Modern attempts to revive the Sanhedrin
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Modern attempts to revive the Sanhedrin are the efforts from 1538 AD until the present day to renew the Sanhedrin which was dissolved in 358 AD by the edict of the Byzantine emperor. (Though 358 was the last formal meeting, there is no record of when it was actually dissolved and by whom, nor any reference to the last nasi's execution.) The latest effort was in 2004 when a group of seventy-one rabbis claiming to represent varied communities in Israel undertook a ceremony in Tiberias, where the original Sanhedrin was disbanded. That group claimed to re-establish the body, based on the proposal of Maimonides and the Jewish legal rulings of Rabbi Yosef Karo. As of March 2010, that effort is ongoing and is supported by The Temple Institute.
Sanhedrin in Judaism
The Sanhedrin is traditionally viewed as the last institution which commanded universal authority among the Jewish people in the long chain of tradition from Moses until the present day. Since its dissolution in 358 CE, there has been no universally recognized authority within Jewish law (Halakha).
Maimonides (1135–1204) was one of the greatest scholars on Judaism of the Middle Ages, and is arguably one of the most widely known scholars among the Jewish people. Influenced by the rationalist school of thought and generally showing a preference for a natural (as opposed to miraculous) redemption for the Jewish people, Maimonides proposed a rationalist solution for achieving the goal of re-establishing the highest court in Jewish tradition and reinvesting it with the same authority it had in former years. There have been several attempts to implement Maimonides' recommendations, the latest being in modern times.
The dissolution of the classical Sanhedrin
By the end of the Second Temple period, the Sanhedrin achieved its quintessential position, legislating on all aspects of Jewish religious and political life within the parameters laid down by Biblical and Rabbinic tradition.
After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the Sanhedrin was re-established in Yavneh by agreement between Yochanan ben Zakai and Roman Emperor Vespasian. Vespasian agreed in part due to the perception that the Pharisees had not participated in the first revolt to the extent that other groups had. Thus the Sanhedrin in Yavneh was comprised almost exclusively of pharisaic scholars. The imperial Roman government recognized the Sanhedrin. They regarded the head of the Sanhedrin as their own paid government official with the status of Prefect. Roman legislation severely reduced the scope of its authority, but confirmed the body's ultimate authority in religious matters. In an attempt to quash revolutionary elements, Rome in effect declared one form of Judaism to be the only recognized form of religion. This led to persecution of sectarian groups, and attempts by these groups to find fault with the Sanhedrin before the Roman government.
The Sanhedrin moved from Yavneh to Usha under the presidency of Gamaliel II in 80. In 116 it moved back to Yavneh, and again back to Usha. It moved in 140 to Shefaram under the presidency of Shimon ben Gamliel II, and to Beth Shearim and Sepphoris in 163, under the presidency of Judah haNasi. Finally, it moved to Tiberias in 193, under the presidency of Gamaliel III (193–220) ben Judah haNasi, where it became more of a consistory, but still retained, under the presidency of Judah II (220–270), the power of excommunication.
As a reaction to the emperor Julian's pro-Jewish stance, Theodosius I forbade the Sanhedrin to assemble and declared ordination illegal. (Roman law prescribed capital punishment for any Rabbi who received ordination and complete destruction of the town where the ordination occurred).
However, since the Hebrew calendar was based on witnesses' testimony, that had become far too dangerous to collect, Hillel II recommended change to a mathematically based calendar that was adopted at a clandestine, and maybe final, meeting in 358. This marked the last universal decision made by that body.
Gamaliel VI (400–425) was the Sanhedrin's last president. With the death of this patriarch, executed by Theodosius II for erecting new synagogues contrary to the imperial decree, use of the title Nasi, the last remains of the ancient Sanhedrin, became illegal after 425.
There are records of what may have been of attempts to reform the Sanhedrin in Arabia, in Jerusalem under the Calif 'Umar, and in Babylon (Iraq), but none of these attempts were given any attention by Rabbinic authorities and little information is available about them.
Maimonides' semicha by consensus
Maimonides was one of the greatest scholars of the Middle Ages, and is arguably one of the most widely accepted scholars among the Jewish people since the closing of the Talmud in 500 CE.
Influenced by the rationalist school of thought and generally showing a preference for a natural (as opposed to miraculous) redemption for the Jewish people, Maimonides records that it is an absolute, binding requirement of the Jewish people in every generation to set up a Sanhedrin and courts of law. Faced with the demise of classical Semicha (Biblical ordination), he tentatively proposed a rationalist solution for achieving the goal of re-establishing the highest court in Jewish tradition and reinvesting it with the same authority it had in former years.
- It appears to me [Maimonides] that if all the sages of the Land of Israel consent to appoint dayanim (judges) and grant them semichah (ordination), they have the law of musmachim and they can judge penalty cases and are authorized to grant semichah to others [thus restoring Biblical ordination].
- If so, why did the sages bemoan [the loss of] semichah? So that the judgment of penalty cases wouldn't disappear from among Israel because Jews are so spread out that it's not possible to get their consent [to authorize a dayan]. If someone were to receive semichah from someone who already has semichah, then he does not require their consent – he may judge penalty cases for everyone since he received semichah from beis din (rabbinical court). However, this matter requires a final decision.
- (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:11)
The wording of this teaching is vague and tentative and leaves several points open. Firstly, it opens with "It appears to me" and ends with "this matter requires a final decision". Secondly, it is not specified what is meant by "consent". Thirdly, it leaves open as to who are "all the sages of the Land of Israel" and lastly—although not apparent here—what is really meant by the word "all". These questions led to significant debate within Rabbinic circles, from those who completely disregarded this teaching to others who differed on its meaning.
The differing interpretations gradually coalesced by the time of Yosef Karo who recorded as definitive Jewish law that ordination could be established by consensus, and accepted such ordination himself. While Rabbi Yosef Karo's magnum opus, the Shulchan Aruch, is considered the most authoritative collection of Jewish Law in use today, his views on this subject are not widely known. In general, religious Jews not familiar with his writings on the subject tend to reject outright the notion of establishing a Sanhedrin by consensus.
The matter of restoring semicha by consensus has been a matter of dispute within the orthodox community. Against the view are such authorities as the Rabbi Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz (the Chazon Ish), who quoted Rabbi David ibn abi Zimra (the Radvaz) on the subject, who in turn sided with Rabbi Levi Ibn Chaviv (the Ralbach), who based his claims on the Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (Ramban) that it is impossible to form a Sanhedrin before Moshiach, the Jewish messiah, comes.
On the other hand, authorities based on Maimonides and Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch, were of the opinion that semicha could be established by consensus and a Sanhedrin could be formed without waiting for Moshiach. Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov, a leading disciple of the Vilna Gaon, wrote in the name of the Gaon that there was no need to wait for Moshiach before forming a Sanhedrin. (Cf. Attempt by Rabbi Yisroel Shklover, 1830 to revive Semicha.)
A brief summary of the last five rabbinical attempts to create a Sanhedrin
A discussion of the last five rabbinical attempts to reinstate Semicha can be found in the Wikipedia entry on Semicha. Rabbi Bavad, a member of the new Sanhedrin, gives a brief discussion of those attempts and how they affected the most recent attempt.
- Attempt by Rabbi Jacob Berab in 1538. Rabbi Berab assembled 25 of the most leading Rabbis of the Holy Land, who at the time were located in Safed, and re-instituted the Semicha. They convened and ordained Rabbi Berab as their "Chief Rabbi". The Rabbis of Jerusalem felt a slight on their honor and declared the election invalid, and a major dispute ensued. Some Rabbis held that it wasn't possible to renew the Semicha, but Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch, took the position that the procedure was valid and he was one of four Rabbi ordained by Rabbi Berab. Rabbi Karo in turn ordained Rabbi Moshe Alshich who in turn ordained Rabbi Hayyim Vital the prime disciple of the Ari Hakodosh. The new Sanhedrin has modeled its actions after this attempt.
- Attempt by Rabbi Yisroel of Shklov in 1830. In Rabbi Yisroel's lifetime the Turkish empire was crumbling, and for the first time in almost a thousand years westerners were being allowed into Yemen. Scientific journals of the time seriously speculated that the remnants of the lost ten tribes would be found. Based on Jewish traditions and "scientific evidence" Rabbi Yisroel sent an emissary to obtain Semicha from these lost tribes. In the end, no remnant was found, however the responses involved in this shed light on the Vilna Gaon's position that it was permissible to attempt to re-establish the Sanhedrin.
- Attempt by Rabbi Aharon Mendel haCohen in 1901. Rabbi Mendel collected the approval of approximately 500 leading Rabbis in favor of the renewal of Semicha according to Maimonides. His involvement in the founding of Agudath Israel and the breakout of World War I distracted him from implementing this plan. The new Sanhedrin bases its use of phones, fax and regular mail rather than physically assembling "all the scholars of the Land of Israel" on the rabbinical responsa surrounding this attempt.
- Attempt by Rabbi Zvi Kovsker in 1940. Rabbi Zvi Kovsker came to Israel from Soviet Russia. Seeing the condition of Jews in the years leading up to World War II, he undertook an effort to contact and work with many Rabbinic leaders in Israel towards getting their approval for the renewal of Semicha, and the reestablishment of a Sanhedrin, as an authentic government for the Jewish people (this was before the establishment of the State of Israel). His efforts to lobby the Rabbinic leaders were the model for twenty years of groundwork and discussions by the organizers of the new Sanhedrin.
- Attempt by Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon in 1949. Rabbi Maimon proposed turning the Israeli Rabbinate into a Sanhedrin. The perceived subordinate position to the government of Israel was compared to Napoleon's Sanhedrin, and led to strong vocal opposition by most Haredi rabbis. Israel's Chief Ashkenazi rabbi at the time Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, was hesitant to support this goal, and the idea eventually died away.
Rabbi Beirav, the model for the latest attempt
A closer look at the attempt by Rabbi Beirav, and the involvement of the Beis Yosef, which was the model for the current attempt:
Rabbi Yakov Berav (1474–1546), known as the Mahari Beirav, was born in Spain. Evidence of the great respect is afforded by the following lines of Rabbi Abraham Gavison in Omer ha-Shikchah: "Say not that the lamp of the Law no longer burns in Israel! Yakov Beirav has come back! once more he sojourns among us!" In 1533 he became Rabbi at Cairo; and several years after he seems to have finally settled in Safed, which then contained the largest and most learned Jewish community in the Land of Israel. After the Spanish expulsion, many Jews remained in Spain, practicing their Judaism in secret, while publicly appearing to be Christians. Thousands of these Marrano Jews eventually escaped to areas where they could practice their religion with relative freedom, yet they were haunted by the sins they had committed in previous years. As chief Rabbi of Safed, Rabbi Yakov Beirav proposed the creation of Jewish courts that would carry out the punishment of malkos, lashes, which releases someone from the punishment of kareis, or excision (Mishnah Makos 23a). But in order to create these Jewish courts, classical ordination had to be reinstituted.
Renewal of semicha
For a year, Rabbi Yakov Beirav discussed the issues of re-establishment institution of semicha with the scholars of Safed. After much discussion the scholars at Safed came to the conclusion that Maimonides' view was correct, and that there was a pressing need to re-establish the Sanhedrin. In 1538 twenty-five Rabbis met in an assembly at Safed and ordained Rabbi Yakov Beirav, giving him the right to ordain others who would then form a Sanhedrin. After sending a delegation to Jerusalem, Rabbi Yakov Beirav expounded on Shabbat before all the scholars of Safed the halachic basis of the re-establishment of semicha and its implications, with an intent to dispel any remaining doubts. On hearing of this event, approximately two hundred scholars, most of the scholars in Land of Israel, also expressed their consent. To obtain the good-will of the scholars of Jerusalem, Rabbi Yakov Beirav sent Rabbi Shlomo Chazan to inform them of the reinstitution of semicha and to obtain their approval. He extended semicha to the chief Rabbi at Jerusalem, Levi ben Yakov ibn Chaviv, (Ralbach).
The Ralbach however rejected the semicha. He considered it an insult to his dignity and to the dignity of Jerusalem that so important a change should be effected without consultation of the scholars of Jerusalem. Rabbi Moshe deCastro of Jerusalem also expressed doubts over the applicability of semicha. Because of this opposition some of the scholars of Safed also began to entertain doubts. Rabbi Yakov Beirav again assembled the scholars of Safed, and reviewed the halachic basis for re-establishment of semicha. Rabbi Yosef Karo and others sent a treatise Maaseh Beis Din to the scholars of Jerusalem explaining the basis for semicha and protesting their opposition to its re-establishment. In the course of time, the Ralbach put his objections to Rabbi Yakov Beirav's semicha in writing, involving additional scholars in the dispute. In response Rabbi Yakov Beirav composed and distributed Iggeret Hasemicha to settle any halachic doubts. The dispute lasted for a year. In general the scholars outside of Land of Israel did not get involved at this stage in the dispute, with the exception of the Radbaz.
The Ralbach's objections centered around the following points:
- The re-establishment of semicha will cause the speeding up of redemption, which is not permitted.
- Maimonides closing words, "This matter requires a final decision" shows that he was not fully decided on this ruling. Since Maimonides was uncertain and Nahmanides was certain, the law follows Nahmanides.
- Lastly that the role of Sanhedrin had to be complete, the Calendar had to immediately change which could cause division among the Jewish people
- Even if Maimonides was correct, because the scholars of Jerusalem were not present the election was invalid.
Rabbi Yakov Beirav countered with the following points:
- First, that the re-establishment semicha is not interfering with the process of redemption, rather it is simply the fulfillment of a positive mitzvah.
- The Maimonides' closing words refer to a different legal matter.
- There was no problem leaving the Jewish calendar unchanged.
- The most learned scholars lived in Safed and that was sufficient; in Jewish law the word "all" means the "main part". (The Ralbach did not differ with Rabbi Yakov Beirav on this point, only he objected that "all" must include the scholars of Jerusalem. He did not claim that every scholar in all of Land of Israel should be present in the assembly).
In his treatise Maaseh Beis Din, Rabbi Yosef Karo explained Maimonides' principle of "all". There he writes that Maimonides meant that if one Rabbi is willing to defer to the knowledge and wisdom of another Rabbi - those lesser rabbis are already included to the greater rabbis and need not be included in the count of "all" (meaning that the scholars of Jerusalem did not need to be included in the election process). To further show that he held that this opinion, he accepted the Semicha of Rabbi Beirav, and passed it on for several generations.
It is known that Rabbi Yosef Karo and Rabbi Moses of Trani were two of the four men ordained by Rabbi Yakov Beirav. The others are assumed to be Rabbi Abraham Shalom and Rabbi Israel de Curial and/or Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto. After weighing the objections of Ralbach, Rabbi Yosef Karo chose to be part of the Mahari Beirav's attempt to reinstate the Sanhedrin in his time. This is the source for the acronym MaRaN, which stands for the words "ordained by two hundred Rabbis" (Masa'im Rabanan Nismach). Scholars never criticized Rabbi Yosef Karo for this decision. Though there were arguments over many years about the authority of the Shulchan Aruch until it became universally accepted, yet nowhere does one criticize Rabbi Yosef Karo for the fact that he received semicha from Rabbi Yakov Beirav and transmitted it onward. Rabbi Yosef Karo is known to have used his semicha to ordain Rabbi Moses Alsheich, who in turn, ordained Rabbi Chaim Vital. Thus semicha can be traced for at least four generations. Rabbi Yosef Karo, in his commentary the Beis Yosef (Choshen Mishpat 295), answered the objections of the Ralbach by recording as definitive Jewish law the Maimonides' opinion that semicha can be renewed by consensus.
However this view is not shared by all modern rabbis, as Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff writes: Although Rav Yosef Karo had received this semicha and ordained Rav Moshe Alshich, it is not clear he utilized the semicha in any other way. Nowhere does he refer to a renewal of semicha, and furthermore, numerous places in Shulchan Aruch would be written differently if its author assumed that a beis din of semuchim existed today. In all these places, he assumes that no beis din today exists that is authorized to paskin on the laws of penalties and punishments... Although Rav Moshe Alshich ordained Rav Chayim Vital (Birkei Yosef, Choshen Mishpat 1:7), who was renowned as the primary disciple of the Arizal, the semicha trail appears to end at this point. There is no indication of anyone continuing the semicha project after this time... according to Rabbi Kaganoff, "we can assume that the psak of the Ralbach and Radvaz was accepted that we should not introduce semicha on our own."
- "Present-day Sanhedrin court seeks to revive ancient Temple rituals". haaretz.com. January 18, 2010.
- "Re-starting the Jewish heart". jpost.com. January 18, 2010.
- Ceremony by rabbis
- The Sanhedrin Reestablished - Part I (17 May 2006) (Jewish Press)
- The Sanhedrin Reestablished - Part II (31 May 2006) (Jewish Press)
- The Sanhedrin Reestablished - Part III (7 June 2006) (Jewish Press)
- The dissolution of the Sanhedrin, in terms of its power to give binding universal decisions, is usually dated to 358CE when Hillel II's mathematical Jewish Calendar was adopted. This marked the last universally accepted decision made by that body.
- The Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614CE compared with Islamic conquest of 638CE
- Sefer Yuchsin, cf. Yarchei Kallah, Rabbi Nassan describes "the seventy judges who comprise the Sanhedrin"
- Rabbi Yosef Karo's treatise Maaseh Beis Din and his commentary the Beis Yosef, Choshen Mishpat 295, see also Rabbi Yakov Beirav Iggeret Hasemicha
- Shealos v'teshuvos leRalbach by Rabbi Levi Ibn Chaviv
- Sefer Hamitzvos, Aseh 153 by Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman Gerondi (Ramban)
- Mishne Torah, Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:11
- Choshen Mishpat 295
- The attempt of Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov to re-establish the Sanhedrin in 1830
- HaSanhedrin HaSamchut VeHaChiddush, Appendix I, by Rabbi Bavad, Beit El Press, 2005
- Based on Jewish Encyclopedia: BERAB, JACOB, Rabbi Tzvi Eidan's Asot Mishpat, and also Semicha and Sanhedrin Controversies by Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff
- Iggeret Hasemicha by Rabbi Yakov Beirav
- Maaseh Beis Din by Rabbi Yosef Karo
- Semicha and Sanhedrin Controversies of the 16th and 21st Centuries by Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff