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Mishnah Sanhedrin, Chapter 3

Sanhedrin
 Chapter 3

סנהדרין
פרק ג’

Commentary

m. 1 …When (bizeman) he brings evidence about them that they are relatives (qerobim) or invalid m. 8 So long as (kol zeman) he brings evidence he reverses the ruling… Come forth (qirbu), so-and-so and so-and-so

This chapter deals with the laws regarding litigation of property cases. The opening and closing pericopes of the chapter utilize similar wording to describe two very different stages of the legal proceedings. The first pericope describes the court as an ad-hoc body, in which the judges are selected by the litigants themselves. Three disputes are recorded between R. Meir and the Sages regarding the degree to which the litigants control the proceedings. R. Meir, who apparently regards the ad-hoc court as a kind of arbitration procedure,1 requires cooperation and consent of both litigants with regard to all stages of the proceedings: after each party has appointed a judge, both parties together appoint the third judge; each party may disqualify the judge appointed by the other side; and each party may disqualify witnesses appointed by the other side.2 The Sages, who apparently regard the court as an authoritative body despite its ad-hoc origins, insist that the litigants’ control over its operations be limited: the third judge must be appointed by the other two judges and neither judge nor witness may be disqualified unless proof is brought that he is either a relative of one of the parties (detailed in m. 4) or has been disqualified by improper conduct (detailed in m. 3). The phrases in m. 1 which are highlighted by their repetition at the end of the chapter are taken from the Mishnah’s presentation of the Sages’ view.

The chapter ends with two sections about the ability of the court to restrict the presentation of evidence by the litigants. In the first section, the Sages allow the court to set a time limit for presenting new evidence after a ruling has been established, and R. Shimon ben Gamaliel disagrees, arguing: “What is he supposed to do, when he didn’t know that he had witnesses and found witnesses, or when he didn’t know that he had proof and he found proof?” In the second section, concluding the chapter, a litigant, having asserted that he has no further evidence, suddenly produces evidence when he realizes that he is about to lose the case. In this case the Mishnah rules, without dissent, that the evidence is disallowed, presumably because the behavior of the litigant casts serious prima facia doubt on the reliability of the evidence.

The two words, zeman and q-r-b, which link the beginning and end of the chapter, appear together in two of R. Meir’s disputes with the Sages in m. 1, and each term appears in one of the two sections in m. 8: zeman in the first section and q-r-b in the second. The meaning of the terms is different in the two pericopes (see: Wordplays, infra): zeman means “occasion” in m. 1 and “time frame” in m. 8, and q-r-b means “relative” in m. 1 and “to approach” in m. 8. The parallel terms also play different roles in the respective sections in which they occur: zeman is the focal point of the dispute recorded in m. 8, but in m. 1 it appears only as part of a stock formula: “‘Eimatai? Bizman…” (When is this said? When…). Q-r-b is central to the Sages’ argument in m. 1, because kinship is one of the two claims that may be advanced to disqualify witnesses (or judges), both here and in mm. 3-4 (“And these are those who are invalid… And these are relatives”); but in m. 8, qirbu (come forth) is a stock phrase for summoning witnesses – perhaps utilized here to emphasize the point that the witnesses have been available to the litigant all along and do not need to be subpoenaed3. The fact that the terms appear together in m. 1, but separately in the two sections of m. 8, along with the differences in meaning and centrality in the two parts of the chapter, hihghlight the careful attention to language necessary for the redactor to produce the linguistic echo of m. 1. Each word appears twice more in all of tractate Sanhedrin (zeman in 5:2 and 10:6; q-r-b in 6:6 and 10:4), increasing the probability that the appearance of these terms at the beginning and end of our chapter is calculated, rather than accidental.

The idea underlying this inclusio is not difficult to decipher. M. 1 and m. 8 mirror one another in their content, as well as their language. The dispute between R. Meir and the Sages in m. 1 concerns the nature of the relationship between the litigants and the ad-hoc court which they have established. According to R. Meir, the court is an instrument employed by the litigants, who maintain a large degree of control over the court’s operations: selection of all judges and even of witnesses depends upon the continuing acquiescence of each of the litigants to the proceedings. The Sages maintain that the court, although established initially by the litigants, can function only as an autonomous body, which assumes authority as soon as the first two judges – each representing the choice of one of the two litigants – have been selected. The question of the court’s authority vis-a-vis the litigants in the initial stages of the trial is mirrored by the discussion in m. 8, which raises similar questions regarding the trial’s concluding stages. R. Shimon ben Gamaliel, like R. Meir in m. 1, safeguards the rights of the litigants. The Sages, however, maintain that the viability of the judicial process demands that the judges be allowed to set a limit, even arbitrarily, for producing evidence. In their view, if no time limit is set on the litigants’ ability to overturn a verdict, then no case may ever be declared closed and the judicial function of settling disputes would be seriously impaired.4 Both the Sages and Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel agree that the judges may peremptorily dismiss evidence brought by one of the litigants if the litigant’s own behavior casts serious doubt on the reliability of the evidence.

The similar language employed by the Mishnah at the beginning and the end of the chapter thus underscores the conceptual similarity between the two discussions and presents this similarity as a guiding motif of the chapter as a whole. The ad-hoc composition of the court described in m. 1 contains an inherent tension between the subjection of the judges to the voluntary submission of the litigants and the authority needed for any court to fulfill its function. R. Meir and Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel weight the scales in favor of the litigants, whereas the Sages in both cases favor the authority of the judges.

The literary and conceptual integrity achieved by the Mishnah redactor may be seen in bold relief against the backdrop of the parallel material brought in the Tosefta. The dispute between R. Meir and the Sages is brought at the beginning of chapter 4 of the Tosefta, which roughly parallels mm. 1-5 of our chapter. The two laws which close our chapter in the Mishnah appear in chapter 6 (pericope 4) of the Tosefta, which parallels mm. 6-8 of our chapter, and they are followed by additional laws, regarding the ability of witnesses to renege on their testimony (T. 6:5) and the determination that witnesses have committed perjury (T. 6:6). The division of the Mishnah chapter into two separate chapters and the placement of the laws of m. 8 in the middle, rather than the end, of the second Toseftan chapter undo any literary connection between the dispute of R. Meir and the Sages and the two laws of m. 8. It is thus not surprising that the language of T. 5:1 contains no literary allusions to that of T. 6:4: neither the word zeman nor the word q-r-b appear in T. 5:1 and the word q-r-b is absent from T. 6:4 as well. The comparison of the redaction of similar material in the Mishnah and the Tosefta thus reveals the kinds of conscious redactorial decisions which create the literary patterns found in Mishnah5 .

Surprisingly, however, the Toseftan parallel to the Mishnah indicates a connection between the disputes at the beginning and the end of our chapter which the Mishnah has elided. The Sages’ opinion of m. 8 is attributed in Tosefta to R. Meir, and Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel’s opinion is attributed there to “the Sages”. Had the Mishnah redactor followed the attributions found in the Tosefta, this would have strengthened the connection between m. 1 and m. 8. Why didn’t he avail himself of this method of clinching the literary connection between the two discussions6?

The answer to this question will again reveal the conceptual thinking underlying the redactorial strategy of the Mishnah redactor. The Toseftan attribution of both disputes to R. Meir and the Sages reveals a paradoxical situation: R. Meir, who accords sweeping powers to the litigants throughout the conduct of the trial (m. 1), is the one who accords authoritative standing to the judges at the end of the trial. The Sages who disagree with R. Meir also seem to shift their positions. They accord autonomous standing to the judges during the conduct of the trial, but insist on the rights of the litigants after the decision has been rendered.

The reversal of positions might be explained in different ways. Perhaps the rabbis felt the necessity to strike a balance between granting the court the ability to decide and persuading the litigants to accept the court’s decision. Hence the proponent of allowing judges to set a time limit on overturning their verdict balanced this ruling by according the litigants the power to control the proceedings prior to the issuing of a verdict; at the same time the proponent of granting the judges the power to run the trial felt that this could work only if the litigants knew that there could be no time limitation on their right to appeal the verdict by presenting new evidence. I believe, however, that the positions of R. Meir and of the Sages as presented in the Tosefta can be explained more persuasively by examining their positions from a different vantage point. The two issues disputed by R. Meir and the Sages may both hinge on the same fundamental question: is the main purpose of the court to arrive at a just verdict or to 7 ? Adoption of the former view would bear two consequences, which correspond to the two rulings of the Sages: in order to arrive at a truly just verdict, the court should be as autonomous as possible, and there should be no limitation placed on producing evidence. R. Meir, on the other hand, felt that the court’s chief goal is to settle the dispute; therefore the litigants should be given control over the composition of the court and the conduct of the trial, so that they have confidence in the court’s verdict. On the other hand, once a decision is rendered, the need to achieve closure takes precedence over the need to reexamine the correctness of the verdict.

The Tosefta’s presentation of the disputes between R. Meir and the Sages, while enabling us to note and analyze the seemingly paradoxical shift of opinion on the part of both disputants, does not invite us to examine these disputes in light of one another. The Mishnah’s presentation differs from that of the Tosefta in both respects. The inclusio invites us to relate the two disputes to one another, but the attribution of opinions masks the paradoxical crossover of opinions. On the contrary, the Mishnah indicates that in both places the anonymous majority opinion holds that the authority is accorded to the judges, while the opinion which enhances the power of the litigants is only maintained by a minority view. The Mishnah thus suggests – contrary to the views held by the original disputants – that these two disputes are not only interrelated, but are dependent upon one another. At every turn the majority view accords authority to the court, once the litigants have appointed the first two judges; two separate minority opinions dissent from the consensus at different junctures: R. Meir expands the control of the litigants over the conduct of the trial, while Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel expands the right of the litigants to overturn the verdict.


  • 1See Asher Gulack, Foundations of Jewish Law (Hebrew), Tel-Aviv 5727 (henceforth: Gulack), part 4, p. 30; Mordechai Sabato, “Court of Arbitrators (Sanhedrin 3:1-3)” (Hebrew), in: M. Bar-Asher (ed.), Rabbi Mordechai Breuer Festschrift, Jerusalem 1992 (henceforth: Sabato), pp. 469-470. Commentators have debated whether the Mishnah regards this as the normative way of dealing with property cases, or as an alternative procedure to judgment by an established court. See discussion in Moshe Benovitz, “Property Witnesses” (Hebrew), in: D. Boyarin et al (eds.), ‘Atarah L’Haim, Jerusalem, 2000, p. 30 (henceforth: Benovitz), especially f.n. 8-10.
  • 2R. Meir’s claims struck interpreters of the Mishnah as far-reaching, and commentators were especially puzzled by the ability to disqualify witnesses, which would seem effectively to paralyze the court’s ability to hear and decide the case. Both talmuds bring an array of suggested understandings of R. Meir’s position, and contemporary scholars have continued to debate the issue. Gulack and Sabato understand R. Meir as advocating the view that this court of arbitration is an instrument utilized and controlled by the parties to achieve a settlement, rather than an authoritative body with power of coercion. Benovitz, pp. 39-42 suggests that the ability to disqualify witnesses is rooted in the nature of the case which this court is authorized to adjudicate (in his view), in which – he argues – only witnesses authorized in advance by the parties are qualified to testify. It is also possible that R. Meir does not intend to allow the parties to disqualify judges and witnesses unless they advance a claim to justify the disqualification. This suggestion is based on reading the word  posel as meaning “finds a disqualifying factor”, rather than as meaning “vetoes”. This reading of posel apparently underlies some of the talmudic suggestions, and Benovitz’s claim (p. 33) that this is not the simple meaning of the term is unsupported.
  • 3The Mishnah thus alludes in its language to the qualification of this law in Tosefta 6:4, which rules that the evidence is accepted if the litigant can establish that it was unknown to him at the time when he denied having evidence to present.
  • 4See Eliav Shohatman, Civil Procedure in Jewish Law (Hebrew), The Libraray of Jewish Law, Jerusalem, 1988 (henceforth: Shohatman), p. 426.
  • 5The employment of the term “conscious” is used with full awareness of the philosophical and philological assumptions involved. Philologically I am assuming that the material assembled by the Tosefta redactor around the middle of the third century (or material similar to it) was available to the Mishnah redactor. Philosophically I am assuming that the existence and the meaning of a literary pattern cannot be entirely divorced from the conscious design imposed upon the text by authorial intention. Both assumptions can be supported, in my view, and see my discussion in Dissertation, pp. 21-26, . Above and beyond  the merits of the philological and philosophical arguments, I believe it to be intuitively highly plausible that neither did the Mishnah redactor happen upon material susceptible to literary redaction, nor did the literary patterns he produced occur by happenstance. As I have argued above, even if we do not impute to the Mishnah redactor conscious intention, this will not materially affect our conclusions.
  • 6I am again assuming that the different traditions regarding the attribution of the opinions is not an accident of historical transmission, but reflects conscious redactorial activity.
  • 7Shohatman, p. 426, roots the controversy in the conflict between justice/truth and the public welfare. A similar issue is central to T. 1:2-9, which considers the respective merits of adjudication and arbitration, as well as several other issues rooted in the tension between the formal demands of the law and the moral demands of social justice. Our issue also emerges from the talmudic discussion of m. 1 (Sanhedrin 23a), which culminates with the statement by R. Zeira, that the process in which the litigants select the first two judges and the judges select the third judge ensures that “the verdict will come out truthful”. Rashi, apparently puzzled by the question how this process insures a “truthful” verdict, suggests that the “truthfulness” of the verdict is rooted in two factors: the faith of the litigants in the court and the balance of opinions among the judges. These two factors correspond to the goals of settling the dispute and of justice, respectively. Rashi’s comment stimulated discussions by Rosh  (Chapter 3, par. 1) and Ran (Talmud commentary ad. loc.) about the role of objectivity and subjective bias in ferreting out the truth.

מסכת סנהדרין פרק ג

ג,א דיני ממונות, בשלושה. זה בורר לו אחד, וזה בורר לו אחד, ושניהם בוררין להן עוד אחד, דברי רבי מאיר; וחכמים אומרין, שני דיינין בוררין להן עוד אחד. זה פוסל דיינו של זה, וזה פוסל דיינו של זה, דברי רבי מאיר. וחכמים אומרין, אימתיי, בזמן שהוא מביא ראיה שהן קרובים או פסולים; אבל אם היו כשרים, או מומחין מפי בית דין–אינו יכול לפוסלן. זה פוסל עדיו של זה, וזה פוסל עדיו של זה, דברי רבי מאיר. וחכמים אומרין, אימתיי, בזמן שהוא מביא עליהם ראיה שהם קרובין או פסולין; אבל אם היו כשרים, אינו יכול לפוסלם.

ג,ב אמר לו נאמן עליי אבא, נאמן עליי אביך, נאמנין עליי שלושה רועי בקר–רבי מאיר אומר, יכול לחזור בו; וחכמים אומרין, אינו יכול לחזור בו. היה חייב לו חברו שבועה–אמר לו דור לי בחיי ראשך, רבי מאיר אומר, יכול הוא לחזור בו; וחכמים אומרין, אינו יכול לחזור בו.

ג,ג אלו הן הפסולין–המשחק בקוביה, והמלווה בריבית, ומפריחי יונים, וסוחרי שביעית. אמר רבי שמעון, מתחילה לא היו קוראין אותן אלא אוספי שביעית; משרבו האנסין, חזרו לקרותם סוחרי שביעית. אמר רבי יהודה, אימתיי, בזמן שאין לו אומנות אלא היא; אבל יש לו אומנות שלא היא, הרי זה כשר.

ג,ד אלו הן הקרובין–אחיו, ואחי אביו, ואחי אימו, ובעל אחותו, ובעל אחות אביו, ובעל אחות אימו, ובעל אימו, וחמיו, ואגיסו, הן ובניהן וחתניהן, וחורגו לבדו. אמר רבי יוסי, זו משנת רבי עקיבה; אבל משנה ראשונה, דודו ובן דודו. וכל הראוי לו לירושה, וכל הקרוב לו באותה שעה; היה קרוב, ונתרחק–כשר. רבי יהודה אומר, אפילו מתה בתו, ויש לו בנים ממנה–הרי זה קרוב.

ג,ה האוהב והשונא: איזה הוא האוהב, זה שושבינו; והשונא, כל שלא דיבר עימו שלושת ימים באיבה. אמרו לו, לא נחשדו ישראל על כך.

ג,ו כיצד בודקין את העדים: היו מכניסין אותם, ומאיימין עליהם, ומוציאין את כל האדם לחוץ, ומשיירין את הגדול שבהן; ואומרין לו אמור היאך אתה יודע שזה חייב לזה. אם אמר הוא אמר לי חייב אני לו, איש פלוני אמר לי שהוא חייב לו–לא אמר כלום: עד שיאמר בפנינו הודה לו, שהוא חייב לו מאתיים זוז. היו מכניסין את השני, ובודקין; נמצאו דבריהן מכוונין, נושאין ונותנין בדבר. שניים אומרין זכאי, ואחד אומר חייב–זכאי; שניים אומרין חייב, ואחד אומר זכאי–חייב. אחד אומר זכאי, ואחד אומר חייב, אפילו שניים מזכין או מחייבין, ואחד אומר איני יודע–יוסיפו הדיינין.

ג,ז גמרו את הדבר, היו מכניסין אותם; הגדול שבדיינין אומר, איש פלוני אתה זכאי, איש פלוני אתה חייב. ומניין לכשייצא, לא יאמר אני הוא המזכה וחבריי מחייבין, אבל מה אעשה, ורבו עליי חבריי–על זה נאמר “הולך רכיל, מגלה סוד” (משלי יא,יג). [ח] כל זמן שהוא מביא ראיה, הוא סותר את הדין. אמרו לו, כל ראיות שיש לך, הבא מכאן ועד שלושים יום–הביא בתוך שלושים יום, סותר; לאחר שלושים יום, אינו סותר. אמר רבן שמעון בן גמליאל, מה יעשה, ולא מצא בתוך שלושים יום, ומצא לאחר שלושים יום.

ג,ח אמרו לו הבא עדים, ואמר אין לי עדים, הבא ראיה, ואמר אין לי ראיה, לאחר זמן מצא עדים, ומצא ראיה–הרי זו אינה כלום. אמר רבן שמעון בן גמליאל, מה יעשה, לא היה יודע שיש לו עדים, ומצא עדים; לא היה יודע שיש לו ראיה, ומצא ראיה. אמרו לו הבא עדים, ואמר אין לי עדים, הבא ראיה, ואמר אין לי ראיה–ראה שהוא מתחייב, ואמר קרבו איש פלוני ופלוני והעידוני, או שהוציא ראיה מתוך פונדתו–הרי זו אינה כלום.