Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Horayot 4: Why the Sanhedrin Might Err; Juding, Mercy/Compassion

We have learned that when the Sanhedrin - the beit din - makes a mistaken ruling and then retracts that ruling, those judges are individually responsible to bring offerings and the community members are exempt.  When would this happen? the Gemara offers a number of possibilities:

  • when the smartest or the leading judge is not present, which would suggest that the judgement was made without his influence and is thus considered to be an intentional error
  • when one judge stood up and warned the others that their ruling was about to be made in error and the other judges overruled him
  • when a member of the court was actually forbidden from sitting on the court - a convert, a mamzer, or a man so old that he cannot have children
Each person who performed the sin was made to bring his/her own offering when the community is seen as 'at fault'.  

Rabbis including Rashi question why a man who cannot have children is not worthy of being on the court.  How could he make the court unworthy of giving a ruling?  Rashi says that he does not know.  However, this 'Rashi' might have been of the 11th century (Germany).  The actual Rashi had ruled in Sanhedrin that an old man would have forgotten what it means to have children.  A judge must be able to find compassion for a defendant just as a father is able to find compassion for his child.

The rabbis take this to mean that judges should always be filled with mercy for all people. It makes no sense that a judge must have children; instead, one who is worthy of giving rulings from the Sanhedrin must be capable of having mercy for the defendants.

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