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A Sanhedrin assembly.

In Judaism, a Sanhedrin (Hebrew: סנהדרין; Greek: συνέδριον, meaning "sitting together" or "council") is an assembly of 23[1] judges biblically required in every Jewish city.[2] The Talmud (tractate Sanhedrin) identifies two classes of rabbinical courts called Sanhedrin, a Great Sanhedrin and a Lesser Sanhedrin. Each city was to have its own lesser Sanhedrin of 23 judges, but there could be only one Great Sanhedrin of 71, which among other roles acted as a sort of Supreme Court, taking appeals from cases decided by lesser courts. Without a qualifier, the term "Sanhedrin" normally refers to the Great Sanhedrin.

The Great Sanhedrin was an assembly of Jewish judges who constituted the supreme court and legislative body of ancient Israel. The make-up of the Great Sanhedrin included a chief justice (Nasi), a vice chief justice (Av Beit Din), and sixty-nine general members who all sat in the form of a semi-circle when in session. When the Temple of Jerusalem was standing (prior to its destruction in 70 C.E.), the Great Sanhedrin would meet in the Hall of Hewn Stones in the Temple during the day, except before festivals and the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat).

Traditions of origin

According to Jewish tradition, the institution of the Sanhedrin was founded by Moses, at the command of God:

Assemble for Me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the peoples' elders and officers, and you shall take them to the Tent of Meeting, and they shall stand there with you.[3]

From this point onward the Sanhedrin began with seventy elders, headed by Moses, for a total of seventy-one members. As individuals within the Sanhedrin died, or otherwise became unfit for service, new members underwent ordination, or Semicha[4]. These ordinations continued, in an unbroken line: from Moses to Joshua, the Israelite elders, the prophets (including Ezra, Nehemiah) on to all the sages of the Sanhedrin. It was not until sometime after the destruction of the Second Temple that this line was broken, and the Sanhedrin dissolved. The dissolution of the Sanhedrin, in terms of its power to give binding universal decisions, is usually dated to 358 C.E. when Hillel II's Jewish calendar was adopted. This marked the last universally accepted decision made by that body.

Jewish tradition proposes non-Greek derivations of the term Sanhedrin. P'siqta D'Rav Kahana (Chapter 25), teaches that the first part of the word, sin, referring to the Torah that was received at Mount Sin-ai, was combined with the second part of the word, hadrin, meaning, "glorification," to express the Great Court's role -the glorification of God's Torah through its application. Rabbi Ovadia Bartenura suggests an alternative meaning (commentary on Mishnah Sota, chapter 9, Mishnah 11). Taking the term as a combination of two words to mean, son'im hadarath pan'im b'din, "foes (opposing litigants) give respect and honor to its judgment." Other commentators confirm his interpretation, suggesting further that the first letter was changed from "sin" to "samekh," at a later date (Tosofoth Yom Tov and the Maharal).

Others have suggested that the name Sanhedrin was adopted from the Greeks during the Hellenistic period.[5]

Great Sanhedrin and Lesser Sanhedrin

The Talmud (tractate Sanhedrin) identifies two classes of rabbinical courts called Sanhedrin, a Great Sanhedrin and a Lesser Sanhedrin. Each city could have its own lesser Sanhedrin of 23 judges, but there could be only one Great Sanhedrin of 71, which among other roles acted as a sort of Supreme Court, taking appeals from cases decided by lesser courts.

Function and procedures

The Great Sanhedrin as a body claimed powers that lesser Jewish courts did not have. For example, it could try the king and extend the boundaries of the Temple and Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin's judges were the ones to whom all questions of law were finally put. They were presided over by an officer called the Nasi. After the time of Hillel the Elder (late 1st century B.C.E. and early first century C.E.), the Nasi was almost invariably a descendant of Hillel. The second highest-ranking member of the Sanhedrin was called the Av Beit Din, or "Head of the Court" (literally, Beit Din = "house of law"), who presided over the Sanhedrin when it sat as a criminal court.[6]

The Sanhedrin met in a building known as the Hall of Hewn Stones (Lishkat Ha-Gazith), which has been placed by the Talmud as built into the north wall of the Temple Mount, half inside the sanctuary and half outside, with doors providing access both to the Temple and to the outside. The name presumably arises to distinguish it from the buildings in the Temple complex used for ritual purposes, which had to be constructed of stones unhewn by any iron implements.

In some cases, it was only necessary for a 23-member panel (functioning as a Lesser Sanhedrin) to convene. In general, the full panel of 71 judges was only convened on matters of national significance (e.g., a declaration of war) or in the event that the 23-member panel could not reach a conclusive verdict.[7]

The Dissolution of the Classical Sanhedrin

During the period when it stood on the Temple Mount, the Sanhedrin achieved its quintessential position, legislating on all aspects of Jewish religious and political life within the parameters laid down by Biblical and Rabbinic tradition. After the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 C.E., the Sanhedrin was re-established with reduced authority, although it was still recognized as the ultimate authority in religious matters. This authority was reinforced by the official sanction of the imperial Roman government and legislation.

The Sanhedrin was re-established in Yavneh (70-80 C.E.). From there it was moved to Usha under the presidency of Gamliel II ben Shimon II (80-116 C.E.). Afterwards it was conveyed back to Yavneh, and again back to Usha. It was moved to Shefaram under the presidency of Shimon III ben Gamliel II (140-163 C.E.), and to Beth Shearim and Sephoris, under the presidency of Yehudah I (163-193 C.E.). Finally, it was moved to Tiberias, under the presidency of Gamliel III ben Yehudav I (193-220 C.E.), where it became more of a consistory, but still retained, under the presidency of Yehudah II ben-Shimon III (220-270 C.E.), the power of excommunication.

During the presidency of Gamliel IV ben Yehudav II, due to persecution of an increasingly Christianized Rome it dropped the name Sanhedrin, and its authoritative decisions were subsequently issued under the name of Beth HaMidrash. As a reaction to Julian's pro-Jewish stance, Theodosius forbade the Sanhedrin to assemble and declared ordination illegal (Roman law declared capital punishment for any Rabbi who received ordination and complete destruction of the town where the ordination occurred).

Since the Jewish Calendar was based on witnesses' testimony, which was too dangerous to collect during these Roman times, Hillel II recommended a mathematical Calendar that was adopted at a clandestine, and maybe last, meeting in 358 C.E.. This marked the last universal decision made by that body. Gamliel V (400-425 C.E.) was the last president. With the death of this patriarch, who was executed by Theodosius II for erecting new synagogues contrary to the imperial decree, the title Nasi, the last remains of the ancient Sanhedrin, became illegal to be used after 425 C.E..

There are records of what may have been of attempts to re-establish the Sanhedrin in Arabia [8], in Jerusalem under the Caliph 'Umar[9], and in Babylon (Iraq)[10], but none of these attempts were given any attention by Rabbinic authorities and little information is available about them.

Christian Accounts

The Sanhedrin is mentioned frequently in the Christian New Testament. According to the Gospels, the council conspired to have Jesus killed by paying one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, thirty pieces of silver in exchange for the delivery of Jesus into their hands. However, when the Sanhedrin was unable to provide evidence that Jesus had committed a capital crime, the Gospels state that witnesses came forward and accused the Nazarene of blasphemy — a capital crime under Mosaic law. Since the Sanhedrin was not of Roman authority, it could not condemn criminals to death, according to John 18:31, though this claim is disputed, for example Acts 6:12 records them ordering the stoning of Saint Stephen and also James the Just according to Antiquities of the Jews 20.9.1[11]

Circa 30 C.E., the Gospels continue, Jesus was brought before the Roman governor of Iudaea Province, Pontius Pilate, for a decision. The Christian account says that Pilate disagreed with the Sanhedrin's decision, and found no fault — but that the crowd demanded crucifixion. Pilate, it is speculated, gave in because he was concerned about his career and about revolt — and conveyed the death sentence of crucifixion on Jesus.

It should be noted, however, that the New Testament also claims that certain members of the Sanhedrin as followers of Jesus: Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea are two such men that are named in the Gospels.

The Christian accounts of the Sanhedrin, and the role that the council played in the crucifixion of Jesus, are frequently cited as causes of Christian anti-Semitism, and are thus normally considered a sensitive topic.

A Sanhedrin also appears in Acts 4-7 and Acts 22:30-23:24, perhaps the one led by Gamaliel.

Opposition to Christian historical accounts

Although the New Testament's account of the Sanhedrin's involvement in Jesus' crucifixion is detailed, the factual accuracy is disputed. Some scholars believe that these passages present a caricature of the Pharisees and were not written during Jesus' lifetime but rather in some later time after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. - a time when it had become clear that most Jews did not consider Jesus to be the Messiah. Also, this was a time when Christians sought most new converts from among the Gentiles - thus adding to the likelihood that the New Testament's account would be more sympathetic to Romans than to the Jews. In addition, it was around this time that the Pharisaic sect had begun to grow into what is now known as Rabbinic Judaism, a growth that would have been seen by the early Christians direct challenge to the fledgling Church.

Some claim that the New Testament portrays the Sanhedrin as a corrupt group of Pharisees, although it was predominantly made up of Sadducees at the time. For example, Annas and Caiaphas from the Sanhedrin's leadership were Sadducees. The Gospels also consistently make a distinction between the Pharisees ("the teachers of the law,") and "the elders" ("the rulers of the people").

The opposition continues by saying that in order for the Christian leaders of the time to present Christianity as the legitimate heir to the Hebrew Scriptures, they had to devalue Rabbinic Judaism. In addition to the New Testament, other Christian writings relate that the Apostles Peter, John, and Paul, as well as Stephen (one of the first deacons), were all brought before the Sanhedrin for the blasphemous crime—from the Jewish perspective—of spreading their Gospel. Others point out that this is speculative. However, the Gospels exist, and do give an account of events that happened well before the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., although most scholars consider them to have been penned after the Temple was destroyed (however, see Gospel of Mark and Gospel of Matthew for views on earlier historical dating). Those scholars may believe them to have been based on earlier sources, rather than giving a first-person account; though the Gospels are not entirely dismissed, they are presumed to be biased rather than factual.

According to Jewish law,[12] it is forbidden to convene a court of justice on a holy day, such as Pesach (Passover), making it highly unusual that religious Jews would have come together to hand down a death sentence.

Additionally, Josephus implies that there was a 'political' Sanhedrin of Sadducee collaborators with Roman rule. Since proclaiming oneself Moshiach is not forbidden under Halakha (there were many springing up at the time), but was illegal under Roman law as a challenge to imperial authority, perhaps this may be a more likely alternative. It should be noted, however, that John 19:12 cites the religious Sanhedrin using this argument to sway Pilate.

Subsequent attempts to revive the Sanhedrin

Within Judaism, the Sanhedrin is seen the last institution which commanded universal authority among the Jewish people in the long chain of tradition from Moses until the present day. Since its disbanding after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., there have been several attempts to re-establish this body either as a self-governing body, or as a puppet of a sovereign government.

Napoleon Bonaparte's "Grand Sanhedrin"

The "Grand Sanhedrin" was a Jewish high court convened by Napoleon Bonaparte to give legal sanction to the principles expressed by the Assembly of Notables in answer to the twelve questions submitted to it by the government (see Jewish Encycolpedia v. 468, s.v. France).

On October 6, 1806, the Assembly of Notables issued a proclamation to all the Jewish communities of Europe, inviting them to send delegates to the sanhedrin, to convene on October 20. This proclamation, written in Hebrew, French, German, and Italian, speaks in extravagant terms of the importance of this revived institution and of the greatness of its imperial protector. While the action of Napoleon aroused in many Jews of Germany the hope that, influenced by it, their governments also would grant them the rights of citizenship, others looked upon it as a political contrivance.

Attempts to re-establish the Sanhedrin in Israel

Since the dissolution of the Sanhedrin in 358 C.E.[13], there has been no universally recognized authority within Jewish law. Maimonides (1135–1204) was one of the greatest scholars of the Middle Ages, and is arguably one of the most widely accepted scholars among the Jewish people since the closing of the Talmud in 500 C.E.. Influenced by the rationalist school of thought and generally showing a preference for a natural (as opposed to miraculous) redemption for the Jewish people, Maimonides proposed a rationalist solution for achieving the goal of re-establishing the highest court in Jewish tradition and reinvesting it with the same authority it had in former years. There have been several attempts to implement Maimonides' recommendations, the latest being in modern times.

There have been rabbinical attempts to renew Semicha and re-establish a Sanhedrin by Rabbi Jacob Berab in 1538, Rabbi Yisroel Shklover in 1830, Rabbi Aharon Mendel haCohen in 1901, Rabbi Zvi Kovsker in 1940 and Rabbi Yehudah Leib Maimon in 1949.

In October 2004 (Hebrew Calendar=Tishrei 5765), a group of rabbis claiming to represent varied communities in Israel undertook a ceremony in Tiberias, where the original Sanhedrin was disbanded, which they claim re-establishes the body according to the proposal of Maimonides and the Jewish legal rulings of Rabbi Yosef Karo. The controversial attempt has been subject to debate within different Jewish communities.


  1. Mishnah Sanhedrin 1B
  2. Lexicon Results for sunedrion (Strong's 4892) February 20, 2008.
  3. Numbers11:16
  4. Babylonian Talmud: Sanhedrin 13b-14a
  5. In ancient Greek, Synedrion was a general term for judiciary organs of the Greek city states and treaty organizations.
  6. Mitchell Langbert, Ph.D. and Hershey H. Friedman, Ph.D. CUNY Brooklyn.
  7. Babylonian Talmud: Sanhedrin 2a.
  8. The Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614 C.E. compared with Islamic conquest of 638 C.E.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Sefer Yuchsin, cf. Yarchei Kallah, Rabbi Nassan describes "the seventy judges who comprise the Sanhedrin"
  11. The Jesus Seminar's Scholars Version translation notes for John 18:31: "it's illegal for us: The accuracy of this claim is doubtful."
  12. Mishnayot Beitzah, chapter 5 Mishnah 2. This can also be found in the Talmud, tractate Beitzah, daf 36b.
  13. The dissolution of the Sanhedrin, in terms of its power to give binding universal decisions, is usually dated to 358 C.E. when Hillel II's Jewish Calendar was adopted. This marked the last universally accepted decision made by that body.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Epstein, I. and Jacob Shachter (Translator). Tractate Sanhedrin. Soncino Press; Hebrew-English edition, 1987. ISBN 978-0900689888
  • Mahan, W. D. The Archaeological and Historical Writings of the Sanhedrin and Talmuds of the Jews. Kessinger Publishing, 2006. ISBN 978-1425485986
  • Schwarzfuchs, Simon. Napoleon, the Jews and the Sanhedrin. Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. Oxford University Press, 1984. ISBN 978-0197100233

External links

All links retrieved December 22, 2022.


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