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Sanhedrin 36a-b: Opinions From the Side
Which of the judges speaks up first during deliberations?
According to the Mishna (32a) the eldest or greatest of the judges speaks first in all cases, aside from dinei nefashot – capital cases – where we begin “from the side” – we let others, judges from the side benches, speak up first.
The Gemara on today’s daf brings Rav who reports that as a judge in the court of Rabbi [Yehuda HaNasi] he was the one who spoke up first. The Gemara questions why Rav would have been asked to offer his opinion first. Given that during Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s time the Sanhedrin had already stopped dealing with capital offenses it is clear the trials under discussion are ordinary cases, where Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi himself should have begun the discussion. In response Rava’s son Rabba – and some say Rabbi Hillel the son of Rabbi Valles – explained that in the courtroom of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi it was common practice that in all trials they began with one of the weaker, and less experienced judges.
The explanation for this appears connected with the continuation of the Gemara, where we find those same amoraim describing how unique a personality Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was – that from the time of Moshe until Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi we do not find Torah scholarship and greatness (leadership and wealth) in a single person. Thus there was a serious concern lest Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s position be accepted without any dissent, were he to have spoken first.
Another explanation that is suggested is based on the fact that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s courtroom was qualitatively different than others. As compiler and editor of the Mishna, many of the discussions that took place there dealt with decisions that would establish halakha for future generations. As such, they were serious enough to be treated like capital cases rather than like simple ones.
This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.
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