The Sanhedrin

Its history and reinstatement attempts


by Roy E. Hoffman

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הדף בעברית


The Jewish legal system consisted and will consist of a big Sanhedrin of 71 judges that is like the high court, small Sanhedrins in each city consisting of 23 judges and batei din (law courts) of 3 judges. The members of batei din (with the exception of monetary cases) and any Sanhedrin must be smuchim (ordained). Ideally, there should be a direct line of smichah (ordination) from Moses. (This smichah should not be confused with the examinations taken today in order to become a rabbi and are also called smichah.) However, line of smichah was lost shortly after the last Sanhedrin ceased to function about 1500 years ago. Hence, the batei din of recent times do not consist of smuchim and are restricted to monetary cases.

Renewing the smichah (according to Maimonides Hilkhot Sanhedrin 4:11,12) requires the agreement of all the Rabbis in Israel to somech (ordain) one person. That person can then somech others. All this must take place in Israel. An attempt was made to reintroduce the smichah in 1538 by Rabbi Yaakov Beirav of Safed but some Rabbis including the Ralbach (Rabbi Levy Chaviv of Jerusalem) objected. As a result, that smichah was never widely accepted, vanished within two generations and no Sanhedrin was ever formed.

Once there are 71 smuchim, they can form a big Sanhedrin and they could appoint three smuchim to change the calendar. According to the simple interpretation of Maimonides (Hilkhot Kiddush Hachodesh 5:2) the calendar change should happen immediately on the formation of the Sanhedrin. However, the Ralbach holds that this need not happen before the Messiah. The Chazon Ish (Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz who lived in the 20th century) reconciles the two opinions by saying that the calendar will be changed some time between the formation of the big Sanhedrin and the coming of the Messiah.

On 9th February 1807, Emperor Napoleon I of France gathered together 71 Jews including 36 Rabbis in Paris and declared them to be a Sanhedrin. He ordered them to rule on certain issues for his own political ends. Later, he used these rulings as a justification for granting limited rights to Jews. This Sanhedrin had no validity in Jewish law for three reasons: it was formed outside Israel, the members were not smuchim and they were coerced into making rulings.


Napoleon's Sanhedrin, Paris, 9th February 1807

At the start of the 20th century, Rabbi Aharon Mendel Baharan of Cairo, Egypt and Rabbi Zvi Mokovsky of Tel-Aviv proposed the reintroduction of the smichah and reinstitution of the Sanhedrin. Hundreds of rabbis from around the World signed on to this proposal but nothing came of it. Shortly after the establishment of the State of Israel, the Religious Affairs Minister, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Maimon, suggested reestablishing the Sanhedrin but again nothing came of it.

In 2001, at the suggestion of Rabbi Zvi Idan, President Katzav, President of Israel, called for the establishment of a Sanhedrin-type body. In early 2004, a large number of very senior rabbis were asked if they considered a Rabbi Moshe Halberstam was worthy of smichah. All of the few who responded indicated that he was worthy. On that basis he then gave smichah to others. By 13th October 2004, there were about 90 smuchim and a big Sanhedrin of 71 was formed in Tiberius (see video). The Sanhedrin has been meeting every month or so since its reestablishment. In June 2005 the Sanhedrin replaced its leader (Nasi), Rabbi Zvi Idan with Rabbi Adin Steinzalts. On the subject of the calendar, they are only willing to say that they intend to discuss the implications of fixing the calendar according to observation in our times. However, while I have not heard any formal condemnations of the Sanhedrin's activities, most major authorities are not taking it seriously, citing serious flaws in the manner in which they reinstated the smichah. As a result, this Sanhedrin has not yet received and may never receive the widespread recognition that is required in order for it to be valid according to Jewish law (according to Maimonides Hilkhot Sanhedrin 4:11,12).

1st meeting of the new Sanhedrin in Tiberias, 13th October 2004

Photo: Wikipedia and Arutz 7


Members of the new Sanhedrin gathered in Jerusalem, 7th February 2005

Photo: Roy Hoffman

The Sanhedrin did, however, receive recognition from the civil legal system in the case of Tzviya Sariel. She was sent for a hearing at the Sanhedrin by the prison service on 14th March 2008.  After a few days the decision of the Sanhedrin to release her was accepted by the civil court and she was released.

On 7th May 2008 the Sanhedrin reenacted a reconstruction of receiving eyewitness testimony of the crescent Moon used for fixing the calendar and have carried out many such reconstructions since. This has helped improve the efficiency and accuracy of the process.

First reconstruction of receiving testimony about the crescent Moon in Jerusalem 7th May 2008

Photo: Roy Hoffman

On 6th January 2011 members of the Sanhedrin went up to the Temple Mount, received eyewitness testimony about the Moon, sanctified the month and announced “mekudash mekudash”. This was a forbidden act that will probably bring about an end to this Sanhedrin.

Sanctification of the month on the Temple Mount 6th January 2011

Photo: Yehudah Glick

Here are three differing views on the validity of the new Sanhedrin:

1) According to Rabbi Zvi Idan, the first leader of the new Sanhedrin, the existence of the Sanhedrin changes the whole way Jewish law will be made. "From now on, each Rabbi will not be able to rule for his own community. Instead, each member of the Sanhedrin can have his say and the final decision will be by a vote and binding on everybody."

2) On the other hand, Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch and Rabbi Elisha Aviner think that the new Sanhedrin is a joke and not to be taken seriously. Rabbi Rabinovich compares the new Sanhedrin with Rabbi Beirav's 16th century smichah. He says that using grandiose names like Sanhedrin does not make it a reality. "We, as a nation, are not in a position to reintroduce smichah and it cannot be done until society is ready."

3) My personal opinion is that the new Sanhedrin was in the process of establishing itself. The act of sanctifying the month on 6th January 2011 destroyed all traces of recognition that they had which is a pity. In the next few months I think that it will be proved that there never was any validity to this smicha or Sanhedrin and that we still need to wait for the reestablishment of the real Sanhedrin.


Updated January 11th 2011 © Roy Hoffman 2004-11