Jewish Courts and Judges
By Ariel Scheib
The verse from Deuteronomy, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (“Justice, Justice, shall you pursue”; 16:20) presents the moral foundation of Judaism. One of the seven Noahide laws is the instituting of fair and unbiased courts of justice within a society (Gen. 9:7). During the Israelites time wandering in the desert following the exodus from Egypt, Moses acted as the judge of the people. However, as the population grew, Moses appointed leaders to govern minor matters among the people. After the Israelite conquest of the Promise Land, judges were stationed in every community.
During the period of the Second Temple, the beit din (Jewish court of law, literally “House of judgment”) was established. In very small communities, a court of three judges was selected to resolve cases on civil law. Each side was permitted to choose one rabbi and then those two rabbis would select the third. In areas with more than 120 people, a Lesser Sanhedrin, which included 23 judges, ruled on almost all civil and criminal matters.
The highest court in Israel was the Great Sanhedrin (Supreme Court) in Jerusalem, which consisted of 71 judges and considered major matters of concern. The Great Sanhedrim was led by the nasi (president) and was the only body that could put on trial “a tribe, a false prophet, and a Kohen Gadol” (Sanhedrin 1:5). The Great Sanhedrin was also responsible for selecting future kings and judges of lower courts, as well as declaring war on other nations. Furthermore, the Great Sanhedrim was required to uphold the death sentence before an execution could take place. The most significant responsibility the Great Sanhedrim performed during the period of the Temples was the expansion and interpretation of the Oral Law, which became the binding authority. The Great Sanhedrin also determined the dates of new moons and festivals within the Jewish calendar and, in 359 C.E., established a fixed calendar.
In Jewish law, there are many requirements an individual must uphold to be a judge or rule a case. Some of these characteristics and regulations include:
According to Abraham Chill’s The Mitzvot, in old times there were ten types of witnesses that are disqualified from testifying in court: women, slaves, minors, the mentally retarded, deaf-mutes, the blind, relatives of the parties involved in the case, those personally involved in the case, a “shameless” person, and a wicked person.
After the destruction of the Second Temple, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai instituted the beit din at Yavneh to fulfill the duties of the Jewish courts. The beit din at Yavneh achieved its supreme authority under the leadership of Judah ha-Nasi. However, around the third century, the leadership passed to the scholars of Babylonia, where no particular beit din ever gained undisputed judicial authority. Throughout the Middle Ages the beit din served as the judicial branch within the self-ruling Jewish communities. With the breakup of independent Jewish communities and the emancipation of the Jews, the beit din lost much of its jurisdiction.
Today, the beit din acts primarily as a court of mediation and adjudication of Jewish divorces and conversions. In Israel, beit dins have absolute authority over of all matters concerning personal status (e.g., marriage, divorce) of the Jewish population.
Sources: Eisenberg, Ronald L. The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions. PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2004.
Telushkin, Joseph. Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History. NY: William Morrow and Co., 1991.
Kolatch, Alfred J. The Jewish Book of Why/The Second Jewish Book of Why. NY: Jonathan David Publishers, 1989.
Wigoder, Geoffrey , Ed. The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia. NY: Facts on File, 1992.