According to the Meiri, Massekhet Sanhedrin should be placed first in the Order of Nezikin – damages. The logic behind this order is that it seems appropriate to place the rules regulating the appointment and establishment of judges prior to those tractates whose focus is the laws that the judges will apply to different cases. Nevertheless, the accepted order of the tractates has Massekhet Sanhedrin following Massekhet Bava Batra, whose final Mishna (see Bava Batra daf 176) closes with the statement made by Rabbi Yishmael who recommended that anyone who wants to develop his intelligence should study the monetary laws. Thus, the first Mishna in Massekhet Sanhedrin begins with the words dinei mamonot – “the monetary laws.”
As presented in the first Mishna, 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
- Sanhedriah gedola – the supreme court of 71 judges that sat in the Lishkat ha-Gazit on the Temple Mount. This court appointed the various Sanhedriyot ketanot, ruled on questionable cases and was reserved for judging high profile cases like a false prophet, the High Priest or a tribe that was suspected of sinning by committing Avoda Zara.
The source of the term “Sanhedrin” is from the Greek – συνέδριον – where it means “assembly” or “council” and specifically an important council of judges or leaders. Rav Ovadya Bartenura offers an alternative source for the word. He suggests that it is an abbreviation for the expression sonei hadrat panim be-din – a group that “despises showing favoritism when in judgment” – one of the laudatory descriptions of the court.