Mishnah/Seder Nezikin/Tractate Sanhedrin/Chapter 1/6
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Seder Nezikin, Tractate Sanhedrin
Chapter 1, Mishnah 6
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Sanhedrin deals primarily with the court. It presents three courts, a Bet Din of 3, a court of 23, and a larger court known as the "sanhedrin" made up of 71 judges in capital cases. The first chapter of Sanhedrin is focused on how many judges are needed for different cases, capital and non-capital.
The sixth and final mishnah of this chapter explains why the court sizes are 23 and 71 and how large a city must be for it to have its own court.
- סנהדרי גדולה היתה של שבעים ואחד, וקטנה של עשרים ושלשה.
- ומנין לגדולה שהיא של שבעים ואחד, שנאמר (במדבר יא,טז) אספה לי שבעים איש מזקני ישראל, ומשה על גביהן, הרי שבעים ואחד.
- רבי יהודה אומר, שבעים.
- ומנין לקטנה שהיא של עשרים ושלשה, שנאמר (שם לה,כד-כה) ושפטו העדה והצילו העדה, עדה שופטת ועדה מצלת, הרי כאן עשרים.
- ומנין לעדה שהיא עשרה, שנאמר (שם יד,כז) עד מתי לעדה הרעה הזאת, יצאו יהושע וכלב.
- ומנין להביא עוד שלשה, ממשמע שנאמר (שמות כג,ב) לא תהיה אחרי רבים לרעות, שומע אני שאהיה עמהם לטובה, אם כן למה נאמר (שם) אחרי רבים להטות, לא כהטיתך לטובה הטיתך לרעה.
- הטיתך לטובה על פי אחד, הטיתך לרעה על פי שנים, ואין בית דין שקול , מוסיפין עליהן עוד אחד , הרי כאן עשרים ושלשה.
- וכמה יהא בעיר ותהא ראויה לסנהדרין, מאה ועשרים.
- רבי נחמיה אומר, מאתים ושלשים, כנגד שרי עשרות.
Great courts are of 71 and small are of 23. From where do we learn that great are of 71? It is written (Numbers 11:16) "gather for you 70 men from the elders of Israel." And Moses on their backs, behold, this is 71. Rabbi Yehuda says: 70. And from where do we learn that small are of 23? It is written (35:24-25) "the assembly shall decide ... the assembly shall protect." The assembly decides and the assembly protects - behold this is twenty. From where do we learn that the assembly is ten? It is written (Numbers 14:27) "until when, the wicked assembly." This excludes Joshua and Caleb. And from where do we bring the other three? We learn this, as it is written (Exodus 23:2) "don't side with the majority to do evil". Should I learn to side with them to do good? If so, why is it written (ibid) "Following the majority [do not] distort" - this is not acquittal [distortion for good], but (rather) conviction [distortion for bad]. Acquittal is by one, conviction by two. There cannot be an even court, add to it one more - behold this is 23. And how many are in a city before they have a Sanhedrin? 120. Rabbi Nehemiah says, 230, so that (they are) rulers of ten.
This is an explanation of where the numbers 23 and 71 come from. There is no archeological or historical proof that such courts ever actually existed before the rabbis wrote about them, and it is considered likely that a court of 23 never existed. This theory is helped by the fact that the explanation of 71 is easily understandable and rooted in the Torah, but the explanation of 23 is very convoluted and not actually based in the Torah. Nonetheless, an explanation of important terms:
The wicked assembly - This refers to the spies in Numbers, who went into Israel, and came back with tales of giants who could not be beaten in combat. They are considered wicked because they refused to believe that they could take the land, even with the help of God. There were actually twelve spies, but the Mishnah explains that the 'wicked assembly' does not include Joshua and Caleb who brought positive reports. From this, the Mishnah derives ten (twelve minus two).
Rulers of ten - Nehemiah's argument, and presumably the argument of the Mishnah, refers only to the small Sanhedrin of 23. Thus, if there is a court of 23 people, this would be one judge for every ten people in a town of 230.
The math is confusing here, so here's a basic breakdown: 23 = 2(10)+2+1. Two assemblies (one to decide and one to protect) of ten, plus two (to allow for conviction, only one would be necessary for acquittal), plus one (to prevent a tie). The issue that many scholars have with this number is that there are already two (needed to convict) embedded in the twenty, so it would make more sense for the number to be 21 rather than 23.