre – an elder Sage who rebels against the decision of the Sanhedrin – and navi sheker – a false prophet.

Both of these situations demand careful definitions of what constitutes an act that would lead to the death penalty, since these activities may weaken the essence of the laws of the Torah, even as both of these individuals are operating based on the system of Jewish law. In the case of who deviates from the agreed upon decision of the Sanhedrin, we must recognize that every Sage is expected to study the Torah and reach his own conclusions and that we expect there to be disagreements regarding the law. The prophet operates in a setting where the Jewish people are obligated to listen to him, even in situations where he calls for an abrogation of the accepted laws of the Torah.

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