Literally translated as "house of judgement," Beit Din is the Hebrew term applied to a Jewish religious or civil court of law. The Beit Din originated during
the period of the Second
Temple and was then known as the Sanhedrin.
The establishment of courts has biblical origin and is recorded
in Exodus. The text says
that Moses sat as a magistrate
among the people (Exodus 18:13),
and he later delegated his judicial powers to appointed "chiefs
of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens" (Ex.
18:21; Deuteronomy 1:15),
reserving himself for jurisdiction in only the most difficult, major
disputes (Ex. 18:22 and 26; Deut. 1:17).
Judges were to
be "able men, such as [those who] fear God,
men of truth, hating unjust gain" (Ex.
18:21) and "wise men, understanding and full of knowledge"
(Deut. 1:13). They were charged to "hear the causes between your
brethren and judge righteously between a man and his brother and the
stranger," not be "partial in judgment," but to "hear
the small and the great alike; fear no man, for judgment is God's"
(Deut. 1:1617). The verse from Deuteronomy,
“Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (“Justice, Justice,
shall you pursue”; 16:20) presents the moral foundation of Judaism.
When the children of Israel settled in their land,
the allocation of jurisdiction on a purely numerical basis ("thousands,
hundreds, fifties, tens") was replaced by allocation on a local
basis, and judges were appointed in every town within the various tribes (Deuteronomy 16:18; Sanhedrin 16b).
The jurisdiction of the various courts was as follows:
(1) Courts of three judges exercised jurisdiction
in civil matters generally, including those which might involve the
imposition of fines. They also had jurisdiction in matters of divorce.
A court of three judges was required for the conversion of non-Jews, for the absolution from vows, for the circumvention of
the law annulling debts in the Sabbatical year, for the non-release
of slaves after six years (Ex.
21:6); for the enslavement of one who commits a theft and does not
have the means to pay for the principal (Ex.
22:2, Genevah 3:11), and also for the taking of any evidence, even
in noncontroversial cases. Compulsory orders in matters of ritual would
also require the concurrence of three judges in order to be valid (Ketuvim 86a), as would the imposition of any punishment for disobedience.
(2) Courts of 23 judges exercised jurisdiction in
criminal matters including capital cases (Sanhedrin 1:4). They also
exercised jurisdiction in quasi-criminal cases, in which the destruction
of animals might be involved, for example such as in Leviticus
20:1516. Where a case was originally of a civil nature, such
as slander, but might in due course give rise to criminal sanctions,
such as slander of unchastity, it was brought before a court of 23 (Sanhedrin
1:1). If the slander was found to be groundless, the matter would be
referred to a court of three for civil judgment (Sanhedrin 5:3).
(3) The court of 71 judges, known as the Sanhedrin at the time of the Second
Temple, had practically unlimited judicial, legislative, and administrative
powers, and certain judicial and administrative functions were reserved
to it alone. The high priest,
the head of a tribe, and the president of the Sanhedrin, could, if accused
of a crime, only be tried by the court of 71. Certain crimes were also
reserved to its jurisdiction, such as the uttering of false prophecy,
rebellious teaching by an elder,"zaken mamre," and the subversion
of a whole town or tribe (Sanhedrin 1:5). Certain death penalties had
to be confirmed by the Sanhedrin before being carried out, such as against
the rebellious son, the enticer of idolatry, and false witnesses.
4) Apart from the courts mentioned above, the Temple
had a special court of priests charged with the supervision of the Temple
ritual and with civil matters concerning the priests. Originally, the
priests performed general judicial functions since they were known as
the sole competent interpreters of God's judgment (Ex. 28:15, 30, Deut.
33:810), but later they adjudicated matters together or alternately
with the other judges (Deut. 17:9; 19:17; 21:5). Eventually, the judicial
functions of the priests were reduced to their simply being allotted
some seats in the Great Sanhedrin.
Judges received their authority from their immediate
predecessors who "laid their hands" upon them, a process known
as "semicha." The president of the Great Sanhedrin was the
authority who conferred judicial powers on graduating judges in a formal
procedure before a court of three. Judges were, however, also appointed
by kings, a power which appears to have eventually devolved with the
rule of Babylonia.
The practice of semicha ceased in about the
middle of the fourth century and today battei din (plural of
bet din) exercise their judicial functions only as agents of an implied
authority from the Ancients (Sanh. 5:8). This "agency" does
not extend to capital cases, and even for cases involving fines, some
consider today's judges unqualified to adjudicate.
One of the consequences of the cessation of semicha
was the adoption in many Western European communities of a system of election of judges to the bet din. In Spain,
the judges were elected every year, along with all other officers of
the community. In Israel today, the
procedure for appointing rabbinical judges is similar to that for appointing
secular judges (Dayyanim Act, 57151955), but while the qualifications
of secular judges are laid down in the law, those of rabbinical judges
are in each individual case attested to by the chief rabbis on the basis
The sin of appointing an unqualified judge is said
to be equal to erecting an idol beside the altar for G-d (Sanh. 7b). Qualifications for judges are outlined in the Talmud in Sanhedrin and by Maimonides.
Maimonides enumerates a judges qualities as follows: judges must be
wise and sensible, learned in the law and full of knowledge, and also
acquainted to some extent with other subjects such as medicine, arithmetic,
astronomy and astrology. He believes a judge must not be too old, nor
may he be a childless man. A judge must be pure in mind, pure from bodily
defects, but also a man of stature and imposing appearance. Tractate
Sanhedrin describes the seven fundamental qualities of a judge as wisdom,
humility, fear of God, disdain of money, love of truth, love of people,
and a good reputation. The text continues commenting, a judge must have
a good eye, a humble soul, must be pleasant in company, and speak kindly
to people; he must be very strict with himself and conquer lustful impulses,
have a courageous heart to save the oppressed from the oppressor's hate,
cruelty, and persecution, and eschew wrong and injustice (Sanh. 2:17).
The text tries to avoid any possibility for bias by writing, "a
judge who is a relative of one of the litigants, or has any other personal
relationship toward him, loves him or hates him, must disqualify himself
from sitting in judgment. . ." (Sanh. 3:45).
The bet din belongs essentially to the period of the
Second Temple, and its establishment is attributed to the prophet Ezra. He decreed
that a bet din, was to convene on Mondays and Thursdays and be established
in all populated centers. After the destruction of the Temple, Yochanan
ben Zakkai established his bet din in Yavneh as the cultural and political center of the Jews. The Yavneh bet din
was responsible for regulating the calendar,
and became the religious and national center not only of Israel, but
also of the Diaspora at
the time. In addition to this central bet din, local battei din continued
to function, particularly in the vicinity of the academies; the Talmud speaks of the courts of Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi
Akiva, and Rabbi Yose (Sanh. 32b).
Toward the middle of the third century, the bet din
as it had been functioning, gradually lost its importance due to the
rise of Jewish scholarship in Babylonia and the increased oppression
of Jewry under Roman rule.
In Babylonia, no bet din ever achieved preeminent authority.
After the fall of Rome and throughout the diaspora,
bet din's were again established, but on a lesser level than in Temple
times. Throughout most of Jewish history, the community vehemently opposed
its members' summoning each other before secular courts. Jews who had
legal disputes with other Jews were expected to bring their opponents
before a bet din composed of three rabbis.
Each side was entitled to choose one rabbi, and then the two rabbis
would choose a third one. The bet din would hear the testimony and arguments
of both sides with the litigants representing themselves. Both sides
were then questioned by the rabbis who acted as judges and issued a
ruling on the case.
A bet din is still used today voluntarily by Jews to
settle disputes within the community, for conversion,
and the validation or nullification of marriage and divorce documents. In Israel, an elaborate network of bet
dins were established under the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem.
The State of Israel has taken over this system, giving the bet din exclusive
jurisdiction over the Jewish population in matters of personal status
such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance; however, secular courts
oversee all non-halachic legal issues.