Sanhedrin, Chapter Four, Mishnah One
The mishnah which we will learn today discusses the differences in how a court acts during non-capital trials (cases entailing penalty not by death) and capital trials. As we will learn in our mishnah and also in mishnah five of this chapter the Rabbis took capital cases very seriously and wanted to ensure as much as possible that no person would be wrongfully executed.
1) Both non-capital and capital cases require examination and inquiry [of the witnesses], as it says, You shall have one manner of law (Lev. 24:22).
2) How do non-capital cases differ from capital cases?
a) Non-capital cases [are decided] by three and capital cases by twenty three.
b) Non-capital cases may begin either with reasons for acquittal or for conviction; capital cases begin with reasons for acquittal and do not begin with reasons for conviction.
c) In non-capital cases they may reach a verdict of either acquittal or conviction by the decision of a majority of one; in capital cases they may reach an acquittal by the majority of one but a verdict of conviction only by the decision of a majority of two.
d) In non-capital cases they may reverse a verdict either [from conviction] to acquittal or [from acquittal] to conviction; in capital cases they may reverse a verdict [from conviction] to acquittal but not [from acquittal] to conviction.
e) In non-capital cases all may argue either in favor of conviction or of acquittal; in capital cases all may argue in favor of acquittal but not all may argue in favor of conviction.
f) In non-capital cases he that had argued in favor of conviction may afterward argue in favor of acquittal, or he that had argued in favor of acquittal may afterward argue in favor of conviction; in capital cases he that had argued in favor of conviction may afterward argue in favor of acquittal but he that had argued in favor of acquittal cannot afterward argue in favor of conviction.
g) In non-capital cases they hold the trial during the daytime and the verdict may be reached during the night; in capital cases they hold the trial during the daytime and the verdict also must be reached during the daytime.
h) In non-capital cases the verdict, whether of acquittal or of conviction, may be reached the same day; in capital cases a verdict of acquittal may be reached on the same day, but a verdict of conviction not until the following day.
i) Therefore trials may not be held on the eve of a Sabbath or on the eve of a Festival.
Our mishnah opens with the one similarity between capital and non-capital cases: they both require interrogation of the witnesses. We will learn what questions were asked of the witnesses in chapter five.
The mishnah then lists eight differences between capital and non-capital cases.
Section a: Capital cases require twenty three judges, while non-capital cases require only three. This law was already learned in chapter one.
Section b: In non-capital cases the judges may begin their deliberations either with points in favor or points against the accused. Capital cases must begin with points in favor of the accused.
Section c: Non-capital cases require a majority of one to either convict or acquit, while capital cases require a majority of two to convict and one to acquit. This law was also already learned in chapter one, mishnah six.
Section d: If new evidence should arise non-capital cases may later be reversed either from conviction to acquittal or vice versa. Capital cases may only be reversed from conviction to acquittal. Once a person is acquitted of a capital crime he may no longer be tried.
Section e: In non-capital cases anyone may speak in favor or against the accused, even the disciples of the Sages who are not counted amongst the judges. (We will learn more about them in mishnah four of this chapter). In capital cases the disciples may speak in favor of the accused but not against him.
Section f: In non-capital cases a judge who argued in favor may later argue against, if he is convinced by the arguments of his colleagues. In capital cases once one has argued in favor he may no longer argue against.
Section g: The verdict of a non-capital case may be reached at night, whereas the verdict of a capital case must be reached during the day.
Section h: Non-capital cases may be completed in one day, but capital cases require the judges to wait overnight before rendering their decision. Since this is so, capital cases are not adjudicated on the day before the Sabbath or a Festival, for if they were the punishment would have to be carried out on the Sabbath or Festival and it was considered to be a breach of Sabbath or Festival law to execute on those days. Furthermore, they didnt want to try someone on Friday, pronounce him guilty on the Sabbath and have to wait until Sunday to execute him. Such a wait would prolong the psychological pain of the person about to be put to death.
Questions for Further Thought:
· Why did the Sages insist on these differences between capital and non-capital cases? What is their function?