Judges and law officers you shall establish for yourselves at all your [city] gates … and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment
In the courts of Torah law that were established by Moses—and which continue to serve us to this day—cases are heard by a tribunal (bet din) of three judges.
Why three judges? Because, as the Talmud expresses it, “You should not judge alone, for there is none qualified to judge alone, only the One.”Nor can two judges form a bet din: because the Torah commands to “rule in accordance with the majority,” the bet din must consist of an uneven number of judges, so that in the case that there is disagreement between them, there will always be a majority opinion. Hence the requirement for three judges.
In addition to the standard three-member bet din, there were two types of higher-level courts in the Torah’s judicial system:
a) “Minor Sanhedrins” established in all major cities and districts. These consisted of 23 judges and were authorized to try capital offenses and other weighty matters.
b) The “Great Sanhedrin” of 71 judges which sat in a chamber in the courtyard of the Holy Temple. The Great Sanhedrin was the highest court of Torah law, having sole jurisdiction in matters of national importance.
Congregations of Judges
The Great Sanhedrin was modeled after the assembly of 70 elders which G-d instructed Moses to convene to assist him in the jurisdiction and governance of Israel. But why 23 judges in the other Sanhedrins?
The Talmud explains that the requirement for 23 judges is derived from the following verses, which discuss the trial of a person who has unintentionally caused the death of another:
The congregation [of judges] shall judge between the killer and the avenger of the blood, according to these judgments.
And the congregation shall save the killer from the hand of the avenger of the blood.
And the congregation shall send him back to his city of refuge.
In these verses, the Torah refers to three functions of the court:
a) To “judge” the accused—i.e., to seek to establish his guilt.
b) To “save” the accused—to seek to establish his innocence.
c) To hand down the verdict and—if the accused is found guilty—the sentence through which his rehabilitation will be achieved. (In the case of the unintentional killer, to “send him back to his city of refuge.”)
In the Sanhedrin, the judges themselves served in the roles of the “prosecution” and the “defense.” After hearing the testimony of the witnesses, the judges would divide themselves into two groups: those inclined to exonerate the accused, and those inclined to find him guilty.Each judge would express his view of the evidence and seek to convince his fellows of his position. The Sanhedrin would then vote. A majority of one (e.g., a vote of 12-11) sufficed to exonerate the accused; a majority of two (e.g., a vote of 12-10) was required to convict.
In the above-quoted verses, the Torah refers three times to the judges as a “congregation” (eidah), in connection with each of these functions—“judging,” “saving” and convicting/sentencing. Throughout the Torah, the word “congregation” is understood to mean a minimum of ten individuals. Thus, in a court authorized to try capital cases, there must be enough judges for at least a congregation of “savers” and a congregation of “judgers,” and that the court should still be able to convict the accused in such circumstances.This brings us to a total of 22 judges. For in the case that there are 10 “savers,” there must be at least 12 “judgers” (10+2) to convict. And since a court must always have an uneven number of judges, the “Minor Sanhedrin” must consist of at least 23 judges.
“A judge who judges with absolute truthfulness,” say our sages, “becomes like a partner with G-d in creation.” G-d modeled His world after the blueprint He had sketched in the laws of the Torah; by “maintaining” His creation in accordance with these laws, we become partners to His endeavor.
Thus, the forces that comprise a Sanhedrin mirror the dynamics of G-d’s creation: here, too, are element of “judgment,” “saving” and the verdict that is born of their combination. In the words of the Midrash:
G-d said: “If I create the world with Mercy, there will be many sinners; if I create with Law, how would it survive? So I shall create it with a combination of Mercy and Law.”
A human court that endeavors to be a partner in G-d’s creation must embody the three strains in these musings of the Creator’s mind. It must be an instrument of “mercy” that seeks the redeeming and exonerating element even in a person who has committed the worst of crimes. It must also be an instrument of “law” that vigilantly preserves the infrastructure of creation. And it must combine these two functions in the handing down of its verdict and sentence—a verdict and sentence that atones even as it punishes, that rehabilitates the person even as it condemns his deed.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Tammuz 28, 5720 (July 23, 1960)
Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber
. Albeit in a limited form—see note 4 below.
. Ethics of the Fathers 4:8.
. Exodus 23:2; see note 10 below.
. Forty years before the destruction of the Second Temple, a combination of Roman persecution and internal lawlessness caused the Great Sanhedrin to remove themselves from the Temple courtyard. This deprived them, and also the Minor Sanhedrins, of the authority to try capital offenses. The Sanhedrins continued to function, in a limited way, for another three hundred years, until Jewish autonomy had deteriorated to the point that they ceased operation altogether. Today, every Jewish community has a bet din, but we still await the restoration of the Sanhedrins by Moshiach.
. Numbers 11:16.
. Talmud, Sanhedrin 2a.
. Numbers 35:24-25.
. Exile to one of the designated “cities of refuge” is the prescribed punishment for unintentional killing through negligence. At first, all killers fled to a “city of refuge,” where they were safe from the “avenger of the blood” (a relative of the victim who seeks to avenge his death; the “avenger of the blood” was not prosecuted for killing the killer if he did so outside of a city of refuge). From the city of refuge the killer was brought before the court: killers who were found guilty of intentional murder were executed; those who were found guilty of unintentional murder were sent back to the city of refuge to serve their sentence of exile.
. If none of the judges were inclined to argue in defense of the accused, he could not be convicted.
. In the same verse (Exodus 23:2) that the Torah says to follow the majority, it also instructs: “Do not follow a [mere] majority to detriment.”
. Hence the minyan, the quorum of ten required for congregational prayer. The definition of “congregation” is derived from Numbers 14:27, where the ten spies who spoke ill of the Holy Land are referred to as “this evil congregation.”
. Talmud, Shabbat 10a.
. Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 1:2.
. Ibid., 12:15.
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. IV, p. 1332.