The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Sanhedrin is the name given in the mishna to the body of seventy-one sages who constituted the supreme court and legislative body in Judea during the Roman period. The make-up of the seventy-one sages included a president, vice president, and sixty-nine general members who all sat in the form of a semi-circle when in session.


Traditions of Origin

The Sanhedrin traced its lineage back to its formation in the time of Moses, although the Greek root for the word suggests that the institution may have developed during the Hellenistic period. The Sanhedrin ceased to exist some time after the destruction of the Second Temple. One of the requirements of being a member of the Sanhedrin is having received semicha. According to Rabbinic tradition, semicha was transmitted in an unbroken line extending from Moses to Joshua, the Israelite elders, the prophets, and finally to Ezra, Nehemiah, and the sages of the Sanhedrin.

Function and Procedures

The Sanhedrin as a body claimed powers that lesser Jewish courts did not have. As such, they were the only ones who could try the king, extend the boundaries of the Temple and Jerusalem, and were the ones to whom all questions of law were finally put. It was presided over by an officer called the Nasi . After the time of Hillel (late 1st century BCE and early 1st century CE), the Nasi was almost invariably a descendent of Hillel. The second highest-ranking member of the Sanhedrin was called the Av Beit Din (Av Beth Din , or "father of the house of justice"), who presided over the Sanhedrin when it sat as a criminal court.

The Sanhedrin met in a building known as Lishkat Ha-Gazith or the Hall of Hewn Stones , which has been placed by many scholars as built into the north wall of the Temple Mount, half inside the sanctuary and half outside, with doors providing access both to the Temple and to the outside. The name presumably arises to distinguish it from the buildings in the Temple complex used for ritual purposes, which had to be constructed of stones unhewn by any iron implements.

In Christian Tradition

The Sanhedrin is mentioned frequently in the New Testament. According to the Gospels, the council conspired to have Jesus killed by paying one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, thirty pieces of silver in exchange for delivery of the rabbi into their hands. When the Sanhedrin was unable to provide evidence that Jesus had committed a capital crime, the Christian bible states, false witnesses came forward and accused the Nazarene of blasphemy. Because the council was not of Roman authority, it could not condemn criminals to death. Circa 30 CE, the New Testament continues, Jesus was brought before the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, for a decision concerning his fate; he was found guilty of treason under Roman law, punishable by death. Whereas the Sanhedrin was a legitimate body representing an existing religion, sanctioned under Roman law, starting a new religion was seen by the Romans as a treasonous means to overthrow their leadership (perhaps you can compare it to the reaction of the Chinese government to Falun Gong).

It should be noted that - though detailed - the New Testament's account of the Sanhedrin's involvement in Jesus' crucifixion, is not generally taken as historical fact. Some scholars believe that these passages present a caricature of the Pharisees and were not written during Jesus' lifetime but rather some time after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE - a time when it had become clear that most Jews did not consider Jesus to be the messiah. Also, this was a time Christians sought most new converts from among the gentiles - thus adding to the likelihood that the New Testament's account would be more sympathetic to Romans than to the Jews. In further evidence of this arguement, it was only after 70 that the Phariseeism emerged as the dominant form of Judaism. The New Testament portrays the Sanhedrin as a corrupt group of Pharisees, despite that it was predominantly Sadducees at the time. In order for the Christian leaders of the time, to present Christianity as the legitimate heir to the Old Testament, they had to devalue Rabbinic Judaism. In addition to the New Testament, other Christian writings relate that the Apostles Peter, John, Stephen, and Paul were all brought before the Sanhedrin for the blaspheming crime (from the Jewish perspective) of spreading their Gospel. Some consider these to be biased as well, because the Gospel accounts were written after the destruction of the Temple. However, the Gospels and the acts of the Apostles are actual, personal, accounts of events that happened well before the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and are presumed to have been based on earlier sources. Though scholars may dispute their bias, they are not works of fiction.

Sanhedrin in Yavne and the Galilee

After the destruction of the Temple, the Sanhedrin was reconvened at Yavne by Yohanan ben Zakkai. It (in some form or another) continued to meet periodically in Yavne and later in Sepphoris and Tiberias. It was presided over by a Nasi of the house of Hillel until 415 CE, when the Nasi Gamaliel VI was deposed by joint decree of Emperors Theodosius and Honorius. Some of the earliest work of the reconstituted Sanhedrin was determining how to replace the rituals of the now-destroyed Temple while still honoring their spirit; organized daily prayer began to be codified in this period. The Sanhedrin in the post-Temple age concerned itself primarily with codifying the ancient traditions of the Oral Torah; its members were instrumental in the drafting of the Mishna and the Jerusalem Talmud.

Napoleon's "Grand Sanhedrin"

This section contains text adapted from the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia.

Jewish high court convened by Napoleon I to give legal sanction to the principles expressed by the Assembly of Notables in answer to the twelve questions submitted to it by the government (see Jew. Encyc. v. 468, s.v. France). These questions were:

1. Is it lawful for Jews to have more than one wife?

2. Is divorce allowed by the Jewish religion? Is divorce valid, although pronounced not by courts of justice but by virtue of laws in contradiction to the French code?

3. May a Jewess marry a Christian, or a Jew a Christian woman? or does Jewish law order that the Jews should only intermarry among themselves?

4. In the eyes of Jews are Frenchmen not of the Jewish religion considered as brethren or as strangers?

5. What conduct does Jewish law prescribe toward Frenchmen not of the Jewish religion?

6. Do the Jews born in France, and treated by the law as French citizens, acknowledge France as their country? Are they bound to defend it? Are they bound to obey the laws and follow the directions of the civil code?

7. Who elects the rabbis?

8. What kind of police jurisdiction do the rabbis exercise over the Jews? What judicial power do they exercise over them?

9. Are the police jurisdiction of the rabbis and the forms of the election regulated by Jewish law, or are they only sanctioned by custom?

10. Are there professions from which the Jews are excluded by their law?

11. Does Jewish law forbid the Jews to take usury from their brethren?

12. Does it forbid, or does it allow, usury in dealings with strangers?

At one of the meetings of the Notables, Commissioner Comte Louis Matthieu Molé expressed the satisfaction of the emperor with their answers, and announced that the emperor, requiring a pledge of strict adherence to these principles, had resolved to call together a great sanhedrin which should convert the answers into decisions and make them the basis of the future status of the Jews, create a new organization, and condemn all false interpretations of their religious laws. In order that this sanhedrin, reviving the old Sanhedrin of Jerusalem, might be vested with the same sacred character as that time-honored institution, it was to be constituted on a similar pattern: it was to be composed of seventy-one members—two-thirds of them rabbis and one-third laymen. The Assembly of Notables, which was to continue its sessions, was to elect the members of the sanhedrin, and notify the several communities of Europe of its meeting, "that they may send deputies worthy of communicating with you and able to give to the government additional information." The Assembly of Notables was to appoint also a committee of nine, whose duty it would be to prepare the work of the sanhedrin and devise a plan for the future organization of the Jews in France and Italy (see Jew. Encyc. iv. 232, s.v. Consistory).

On Oct. 6, 1806, the Assembly of Notables issued a proclamation to all the Jewish communities of Europe, inviting them to send delegates to the sanhedrin, to convene on Oct. 20. This proclamation, written in Hebrew, French, German, and Italian, speaks in extravagant terms of the importance of this revived institution and of the greatness of its imperial protector. While the action of Napoleon aroused in many Jews of Germany the hope that, influenced by it, their governments also would grant them the rights of citizenship, others looked upon it as a political contrivance. When in the war against Prussia (1806-7) the emperor invaded Poland and the Jews rendered great services to his army, he remarked, laughing, "The sanhedrin is at least useful to me." David Friedländer and his friends in Berlin described it as a spectacle that Napoleon offered to the Parisians.

Title-Pages from the Prayers Recited at the Meeting of the Sanhedrin Convened by Napoleon, Paris, 1807.(From the Suizberger collection in the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York.)The opening of the sanhedrin was delayed until Feb. 9, 1807, four days after the adjournment of the Assembly of Notables. Its seventy-one members included the rabbis sitting in the Assembly, to whom were added twenty-nine other rabbis and twenty-five laymen. Its presiding officers, appointed by the minister of the interior, were: David Sinzheim , rabbi of Strasbourg (president); Joshua Benzion Segre , rabbi, and member of the municipal council of Vercelli (first vice-president); Abraham de Cologna , rabbi of Mantua (second vice-president). After a solemn religious service in the synagogue, the members assembled in the Hötel de Ville, in a hall specially prepared for them. Following the ancient custom, they took their seats in a semicircle, according to age, on both sides of the presiding officers, the laymen behind the rabbis. They were attired in black garments, with silk capes and three-cornered hats. The sittings were public, and many visitors were present. The first meeting was opened with a Hebrew prayer written by David Sinzheim; after the address of the president and of Furtado, chairman of the Assembly of Notables, it was adjourned. At the second sitting, Feb. 12, 1807, deputies Asser, Lemon, and Litwack, of the newly constituted Amsterdam Reform congregation Adat Jeshurun, addressed the sanhedrin, Litwack in Hebrew, the others in French, expressing their entire approval of the Assembly and promising their hearty support. But the deputies were greatly disappointed when the president, after having answered them in Hebrew, invited them to be silent listeners instead of taking part in the debates as the proclamation of the Notables had caused them to expect. Addresses from congregations in France, Italy, and the Rhenish Confederation, especially from Neuwied and Dresden, were also presented.

In the sittings of Feb. 16, 19, 23, 26, and March 2, the sanhedrin voted without discussion on the replies of the Assembly of Notables, and passed them as laws. At the eighth meeting, on March 9, Hildesheimer, deputy from Frankfurt-am-Main, and Asser of Amsterdam delivered addresses, to which the president responded in Hebrew expressing great hopes for the future. After having received the thanks of the members, he closed the sanhedrin. The Notables convened again on March 25, prepared an official report, and presented it on April 6, 1807; then the imperial commissioners declared the dissolution of the Assembly of Notables.

The decisions of the sanhedrin, formulated in nine articles and drawn up in French and Hebrew, were as follows: (1) that, in conformity with the decree of R. Gershom, polygamy is forbidden to the Israelites; (2) that divorce by the Jewish law is valid only after previous decision of the civil authorities; (3) that the religious act of marriage must be preceded by a civil contract; (4) that marriages contracted between Israelites and Christians are binding, although they can not be celebrated with religious forms; (5) that every Israelite is religiously bound to consider his non-Jewish fellow citizens as brothers, and to aid, protect, and love them as though they were coreligionists; (6) that the Israelite is required to consider the land of his birth or adoption as his fatherland, and shall love and defend it when called upon; (7) that Judaism does not forbid any kind of handicraft or occupation; (8) that it is commendable for Israelites to engage in agriculture, manual labor, and the arts, as their ancestors in Palestine were wont to do; (9) that, finally, Israelites are forbidden to exact usury from Jew or Christian.

In the introduction to these resolutions the sanhedrin declared that, by virtue of the right conferred upon it by ancient custom and law, it constituted, like the ancient Sanhedrin, a legal assembly vested with the power of passing ordinances in order to promote the welfare of Israel and inculcate obedience to the laws of the state. These resolutions formed the basis of all subsequent laws and regulations of the French government in regard to the religious affairs of the Jews, although Napoleon, in spite of the declarations, issued a decree on March 17, 1808, restricting the Jews' legal rights. The plan of organization prepared by the committee of nine, having for its object the creation of consistories, was not submitted to the Sanhedrin, but was promulgated by Napoleon's decree of March 17, 1808.

Modern Times

The Jewish anticipation for the arrival of the Messiah includes the reconstitution of this body of sages. Maimonides and other medieval commentators suggested that although the line of semicha from Moses had been broken at the dissolution of the Sanhedrin, if the sages of the Land of Israel united in suggesting a single candidate as Nasi , that individual would have semicha, and could then grant it to others and thus re-establish the Sanhedrin. Operating under these principles, a group of haredi rabbis in Israel purported to reestablish the Sanhedrin in a ceremony in Tiberias, where the original Sanhedrin was disbanded, on October, 2004 (Tishrei 5765). The authority of this body is not recognized by the Israeli government or by non-haredi streams of Judaism.


Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04