The Sanhedrin Initiative
The idea behind the restoration of the Great Court, and the halachic foundations for operation.
- "It is the obligation of Sanhedrin, in its capacity as the leadership of the nation, to unify the entire Israelite nation in a single bond of unity. Just as the skin unifies all parts of the flesh and covers them as one, so, too, must the leaders endeavor with all their might to unify all parts of the nation in a single union. Then, the Jewish nation will endure, they will blossom and flower to the highest degree, and no adversary or misfortune will befall them. But if the leaders do not attend to unifying them as one, then they will cause the plague to burst forth in the community and spread to themselves as well. They will lose their influence over the people, undermine the foundation and everything will dwindle... This actually occurred at that time. The absence of unity among us caused damage, destruction and exile, and it continues to prolong the exile... The leaders will ultimately be held responsible for this due to their failure to try to unify the whole Israelite nation as one, though it is the only cure for our malady, as Chazal say."
- - Harav Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal, pre-war posek, Eim Habanim Semeicha 338-9
The current attempt to re-establish the Sanhedrin is generally referred to as the "nascent Sanhedrin", or the "developing Sanhedrin". This is because the prevailing opinion of the senior members of the Sanhedrin is that the Sanhedrin has not yet achieved halachic [Jewish legal] status on par with its previous position. It does however have the full authority of a Rabbinical court, and is working diligently and with much discussion to satisfy all halachic requirements for complete restoration as soon as possible. There is an enormous amount of work left to be done, so they humbly and urgently request scholars to assist and participate as much as possible to help in overcoming these difficulties. This is a unique opportunity that should not be wasted.
The spokesman said, "The rebirth of the Sanhedrin is a slow, ongoing process. Although it makes headlines and many like to highlight its controversy, it is in truth a humble project by rabbis from all sides of the Torah world joining together simply to fulfill a Torah commandment. Rather than a source of religious division, G-d forbid, it is a vehicle to bring about Jewish unity and civil justice, to help repair some of the deepest rifts in our society, and to provide an active, exemplary and unified Torah leadership so lacking in our times."
The halachic foundation
The Jewish legal system consists of a large Sanhedrin of seventy one judges, small Sanhedrins in each city consisting of twenty three judges and numerous Basei din [law courts] of three judges. The members the large and small Sanhedrins and the Basei din (with the exception of monetary cases) must be semuchim. Ideally, there should be a direct line of semichah from Moshe Rabbenu ע"ה [Moses]. However, this line of semichah was lost shortly after the last Sanhedrin ceased to function about 1600 years ago. Hence, the Basei din of recent times do not consist of semuchim and are restricted to monetary cases. (This semichah should not be confused with the examinations taken today in order to become a rabbi and are also called semichah).
Maimonides records that it is an absolute, binding requirement of the Jewish people to set up a Sanhedrin and Basei din, and he gives insight into a method how to do this in our day. An attempt to re-establish the Sanhedrin must be based on the re-establishment of semichah – Biblical ordination, according the the principles set out by Maimonides:
- יא) נראין לי הדברים, שאם הסכימו כל החכמים שבארץ ישראל למנות דיינין ולסמוך אותן--הרי אלו סמוכין, ויש להן לדון דיני קנסות, ויש להן לסמוך לאחרים.
- אם כן, למה היו החכמים מצטערין על הסמיכה, כדי שלא ייבטלו דיני קנסות מישראל: לפי שישראל מפוזרין, ואי אפשר שיסכימו כולן; ואם היה שם סמוך מפי סמוך, אינו צריך דעת כולן, אלא דן דיני קנסות לכול, שהרי נסמך מפי בית דין. והדבר צריך הכרע.
- משנה תורה - ספר שופטים - הלכות סנהדרין פרק ד
- It appears to me [Maimonides] that if all the sages of Eretz Yisroel consent to appoint dayanim and grant them semichah, they have the law of musmachim and they can judge penalty cases and are authorized to grant semichah to others [thus restoring Biblical ordination].
- If so, why did Chazal bemoan [the loss of] semichah? So that the judgment of penalty cases wouldn't disappear from among Israel because Jews are so spread out that its not possible to get their consent [to authorized a dayan]. If someone were to receive semichah from someone who already has semichah, then he does not require their consent – he may judge penalty cases for everyone since he received semichah from beis din. However, this matter requires a final decision.
- (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:11)
Renewing semichah requires the consent of the Rabbis in Israel to somech one person. This person can then somech others. After semichah has been granted to seventy one worthy Rabbonim, a Sanhedrin can be formed. All this must take place in Israel. In a "final decision", Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch, recorded as definitive halacha that semichah can be renewed by consensus (Choshen Mishpat 295).
The first attempt using this method to reintroduce semichah was made in 1538 by Rabbi Yaakov Beirav of Safed. Rabbi Yosef Karo is known to have received semichah from Rabbi Beirav, and used his semichah to ordain Rabbi Moses Alsheich, who in turn, ordained Rabbi Chaim Vital. Thus the first "semichah by consensus" can be traced for at least four generations, but no Sanhedrin was formed because some Rabbis including the Ralbach (Rabbi Levy Chaviv) objected due to a perceived slight on the honor of the Rabbis of Jerusalem. There have been at least four other orthodox attempts since that time in 1830, 1901, 1940 and 1949.
The process of re-establishment
Leading sages have supported the semichah directly, indirectly or abstained. Rabbi Shalom Elyashiv, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg and many others gave their blessing but did not join the Sanhedrin. The son of Rabbi Mordecai Eliyahu is one of the rabbis ordained. Rabbi Avraham Shapiro abstained on the issue but also refused to discourage it. Rabbi Tzvi Eidan, the author of Asot Mishpat (which describes how it is possible to reestablish the Sanhedrin) was appointed as first interim Nasi. Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz, a noted Talmudic scholar and a well-known Jewish philosopher is the currently elected Nasi.
Some authorities have argued that every single scholar in the Land of Israel must be assembled in one place and give their consent at one time in order to renew semichah, but other authorities state that this was not the intention of Maimonides, or alternatively, that given the current urgent situation the above method involving the consent of hundreds of rabbis, scholars and leaders was acceptable. Some disagree entirely with Maimonides, and insist that we must wait for Eliyahu HaNavi to divinely appear. To understand the halachic context of this teaching of Maimonides, and the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch, one must review the responsa of the leading Rabbonim and Torah Sages involved in the several attempts at re-establishment of the semichah during the last four hundred years. The current attempt to re-establish the Sanhedrin is the sixth attempt in recent history, but unlike previous attempts, for the first time there seems to be wide consensus among the leading Torah sages living in the Land of Israel for the pressing need for such an institution at this time. Support for such an institution has only been increased due to various actions by the State against the interests of the various religious communities.
Rabbi Dov Stein, the secretary for the Sanhedrin project, spoke with Israel National News about the late Rabbi. "Without Rabbi Halberstam's efforts toward renewing semicha, it would not have happened the way it did," he said. "By agreeing to be the first to be ordained, he took a serious risk of being rejected and condemned by his community for taking part in such a project. His ordination set the ball rolling for the foundation of a Jewish legal body that seeks to eventually supersede the Badatz [Hareidi Rabbinical court system]. But despite the serious pressures put on him following his agreement and granting of semicha to others, he never went back on it or even tempered his agreement with the act of renewing semicha." Recalling the Rabbi himself, from time spent with him, Rabbi Stein said, "He was a lover of Israel, a soft person, always willing to listen, a man steeped in the secrets of the kabbalah."
Further detailed information on halachic issues is/will be available on the Hebrew website, some summaries in English can be found here:
- The Mahari Beirav and Beis Yosef's attempt to re-establish a Sanhedrin in 1538 and its halachic implications
- Rabbi Yisroel Shklover's, talmid muvhak of the Vilna Gaon, attempt to re-establish a Sanhedrin in 1830, and its halachic implications
- עשות משפט - חידוש הסמיכה בזמן הזה, הרב צבי עידאן
- חידוש הסנהדרין בימינו הרב ישי באב"ד, ירושלים תובב"א, תשס"ה
- הסנהדרין הסמכות והחידוש הרב ישי באב"ד, ירושלים תובב"א, תשס"ה
- רעיון חידוש בית-הדין הגדול, והיסודות ההלכתיים לפעילות
- Other online books can be found on "Friends of the Sanhedrin" website History and Reference and היסטוריה ועיון; and on the "Hareidi.Org" website.
The Sanhedrin Initiative formally invites scholars and experts to participate in the discussions and provide much needed assistance by mail, fax, email or forums. This is a unique opportunity that should not be wasted.