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Reflections on the Mishnah – Masechet Sanhedrin, Seder Neziqin


The fourth tractate of the Seder Neziqin, Masechet Sanhedrin, deals with criminal law (which is also the case with the tractate Makkot, the two of them originally forming one tractate). It is ordered in eleven chapters of different issues, being:

  1. The courts and how they are organized, and in which cases each part judge.
  2. The statutes of the High Priests and kings, and how they are involved with the court.
  3. Which witnesses and judges are accepted in civil cases, and the general proceedings of the courts.
  4. Differences between civil cases and criminal cases, and the general proceedings in criminal cases.
  5. Rules for court procedures, how to interrogate witnesses, and the voting of judges.
  6. Rules for capital punishment after condemnation, particularly in regards to stoning.
  7. The four types of capital punishment, and details pertaining to what will lead to stoning.
  8. The wayward son and other capital punishments, that will be enforced before the actual crime, as well as other commandments where a Jew have to accept death instead of breaking them.
  9. Details of the crimes that will lead to capital punishment by burning or slaying.
  10. Details of crimes that will lead to capital punishment by choking.
  11. Heleq, the chapter dealing with the World to Come (‘Olam haBa).

As seen from the last half of the chapters, this is a Masechet that deals with some rather serious issues, namely those of capital punishment, but – maybe surprisingly at first thought – also on some much more issues, namely on the subjects of establishing, organizing and outlining rules for the courts. The reason for these being more important, is found in the fact that without courts, there would be no court rulings, and without rules for those rulings, there would be now red line to follow, when making rulings. So by this the justice of the court is (hopefully) established, and we can look closer on the rules that the courts have to rule after.

As will be clear, I believe, the ideas behind these rules and statutes, will be based less on philosophical ideas than moral and ethics ideas, which will be shown from the demands to the judges themselves. It will also be seen that these courts, in their structure and where they are based, are highly connected to Eretz Yisrael. Another perspective in this regards, that is, the structure of the courts and how they work is that there is no jury found in Jewish courts, all cases being based solely on the majority of the judges, and hence, there is always a demand of an unequal number of judges. And not only that, but also in regards to the witnesses does it lay out a system to make sure that the witnesses are interrogated in a proper way, to make sure that their testimony will be trustworthy.

These reflections are, as the blog itself, not meant to be done when it is posted. The Mishnah and the study of it take time, so I will return to this post and add to it when the time allows it. And of course I will make sure to notice when the last update was done.

I will make use of Artscroll’s translation, with the Yad Avraham, as well as Pinhas Kehati’s commentaries.

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