Sanhedrin, Chapter One, Mishnah Six



After having learned in the first five mishnayoth of the chapter how many judges were needed for each type of case, the sixth mishnah gives Biblical proof texts for these numbers.


Mishnah Six

The greater Sanhedrin was made up of seventy one and the little Sanhedrin of twenty three. 

1)                     From where do we learn that the greater Sanhedrin should be made up of seventy one?

a)                                           As it says, “Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel” (Num. 11:16), and when Moses is added to them there is seventy one.

b)                                          Rabbi Judah says:  “Seventy.”

2)                     From where do we learn that the little Sanhedrin should be made up of twenty three?

a)                                           As it says, “The assembly shall judge”, “The assembly shall deliver” (Num. 35:24-25), an assembly that judges and an assembly that delivers, thus we have twenty.

i)                                                       And from where do we know that an assembly has ten?         

(1)                                                                 As it says, “How long shall I bear this evil congregation?” (Num. 14:27) [which refers to the twelve spies] but Joshua and Caleb were not included.

b)                                          And from where do we learn that we should bring three others [to the twenty]?

i)                                                       By inference from what it says, “You shall not follow after the many to do evil” (Ex. 23:2), I conclude that I must be with them to do well.

ii)                                                      Then why does it say, “[To follow] after the many to change judgment” (Ex. 23:2). 

iii)                                                     [It means that] your verdict of condemnation should not be like your verdict of acquittal, for your verdict of acquittal is reached by the decision of a majority of one, but your verdict of condemnation must be reached by the decision of a majority of two. 

c)                                           The court must not be divisible equally, therefore they add to them one more; thus they are twenty three.

3)                     And how many should there be in a city that it may be fit to have a Sanhedrin?

a)                                           A hundred and twenty.

b)                                          Rabbi Nehemiah says:  “Two hundred and thirty, so that [the Sanhedrin of twenty three] should correspond with them that are chiefs of [at least] groups of ten.


Explanation—Mishnah Six

This mishnah basically contains exegetical (midrashic) proofs for the greater Sanhedrin of seventy one and the little Sanhedrin of twenty three. 

Section one:  The greater Sanhedrin was composed of seventy one judges to correspond to the seventy elders plus Moses mentioned in Numbers 11:16.  According to Rabbi Judah, the seventy elders included Moses, and therefore the greater Sanhedrin was only to be composed of seventy one.

Section two:  The exegesis used to derive the number 23 for the little Sanhedrin is much more complicated.  Firstly, from the verses in Numbers 35:24-25, which refer to an assembly that judges and an assembly that delivers the condemned from being punished, the Rabbis derive that capital cases require the potential to have both a full “assembly” that judges (convicts) and a full assembly that delivers (acquits).  Although this is certainly not the simple meaning of this verse, this is the way it is understood in our mishnah.  An assembly is taken to mean a group of ten, as proven from the use of the word in Num. 14:27.  If two “assemblies” are required than we need at least twenty on a court to adjudicate capital cases.

In order to exegetically prove that we need another three, the mishnah turns to Exodus 23:2 and a potential redundancy between the two halves of the verse.  The first half states that one should not follow a majority of people in order to do evil, and therefore we could learn that one should follow the majority to do good.  However, this is understood to also be the explanation of the second half of the verse, which states that one should follow the majority, clearly to do good.  In order to solve this supposed redundancy the mishnah says that the majority needed to convict is not the same as the majority needed to acquit.  In order to acquit we only need a majority of one and in order to convict we need a majority of two.  The verse is therefore explained in the following manner:  when it says “, “You shall not follow after the many to do evil”, it means do not follow a majority of one to convict.  When it says “[To follow] after the many to change judgment”, it means you should follow a majority of two to acquit.  We have now arrived at the number twenty-two, since if an assembly (10) convicts we will need another assembly of 12 to acquit.  In order not to have a court that is even and therefore might not arrive at any decision, they add one more judge.

Section three:  In order for a city to be worthy or large enough to merit a little Sanhedrin, which according to mishnah five had to be appointed by the greater Sanhedrin, it had to have 120 permanent inhabitants.  According to Rabbi Nehemiah, it had to have 230 inhabitants, ten for each judge.  According to Rabbi Nehemiah this is so each judge can act as a chief of at least ten people, which is the smallest judicial appointment according to Ex. 18:21.


Questions for Further Thought:

·                      Why is a greater majority required for conviction than acquittal?