Tag Archives: Sanhedrin

The Final Positive Mitzvot (P#224-248)

Read the full text here. 

A goring bull, one of the most common causes of damage in ancient times.

Summary: Mitzvot #224-231 deal with meting out various forms of punishment for sins and crimes, including both corporal punishment and four kinds of capital punishment. The next four mitzvot deal with laws of slavery. Mitzvot #236-246 all have to do with laws of damages, including the four main categories of damages which are a goring ox, a hazardous pit, grazing animals, and fire (as discussed at length in the Talmud, tractate Bava Kamma). Mitzvah #247 is to save a person who is being pursued. The final positive mitzvah deals with the laws of inheritance.

Insight: Although the Torah commands four kinds of death penalties, in reality the death penalty was quite rare in ancient Israel. The Mishnah (Makkot 1:10) states that a Sanhedrin that put someone to death even once in seventy years was called a “destructive” or “bloodthirsty” court, and was looked upon unfavourably. Great sages like Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon said they would never rule to put anyone to death. Ultimately, the Sages found a way to abolish the death penalty altogether. Similarly, while the Torah does allow for servitude, the laws are so favourable towards the slave that our Sages stated “one who gains a slave, gains a master!” Among other things, a slave was required to eat the same meals as his master, and sleep in the same kind of bed. The Torah prohibits owning a slave for more than six years, as every seventh year all slaves were freed. Interestingly, the Torah speaks of the procedure when a slave wishes to remain in servitude to his master beyond the seven years. Such a possibility exists only because the slave was treated so well.

Judges, Courts, and Wars (P#171-193)

Read the full text here. 

A real half-shekel coin from the Second Temple era unearthed in Jerusalem.

Summary: Mitzvah #171 is to donate a yearly half-shekel to the Temple. Then we have the mitzvah of listening to legitimate prophets (172), appointing a king (173), listening to the Sanhedrin (174), and for the Sanhedrin to operate by majority rule (175). While the Sanhedrin was the “supreme court” in Jerusalem, every Jewish community is required to appoint local judges and officers (176), and every judge must treat litigants equally (177). Then come three more mitzvot regarding courts: to go and testify if one is a valid witness (178), to cross-examine witnesses thoroughly so that justice can be served properly (179), and to punish false witnesses (180). The next mitzvah is the eglah arufa, followed by establishing the six “cities of refuge”.  Related to the latter is establishing cities for the Levites to dwell in (183). Mitzvah #184 is to construct safety rails on rooftops so that none should fall and get injured. The next set is all about exterminating idolatry: destroying false idols (185), destroying heretical cities that have fallen to idolatry (186), to destroy the sinful Canaanites nations (187), as well as Amalek, the arch-enemy of Israel (188). There is a separate mitzvah to remember all the evil that Amalek has done to Israel (189). The last of the set involves various commands related to war. First is to follow the appropriate rules associated with a war that is voluntary (190), ie. a war required for political reasons and not a holy war commanded by God. Then comes the mitzvah to anoint and appoint a kohen to lead the Jewish army into battle and inspire them to fight valiantly (the kohen himself does not battle, since kohanim cannot be defiled by death). Mitzvot #192 and 193 ensure cleanliness in the military camp by designating a place to serve as a latrine and for each soldier to have a shovel to bury their waste.

Insight: Currently, in the absence of a Sanhedrin, a number of the mitzvot above are unable to be fulfilled. Then there is a mitzvah that has already been fulfilled for good and can never be fulfilled again: destroying the seven Canaanite nations. Most of this work was done by Joshua and the Israelites upon their entry into the Holy Land following the Exodus and the forty-year period in the Wilderness. The Canaanite nations persisted for some time afterwards, but have since disappeared entirely from the face of the Earth. It is important to note that the Canaanites were not innocent victims. They had become grotesquely sinful, and God specifically waited until their sin was great enough to justify their destruction (see Genesis 15:16). The nation of Amalek, too, no longer exists. However, the spirit of Amalek continues to infect the world, and rears its ugly head at various times and places in history.

Introduction to Mishneh Torah – Part 4

In the conclusion of his Introduction, the Rambam explains why he undertook to produce the Mishneh Torah, and how he structured his magnum opus.

Read the full text of the Introduction here. 

Summary: The Rambam explains that following the completion of the Talmud, persecutions of the Jewish people increased and the exile got progressively worse. At the same time, the Sanhedrin was disbanded years earlier, and there was no longer a recognized body of Sages that could rule on Jewish matters by majority vote. Individual rabbis in distinct communities around the world would make rulings based on their own understanding and for the needs of their particular communities. Such rulings cannot be applied to all of the Jewish people worldwide! The Rambam makes clear that the only laws that can be said to be binding upon all the Jewish people are those set forth in the Talmud, based strictly on the Mishnah and Tanakh. Meanwhile, the language of the Talmud (Aramaic) was no longer understood by the majority of Jews now spread around the world. Thus, the Rambam undertook to codify the entire Talmud, and put it into simple Hebrew language that all could understand. This would be a unified, singular text that would make clear exactly which laws a Jew must follow, “so that a person will not need another text at all with regard to any Jewish law.” The Rambam explains that he called his code the Mishneh Torah, literally meaning a “repetition” or “second” to the Torah, because “a person should first study the Written Law, and then study this text and comprehend the entire Oral Law from it, without having to study any other text between the two.” A Jew need only read the Torah of Moses itself, along with the Mishneh Torah of Moses Maimonides, to grasp the entirety of Jewish law! Finally, the Rambam concludes by stating that, as is well-known, there are 613 commandments in the Torah, and he has structured his code of law around those mitzvot. Under the general heading of each mitzvah, he will explain all the halakhot that fit under it, as we shall see.

Insight: Although the Rambam called his text the Mishneh Torah, it came to be better known as the Yad HaChazakah, “the Strong Hand”. One reason for this is to avoid confusion with the fifth book of the Torah, Devarim, which was historically referred to as Mishneh Torah as well because it repeats and reviews much of what happened in the Torah previously. (This is also why it is known in English as Deuteronomy, meaning “repetition”.) Secondly, it is to avoid confusion with the Mishnah, the first corpus of Jewish law that was composed by Rabbi Yehuda haNasi. Finally, the word yad (יד) in Yad HaChazakah has a numerical value (gematria) of 14, alluding to the 14 volumes within the Mishneh Torah. It is also interesting to note that yad means “hand”, and the human hand has five fingers which are composed of 14 phalanges or segments (two in the thumb, and three in each of the other fingers). The term Yad HaChazakah comes from the Torah’s description of how God redeemed us and took us out of Egypt with a “Strong Hand”. Our Sages taught (Sanhedrin 98a) that when all of the Jewish people properly adhere to God’s Law, the Final Redemption would come immediately. It is therefore most appropriate to refer to the Mishneh Torah as the Yad HaChazakah, for through its observance we will merit to once again be redeemed by God’s Strong Hand.

For an inside look at the Mishneh Torah’s introduction and a further insight, see the following short video: