ELDER (Heb. זָקֵן, zaken). In Israel, as among all other ancient peoples, the elder is not only a person of advanced age, but also a man of distinct social grade (cf. šībum in Akkadian, senator in Latin, geron in Greek, and sheikh in Arabic). The elders were the consulting body of the city, the nation, or the king respectively, and as such were considered "the wise" (cf. Ezek. 7:26 with Jer. 18:18). As a social institution, various types of elders are named: elders of a people (Israel, Judah, Moab, and Midian, Num. 22:4, 7; Egypt, Gen. 50:7); elders of an area (Gilead, Judg. 11:5–11); elders of a tribe (Deut. 31:28); elders of the Diaspora (Jer. 29:1); elders of the priests (II Kings 19:2; Jer. 19:1); elders of the city (passim); and elders of the house (i.e., palace, Gen. 50:7; II Sam. 12:17). The most prominent are the elders of the people or the country and the elders of the city.
The Elders of the City
These elders represented their fellow citizens in local matters. Their functions are best exemplified by the pertinent laws of Deuteronomy. The city elders are involved in five laws: (1) blood redemption (19:12); (2) expiation of murder by an unknown culprit (21:3, 6); (3) the rebellious son (21:19); (4) defamation of a virgin (22:15); and (5) levirate (25:9). All these cases deal with protection of the family and local patriarchal interests. In the first, the elders tend to the appeasement of the murdered person's family by delivering the slayer into its hands; in the second, they see to it that their town atones for a homicide committed within its borders. In the next two instances,
The Elders of the People or Country
In the city-state, as it existed in Canaan, the elders of the city were identical with the elders of the state. In Israel, both before and during the monarchic period, the elders of the town and those of the people, country, and congregation operated separately. Matters that concerned the entire confederation or the nation were brought to the elders of the people, and after the division of the kingdom to the elders of Israel and Judah respectively, whereas the elders of the town dealt only with the local provincial problems (see above). It is not known how the elders of the country were chosen, but it is possible that they were recruited from the city elders. One might argue that the monarchy had deprived the elders of their power and authority, but this was not the case. Even as powerful a king as Ahab had to consult "the elders of the land" before proclaiming war (I Kings 20:7). It is needless to dwell here on the important role that the elders of Israel and Judah played at the time of David (II Sam. 3:17; 5:3; 17:4, 15). The elders cooperated with Elisha against the king (II Kings 6:32), and the elders of the land interfered in the trial of Jeremiah (Jer. 26:17). The "people of the land" or the "people of Judah," who took action when the dynasty was at stake, seem to be identical with the elders of Judah.
The emergence of the elders has been explained in the Pentateuch etiologically. According to Exodus 18, it was Jethro who advised Moses to establish a judicial-social organ in order to help him judge the people. (In the desert setting of the narrative there was no distinction between the elders of the town and the elders of the congregation.) In Numbers 11, following Moses' complaint that he cannot manage the people by himself, the Lord draws from some of the spirit of Moses and instills it in the 70 elders who are to assist him. In Deuteronomy 1:9ff., finally, Moses himself proposes that he pick men from the tribes in order to create the judicial body. These three traditions present different outlooks on the quality of the elder-judge in ancient Israel. In Exodus 18, the attributes of the chosen men are fear of God, trustworthiness, and honesty. In Numbers 11, it is the spirit of God, i.e., divine inspiration (cf. the judge in the period of the Judges, Judg. 3:10; 6:34; et al.), which makes a man a member of the elders' council. In Deuteronomy 1, intellectual capacity (wisdom, understanding, and knowledge) makes a man fit to judge. The description in Deuteronomy is apparently the latest, since it reflects the aristocratic approach, which places wisdom at the top of the ladder of values (cf. e.g., Prov. 8:15–16; et al).
The Functions of the Elders of the People
The functions of the elders of the people were (1) to represent the people in the sacral covenant and in the proclamation of the law (Ex. 19:7; 24:1, 9; Deut. 27:1; 29:9; 31:9; Josh. 8:33; 24:1; cf. II Kings 23:1); (2) to appoint a leader or a king (I Sam. 8:4; Judg. 11:5–11); (3) to proclaim war (Josh. 8:10; II Sam. 17:4–15; cf. I Kings 20:7); (4) to conduct political negotiations and make agreements (Ex. 3:16, 18; 4:29; Num. 16:25; II Sam. 3:17; 5:3); (5) to perform sacred ceremonies (Ex. 12:21; 18:12; Lev. 9:1; I Sam. 4:3; I Kings 8:1, 3; I Chron. 16:25); and (6) to act in times of national crisis (Ex. 17:5–6; Josh. 7:6; I Sam. 4:3; I Chron. 21:16). The elders held their meetings near the city gate (Deut. 21:19; 22:15; 25:7; Ruth 4:1ff.; Lam. 5:14), and more precisely in the square located next to the gate (Job 29:7). In the desert the assemblies were held "at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting" (see *Congregation). The place of the assembly had also been called "the threshing floor" (I Kings 22:10), because of its smooth, stamped surface and its circular shape (cf. Sanh. 4:3). In texts from Ugarit, Danel the pious judge is presented
In the Talmud
During the mishnaic period the name zaken ("elder") was reserved for scholars, and particularly members of the Sanhedrin or bet din. The title was regarded as equivalent to a sage, and was unconnected with age, as was emphasized by regarding the word as a notarikon: "The zaken is none other than a sage, and the word means zeh she-kanah ḥokhmah ("one who has acquired wisdom"; Kid. 32b). Thus one reads of the elders of Bet Shammai and the elders of Bet Hillel (Ber. 11a), of the "elders of the bet din" who supervised the high priest before the Day of Atonement (Yoma 1:3 and 5), and of "Rabban Gamaliel and the elders who were traveling by ship" (Shab. 16:8; Ma'as Sh. 5:9; cf. also * Zaken Mamre). The word zaken hardly occurs with regard to local government (the "elders of the city" of. Sot. 9:5 and 6 is a reference to Deut. 21:3), although in the Book of Judith, the elders of the city or of the people appear as the main authority of the beleaguered city. It seems that the institution of "the seven good men of the city" who were responsible for its affairs was confined to Babylon. The Mishnah (Meg. 3:1) states that if the people of a town sell a synagogue or other sacred object, the purchaser may not use it for purposes of lesser sanctity. Where the Babylonian Talmud (Meg. 26a, 27a) makes the reservation that this does not apply in cases where the "seven good men of the city" stipulated at the time of the sale that the synagogue or the sacred object could so be used, the parallel passage in the Jerusalem Talmud merely mentions the stipulation but has no reference to the seven communal leaders. Nevertheless Josephus (Ant. 4:214–4) refers to the seven men who ruled the city in Ereẓ Israel, and the Syriac Baruch mentions "the seven elders of the people" (II Bar. 44:1).
[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]
Middle Ages and Modern Period
In the Middle Ages and early modern times the term "elder" or "elders" appears both as a titular synonym for scholar and sage as well as a frequent description for the unpaid lay members in the leadership on the boards of communities within the framework of the *Councils of the Lands. It can also be regarded as an honorific description for members of the ruling aristocracy of wealth and learning in the communities of the period. The designation disappears almost entirely from the middle of the 18th century for both communal leaders as well as scholars (except for the fossilized expression zaken veyoshev bi-yshivah used as a title in ultra-conservative circles). Its disuse was the natural corollary of a diminished reverence for age and the rise of a mentality that refused to equate it with wisdom and leadership qualities. It is not accidental that antisemitic vilification in modern times fastened on the term "elder" and attempted to turn it into a horror image. Exploiting the feelings of revulsion against the notion of scheming old men and recalling the use of the term in the Jewish hierarchy and tradition, it conjured up a new Jewish bogey in the shape of the *Elders of Zion ("Sages de Sion"). The Nazis in their calculated policy of fragmentation and foisting a spurious leadership on the Jews turned to the use of the name Judenaelteste ("elders of the Jews") for some of the functionaries in this leadership.
[Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson]
J.L. McKenzie, in: Analecta Biblica, 10 (1959), 388–400; H. Klengel, in: Orientalia, 29 (1960), 357–75; de Vaux, Anc Isr, 68–70; Evans, in: JRH, 2 (1962), 1–12; H. Klengel, Zeitschrift fuer Assyriologie, 23 (1965), 223ff.; H. Tadmor, in: Journal of World History, 11 (1968), 3–23; H. Reviv, in: Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 12 (1969), 283–97; Baron, Community, index. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: T. Wills, Elders of the City (2001); A. Rof, "The Organization of the Judiciary in Deuteronomy," in: M. Daviau et al. (eds.), World of the Arameans (2002), 92–112.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.