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Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, by Ronald L. Eisenberg, published by the Jewish Publication Society.
“Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (“Justice, justice, shall you pursue”; Deut. 16:20)is a major ethical cornerstone of Judaism. Establishing fair and impartialcourts of justice is one of the seven Noahide laws–along with theprohibition of blasphemy, idolatry, incest, bloodshed, robbery, and theeating of flesh cut from a living animal (based on Gen. 9:7)–which constitute the basic requirements for any civilized society.
The Torah strictly prohibits anything that perverts justice or even gives the appearanceof injustice. During the wanderings of the Israelites after the Exodus from Egypt, Moses exercised judicial power over the people (Exod. 18:13). When the task became too overwhelming, he delegated some of this authority to appointed “chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens … the difficult matters they would bring to Moses, and all the minor matters they would decide themselves” (Exod. 18:25-26).
According to the Torah, judges were to be “capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain” (Exod. 18:21) and were “wise, discerning, and experienced” (Deut. 1:13). Warned not to be “partial in judgment,” judges were required to “hear out low and high alike [and] fear no man, for judgment is God’s” (Deut. 1:17). After the conquest of the Promised Land and its division among the various tribes, judges were appointed in every settlement (Deut. 16:18).
The beit din (rabbinic term for a Jewish court of law) was essentially a creation of the Second Temple period. Its establishment is attributed to Ezra, who decreed that local courts were to sit on Mondays and Thursdays in all populated centers (BK 82a), with a supreme court (Great Sanhedrin) in Jerusalem.
Types of Jewish Courts
There were three levels of courts in Temple times. The highest court in Israel was the Great Sanhedrin, which was composed of 71 judges who sat in the Temple in Jerusalem. This corresponded to the 70 elders and officers who assisted Moses in dispensing justice during biblical times (Num. 11:16-17). Headed by the nasi (president), the Great Sanhedrin exercised sweeping judicial, legislative, and executive powers and was the only court that could try “a tribe, a false prophet, and a Kohen Gadol” (Sanh. 1:5).
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