Sanhedrin, Chapter One, Mishnah Five
Mishnah five deals with cases which are only adjudicated in front of a full court of seventy one, which was the number of the full Sanhedrin.
1) A tribe, a false prophet, or the high priest may not be tried save by the court of seventy-one;
2) They may not send forth the people to wage a battle of free choice save by the decision of the court of one and seventy;
3) They may not add to the City [of Jerusalem], or the Courts of the Temple save by the decision of the court of seventy-one;
4) They may not set up sanhedrins for the several tribes save by the decision of the court of one and seventy.
5) And they may not proclaim [any city to be] an Apostate City (ir ha-niddahat) (Deut. 13:1319] save by the decision of one and seventy.
6) No city on the frontier may be proclaimed an Apostate City, nor three together, but only one or two.
Section one: The trial of a tribe refers to a case in which an entire tribe is suspected of having committed idolatry. According to the mishnah in such a case the tribe is tried in front of seventy-one judges and not the twenty three who would adjudicate a normal case of idol worship (which is punishable by death). A false prophet is referred to in Deut. 18:20 which states that such a prophet should be executed. The High Priest also may only be judged by a court of seventy one. The common denominator between the High Priest and the prophet is the high regard that society would have for both of them. In order to reflect this high regard and the public nature of such trials they would have been held in front of the Great Sanhedrin of 71. Note that according to the Christian Bible, Mark 14:53ff and John 18:13 Jesus was tried in front of the Sanhedrin. In other passages some of the disciples and Paul are also questioned by the Sanhedrin.
Section two: In Jewish law there are two types of war: a mandatory war and a war of free choice. A mandatory war would be either a defensive war or a war whose purpose was to capture the Land of Israel as was in the days of Joshua. A war of free choice would be one which expands the borders beyond the Biblical borders. [Note: the Biblical borders are very difficult to delineate, and there are indeed several versions of them]. Since there will inevitably be heavy casualties in war, the decision to go to a war of free choice requires a full Sanhedrin of 71. A mandatory war would not require the decision of any court.
Section three: They would not add to the borders of Jerusalem or to the size of the Courts in the Temple except by a court of 71. Adding to either the border of Jerusalem or the Temple causes a greater level of sanctity in these places and therefore requires a full court. Note that as the population grew it was occasionally necessary to expand both the Temple and Jerusalem itself, a fact that can be seen in any archaeological dig in Jerusalem.
Section four: Setting up smaller, local sanhedrins, which would have included 23 judges can only be done by the Great Sanhedrin of 71.
Section five: According to Deut. 13:12ff. if a town has been subverted into idol worship all of the residents of the town are to be executed and the entire town and all of its contents are to be burned. This harsh law (that was never in actuality carried out) could only be decided upon by the Great Sanhedrin.
Section six: This section contains several other laws pertaining to the Apostate City. According to Deuteronomy only cities within the borders of Israel can become an Apostate City which is to be executed. The fear is that if this law is performed on one of the border towns it will encourage raids from neighboring tribes, which would endanger all of Israel. For a similar reason even the Great Sanhedrin was not allowed to declare more than two cities to be Apostate Cities. For obvious reasons declaring a city to be an Apostate City and thereby killing all of its inhabitants might encourage other countries to engage Israel in war.
Questions for Further Thought:
· Section six is quite apparently a law brought by the mishnaic editor to our mishnah from another source. Why do you think he taught this law here? What light might it shed upon the previous law?