Zev Silver
Rabbi Silver is on the faculty of the Hebrew Academy of Dallas, Texas
Ten Da'at, A Journal of Jewish Education, Vol. X:1, Adar 5757, Spring 1997

Key words: Judicial system, mishnah, Sanhedrin,

During the past year I have been privileged to read very informative articles in TEN DA'AT written by many outstanding mahankhim. I have not only learned a lot from these articles, but I have been able to incorporate some of the ideas into my classroom setting. It is time to reciprocate. The following is an overview of a curriculum for Mishnayot Sanhedrin. It is designed for children in the range of 6th-8th grade in a Jewish day school setting. Teaching Mishnayot Sanhedrin to children gives an opportunity to show students how the Jewish judicial system works: How on the one hand, the beit din insures that the truth will prevail, but at the same time it protects the rights of the defendant. It has added relevance because the teacher, together with the students, can compare the Jewish judicial system with the American judicial system.

Survey of the Contents: Perakim 1-2
The first perek starts out discussing a whole gamut of cases ranging from simple monetary cases to more complex ones involving idol worship and murder. The fact that the Torah was not only involved with religious matters but covered every aspect of living, and that being a Jew goes far beyond the confines of the synagogue, is something that all Jewish children should understand. This is different from the American system which prides itself on the doctrine of the separation of Church and State

Classroom discussion should be encouraged regarding the benefits of this doctrine to Jewish Americans in particular.

The 5th mishnah in the 1st perek should be emphasized. It speaks about a milhemet mitzvah and issues concerning protecting and expanding the borders of Eretz Yisrael. With the current peace process taking place, this mishnah can open the door to much classroom discussion. There are also many other topics covered in the first perek which are good for the general knowledge of 6th and 7th graders.

Although only 5 mishnayot in length, the second perek contains some important lessons about a Jewish king. Students should be taught the reasons for these laws, such as the law that the king is not allowed to leave his palace when a close relative dies.1 Discussion should be encouraged comparing and contrasting the functions of the Jewish king to those of other monarchs. The students should be informed of the berakhah which is said not only over a Jewish king, but over any king who rules with absolute power.2 This Perek can give a teacher the opportunity to show students the integration of Mishnah and Tanakh, as there are several quotations in this perek from Sefer Shemuel. Students should be able to link together the Mishnah with the Navi they were learning.

Perakim 3-4: The Workings of a Beit Din
The 3rd and 4th perakim get down to the nitty gritty of what goes on in a beit din. The ways in which judges are picked are similar, in certain respects, to how a jury is picked. This should generate classroom discussion as to the advantages of the Jewish system which chooses people based upon their knowledge of halacha, as opposed to a jury in an American court of whom no knowledge of the law is required. The importance of being totally impartial when judging shuold also be mentioned. The teacher should include stories from the Gemara about great rabbis who disqualified themselves from cases because of what appears on the surface as only trivial conflicts of interest.3

These perakim should also lead to discussions about a very important difference between the Jewish judicial system and the American system, namely that of judges deciding cases versus the jury system. To provide students with a proper understanding of the distinction between the two, it might be a good idea for a lawyer to be invited as a guest speaker to help students draw this distinction.4 It should be stressed that the main objective of the Jewish system is to seek out emet, the truth of each case.5 The first objective of the American system, on the other hand, is to ensure that the court proceedings will be fair and democratic.

In the 3rd and 4th perakim we also find laws concerning witnesses in a beit din. Differences between the two court systems can include the following. In a beit din, testimony is usually given behind closed doors with only the judges present. This insures that the witnesses do not overhear each other. Witnesses testifying in an American court, however, do so openly with many people, including other witnesses, able to hear their testimony. The cross-examination of the witnesses by the judges of the beit din seems to be more intensive than that of the American system. This can explain why the beit din so rarely executed anyone. In this respect, one advantage of the Jewish system over the American system can be emphasized: Whereas an overly aggressive prosecutor, determined to convict at all costs, and an equally determined defense attorney, sometimes act with apparent disregard for the truth, the judges of the beit din are interested only in the emet.

Another interesting feature - listed in the 3rd mishnah of the 4th perek - that a teacher might want to discuss, is the use of stenographers in beit din during the court proceedings. Another is the use in the American system of alternate jurors in case someone needs to be excused for any reason. The beit din, too, has a number of worthy disciples sitting at the proceedings, ready to fill in as alternates if they are needed. The differences between the seating arrangements of the jurors vis-a-vis the semi-circular arrangement of the beit din, as described in the third mishnah, is also a promising subject.

Perakim 5-6: Witnesses, Judges, and Verdicts
After discussing witnesses, the 5th perek continues with the court proceedings and describes the deliberation process of the beit din and how the dayyanim come to a final decision based on the testimony of the witnesses.6 This perek also discusses the concept of majority rule in a beit din. All of these issues should generate a lot of classroom discussion. It would be a good idea for the teacher to become familiar with the gemara corresponding to this perek in order to be well equipped to answer questions, as well as to include insights from the gemara about the subject matter. A trip to a court or even a beit din - if you live in a city with an active one - would be beneficial at this time, as real "hands on" learning. If you can invite a prosecutor into school that would add excitement for the children. You can set up a scenario where the prosecutor would discuss how the American court system works, and students can tell him how the Jewish system differs. Another idea would be to conduct a mock trial.

Once the beit din reaches its decision, continue to the 6th perek to see how the verdict is carried out, as well as the appeals process. Unlike the American system which puts people on death row for months and sometimes years while lawyers file many appeals, the ruling of the beit din is carried out soon after the verdict. The Jewish appeals process, discussed in the first mishnah in the 6th perek, includes someone going through the town soliciting evidence to acquit the defendant. The defendant, even on his way to be executed, is given the opportunity to offer additional testimony on his own behlaf.6 The advantages of this quick carrying out of justice should be discussed.7 Questions about capital punishment in the American system will probably come up as well.

It is inevitable that discussion about the O.J. Simpson trial will come up. With all the negative publicity specifically about the procedures of the case and the length of time it took, it would be a good opportunity for the teacher to show how the beit din would speed up the process of this or a similar case, thereby showing the students the wisdom behind the beit din system. At the same time it is essential for students to know that they must respect the American system.

Additional Possibilities
The 6th perek concludes the discussion of actual proceedings in the beit din. Were one to only be interested in introducing students to the concept of beit din, this would be a good place to stop. For those who want to go further, however, here are some suggestions: The 7th, 8th, 9th and 11th perakim discuss the various forms of court-ordered punishments, when they are used, and how they are administered. The type of educational setting you are teaching in, and the age level of your students, will determine how you go about teaching some of these issues - if you choose to teach them at all. The 8th mishnah in the 7th perek, which discusses the punishment for someone who desecrates Shabbat, is obviously something that can be very sensitive particularly in schools where there is a majority of children from non-observant homes. From past experience I can say that children find the whole concept of sorcery and molekh (child sacrifice) very intriguing and fascinating. These subjects can be found in the 7th perek, 7th mishnah, as well as the 11th mishnah. The 5th mishnah in the 11th perek speaks about a false prophet. The teacher can once again show a connection between Mishnayot and Navi by prompting students to recall false prophets whom they have learned about, and by teaching those about whom they have not yet learned.

The 10th perek speaks about olam haba. This is an important aspect of Judaism for children to know about. The 2nd mishnah can give the teacher another opportunity to show a connection between Mishnah and Navi. It mentions a number of personalities from Tanankh, some of whom were worthy of olam haba and some who weren't.

In conclusion, I believe that this course of study can be a very valuable learning experience for students. It is relevant to children, and it has the potential to generate lots of classroom discussion. Students ultimately should come out with an appreciation for the consistency and the straightforwardness of the Jewish judicial system, as well as the Torah in general.


1. A possible reason for this is that it would not be fitting for a king who represents B'nei Yisrael and , essentially, Torah, to be seen in public in a state of mourning. It is interesting to note that when former president Bush and, recently President Clinton, lost their mothers, the usually aggressive press refrained from showing pictures of them druing their grieving period.

2. During the Persian Gulf War, the Saudi Arabian king came to Washington, D.C.. A number of Jewish people went to see him in order to be able to recite this berakhah, since he is regarded as one of the only monarchs in the world with absolute power.

3. Ketubot, 105b, tells a story about Ameimar who disqualified himself from judging a case because one of the litigant had brushed a feather off his coat. Similar stories are cited in Rabbi Zechariah Fendel: The halacha and Beyond.

4. This is why only learned people are chosen to be judges. While the beit din will try to be fair to all the litigants, the bottom line is always emet.

5. The only way to achieve this objective is for the litigants to be judged by fellow, ordinary, citizens. There are also many rights which are given to defendants to insure equitable treatment. This includes providing lawyers - if necessary, even for free - whose job it is to defend the accused, regardless of whether the truth prevails.

6. When discussing the various mitot beit din, in the 5th and 6th chapters, students are likely to ask: "Why couldn't the Torah find a less painful way for a convicted person to die? Isn't the lethal injection, used in America, far less painful than one of these methods of execution?" The students should be reminded that one of the purposes of execution by beit din is to provide the criminal with kapparah, atonement, for his crime, making him then eligible for olam haba. It is hoped that while experiencing the pain of his execution, he will feel the remorse and regret necessary for this atonement. In American law, on the other hand, criminals are not executed as a form of atonement, but as a deterrent to others who might contemplate committing the same crime.

7. In 1981, the Governor of New York State, Hugh Carey, sought the advice of rabbis and others on the question of instituting capital punishment. Among those responding was Rav Moshe Feinstein, z"l, whose response - along with the governor's inquiry - can be obtained from the office of Agudath Israel of America.

8. A major difference between the two systems is that while a majority rules in the Jewish system, the American system requires a unanimous verdict.

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