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Ancient Jewish History: The Beit Din

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. 1:16–17). 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 20:15–16. 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. 33:8–10), 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, 5715–1955), 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 of examinations.

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. 2:1–7). 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. 3:4–5).

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.

Sources: Bridger, David, ed. "Bet Din." The New Jewish Encyclopedia. Behrman House, Inc., New York, 1976.
"Bet Din and Judges." Encyclopedia Judaica.
Telushkin. Joseph. Jewish Literacy. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, 1991.
Wigoder, Geoffrey. The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia. Facts on File, New York, 1992.