Sanhedrin, Chapter Eleven, Mishnah Two



Mishnayoth two through four deal with the rebellious elder, who is considered to be an ordained elder who taught against an authoritative ruling of the high court in Jerusalem.  While Jewish learning is usually quite pluralistic, allowing for the existence of many differences of opinions without deeming one to be heretical, there is a theoretical limit to this pluralism.  The high court in Jerusalem was considered to be the final word in all matters.  An ordained teacher who ruled against the high court in a matter of practical law was to be condemned to death.  Since the high court has not existed since the time of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, this law is (for better or for worse) no longer enforceable.


Mishnah Two

1)                     An elder rebelling against the ruling of the court [is strangled],  for it says, “If there arise a matter too hard for you for judgement […you shall promptly repair to the place that the Lord your God will have chosen, and appear before the levitical priests, or the magistrate in charge at the time, and present your problem.  When they have announced to you the verdict in the case, you shall carry out the verdict that is announced to you from that place that the Lord chose, observing scrupulously all their instructions to you.  You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you and the ruling handed down to you; you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left.  Should a man act presumptuously and disregard the priest charged with serving there the Lord your God, or the magistrate, that man shall die” (Deut. 17:8-13, JPS translation).

2)                     Three courts of law were there, one situated at the entrance to the Temple mount,   another at the door of the [Temple] court,  and the third in the Chamber of Hewn Stone.

a)                                           They [first] went to the court which is at the entrance to the Temple mount, and he [the rebellious elder] stated, “Thus have I expounded and thus have my colleagues expounded; thus have I taught, and thus have my colleagues taught.”

b)                                          If [this first court] had heard [a ruling on the matter], they state it.

c)                                           If not, they go to the [second court] which is at the entrance of the Temple court, and he declares, “Thus have I expounded and thus have my colleagues expounded; thus have I taught, and thus have my colleagues taught.”

d)                                          If [this second court] had heard [a ruling on the matter] they state it; if not, they all proceed to the great court of the Chamber of Hewn Stone from whence instruction issued to all Israel, for it says, [you shall carry out the verdict that is announced to you] from that place that the Lord chose (Deut. 17:10).

3)                     If he returned to his town and taught again as he did before, he is not liable.

a)                                           But if he gave a practical decision, he is guilty, for it says, “Should a man act presumptuously” (Deut. 17:12) he is liable only for a practical ruling.

b)                                          But if a disciple gave a practical decision [opposed to the court], he is exempt:   thus his stringency is his leniency.


Explanation—Mishnah Two

Section one:  This section introduces the Biblical prooftext for the category of the rebellious elder.  The Torah mentions one who “acts presumptuously”, ignoring the teaching of the priestly magistrate.   The Torah does not state who this person was, or under what circumstances he disobeyed the authority of our court.  Our mishnah attempts to define this person, giving, interestingly enough, a narrow definition.  This definition will leave much room for a Jew to disagree with even the high court, without allowing total disobedience to its rulings.

Section two:  This section describes the judicial process by which an elder could be brought to the high court. When an elder made a teaching upon which the other elders disagreed he is first brought to the court that sat at the opening of the Temple mount.  The elder is allowed to state how he expounded the Torah or how he taught and how his colleagues expounded or taught.  If this court had heard a ruling with regard to the matter they would decide in the matter.  If not they would send him to the court that sat at the entrance to the Temple court, where the process would be repeated.  If they too had not heard a ruling then they would send him to the highest court, the great court that sat in the Temple in the Chamber of Hewn Stone.  This court would by necessity make a ruling, one that was considered authoritative for all of Israel.

Section three:  This section lists under what circumstances the elder is to be deemed guilty and therefore executed.  If he continues to teach as he was teaching previously, thereby ignoring the verdict of the high court, but does not tell others to act according to this teaching, he is not guilty.  This is learned from the word “to do” in the verse in Deuteronomy.  One is allowed to disagree with the high court, but not to incite others to act against their rulings.

A student, who is never allowed to give practical halachic rulings, who does give a practical halachic ruling, and that ruling is against that of the high court, is also not to be executed.  Since his ruling is not authoritative in any case, because he is only a student, it is not considered to be the type of rebellion punished by death.  The stringency that disallows a student from teaching is the leniency that gets him off the hook if he teaches contradictory to the high court.


Questions for Further Thought:

·                      Why do the lower courts state whether they had “heard” a ruling on the matter and not whether they “know” a ruling on the matter?  What about the high court?  Do they have to have “heard” a ruling on the matter?  What if they had not?

·                      Why is the elder allowed to continue to teach that he disagrees with the authoritative ruling but not allowed to act or teach others to act according to his own opinion?  What does this say with regards to the nature of Jewish law?