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  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

Midrashic Expositions that Connect the Sanhedrin to the Altar


The Mekhilta at the beginning of Parashat Mishpatim (Shemot 21:1) says:


"An altar of earth" – "And these are the judgments" – We learn that the Sanhedrin sits at the side of the altar. Even though there is no proof for the matter, there is an allusion to it, as it is stated: "And Yoav fled to the tent of the Lord, and caught hold of the horns of the altar" (I Melakhim 2:28).


We similarly find in the Yerushalmi:


And from where do we know that the Great Sanhedrin was next to the altar? "And you shall not go up by steps to My altar" (Shemot 20:23). And what is written there? "And these are the judgments which you shall set before them" (Shemot 21:1). (Makkot 2:6)


In this context, R. Kasher cites the words of the Sefer Mitzvot Ha-Gadol (Positive commandment no. 99):


When there is a ministering priest, there is a judge, provided that the judge is next to the priest. For this teaching as well, Parashat Mishpatim is written next to the section dealing with the altar. (Torah Sheleima, Shemot 21:1, no. 1)


Another exposition that connects the altar to the Sanhedrin relates to the following verse:


But if a man comes presumptuously upon his neighbor, to slay him with guile, you shall take him from My altar, that he may die. (Shemot 21:14)


            The Ibn Ezra explains this verse as follows:


Now this is the opposite of the first verse, for there it is written, "Then I will appoint you a place" (v. 13), these being the cities of refuge. But the presumptuous [killer] who flees even to My altar, as did Yoav, will be put to death. And the early authorities said (Yoma 85a): "Even if he is a priest and he wishes to perform the service of My altar, he shall be put death."


The Ibn Ezra refers us to verse 13, where the Torah states:


And if a man did not lie in wait, but God allowed it to happen to him, then I will appoint you a place to which he shall flee.


            Rashi comments on this verse (based on the gemara in Makkot 12b):


Which was the place that offered him an asylum? The camp of the Levites.


The Chizkuni explains that the Torah emphasizes that the altar, the sacred place, shall not serve as a refuge or haven for one who intentionally kills and thinks that he will be saved when he reaches the altar. This actually happened in the case of Yoav, who was indeed put to death, the altar affording him no protection.


R. S. R. Hirsch writes in his commentary:

"But if a man come presumptuously" – This is complete intention (see on v. 18). Between it and the unintentional killer of the previous verse lies criminal negligence, where the only thing lacking from the complete crime is the intention to kill, and where, accordingly, the death penalty is not to be imposed, but which, on the other hand, can not be atoned for by exile.

"From My altar"- The Jewish altar grants no protection to the criminal. In Jewry, there are not two principles which mutually control and modify each other, like Church and State, Justice and Mercy, etc.; right next to the "sword-hating" altar was the chamber of the highest Court of Justice. It was one and the same principle which was to be taught by the altar and which the Sanhedrin had to see was carried out in the practical life of the people. The whole idea of the right to grant clemency or mercy was entirely absent in the Jewish Code of Law. Justice and judgment is the prerogative of God, not of man. When the very precisely defined law of God – giving man no scope for his own judgment or arbitrary discretion – ordains death for a criminal, the carrying out of this sentence is not an act of harshness to be commuted for any consideration whatsoever; it is itself the most considerate atonement, atonement for the community, atonement for the land, atonement for the criminal, atonement in quite the same way as that brought about by the altar. If the priest was actually officiating at the altar, and even if he was the one and only priest available, and the accusation of murder was brought against him, away from the altar must you drag him to the court, to satisfy the law of justice.


R. Hirsch explains that there is no separation between the altar and the courts, as there is, lehavdil, between Church and State or between Justice and Mercy. The Torah does not have a concept of amnesty if the person is not entitled to it, because judgment is the prerogative of God, the murderer's death achieves atonement for him, and there is no room for human arbitrariness.


One Who Appoints an Incompetent Judge Over the Community is as Though He Had Planted an Ashera in Israel


            Chazal find another interesting connection between the altar and judges:


Resh Lakish said: He who appoints an incompetent judge over the community is as though he had planted an Ashera in Israel, for it is written: "Judges and officers shall you appoint unto you," and soon after it is said: "You shall not plant you an Ashera of any tree." R. Ashi said: And if such an appointment be made in a place where scholars are to be found, it is as though the Ashera were planted beside the altar, for the verse concludes with the words: "beside the altar of the Lord your God."


A judge is referred to as Elohim (Shemot 22:27) – "You shall not curse the Elohim.” This being the case, an incompetent judge is like a strange god, and he who appoints him is considered as if he served a strange god.


The Maharal explains this exposition as follows: 


In the first chapter of Sanhedrin (7b): "Resh Lakish said: He who appoints an incompetent judge over the community is as though he had planted an Ashera, for it is written: 'Judges and officers shall you appoint unto you,' and soon after it is said: 'You shall not plant you an Ashera of any tree.' R. Ashi said: And if such an appointment be made in a place where scholars are to be found, it is as though the Ashera were planted beside the altar, for the verse concludes with the words: 'beside the altar of the Lord your God.' Again, it is written: 'You shall not make with Me gods of silver or gods of gold.' Is it only gods of silver and gold that may not be made, while those of wood are permitted? R. Ashi said: [The verse refers] to judges appointed through the power of silver or gold. Rav, whenever he was to sit in court, used to say: Of his own free will he [the judge] goes to meet death. He makes no provision for the needs of his household, and empty does he return home. Would only that he returned [as clean of hand] as he came!”

We have already said that the name Elohim is applied to a judge, as it is applied to God. And the reason was already explained that judgment belongs to God, and when the judge has a judgment that belongs to God in his hand, he is worthy to be called Elohim. And just as you find "other gods" and "a strange god," who is strange and not the true God, so too you find that a judge who is not a true and worthy judge is called "other gods" and "a strange god," like idols. This is the nature of judgment, that when there is something unworthy in it, it is totally heinous. Therefore, it says that a judge who was appointed for gold or silver is called "other gods." (Netiv Ha-Din 1)


The Maharal explains that a judge is called by the name Elohim because judgment belongs to God and the foundation of judgment is truth; an incompetent judge is called "other gods" or "a strange god," and he is considered like an idol. A judge who was appointed through the power of gold or silver is called "other gods" and therefore is likened to an Ashera planted next to the altar.


Being deliberate in judgment is learned from the verse "You shall not go up by steps to My altar"


There are other connections between the altar and judgment as well. Chazal expound the juxtaposition of the prohibition to go up to the altar by steps (discussed in the previous shiur) and the beginning of Parashat Mishpatim:  


Bar Kappara expounded: From where do we know that which the Rabbis said: Be deliberate in judgment? As it is written: "You shall not go up by steps to My altar." And this is followed by: "And these are the judgments."


The midrash explains this exposition as follows:


Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, warned the priests not to take large strides on the altar, but rather walk heel to toe, so He warned the judges not to take large strides in judgment. (Shemot Rabba 30:1)


The gemara there adds:


R. Eliezer said: From where do we know that a judge should not trample over the heads of the people? As it is written: "You shall not go up by steps [i.e. force your way] upon My altar"; and this is followed by: "And these are the judgments."


The author of the Torah Temima explains the idea of deliberation in judgment that arises from this exposition:


The idea of deliberation is careful examination of the judgment before the judgment is issued. Rashi explains the reasoning of the exposition: "'You shall not go up by steps,' with force and speed." Thus far his words. Were it not for what he said, it would seem correct to explain that if one who is not deliberate in judgment, to examine and reason, it is a sign of arrogance and haughtiness, that he overly relies on himself and his intelligence and is not afraid that he might be mistaken. This is suggested by the wording: "You shall not go up by steps" – the steps of the spirit. And this is attributed to the judges because of the proximity to Parashat Mishpatim. This reading can be forced into the words of Rashi.

And the intention of the proof is that even if you are a judge, you heart should not be arrogant about this. And the matter of the strides, Rashi explains that when the transmitter of the exposition would expound, the public would sit on the ground, and the one who takes strides between them to go to his place, looks as if he is trampling on their heads. Were it not for his explanation, one could say a simple explanation: that the master or the judge should not look with disgust or with lightheartedness on the common people, as if they were not at all important in his eyes, and he nullifies them in his heart not to esteem or honor them. All this is included in the expression "trampling over the heads of the people."


The exposition admonishes against arrogance and haughtiness and demands of the judge that he not look with disgust on the common people.


The Maharal also relates to the matter of deliberation in judgment:


And in the first chapter of Sanhedrin (7b): "Bar Kapara expounded: From where do we know that which the Rabbis said: Be deliberate in judgment? As it is written: 'You shall not go up by steps to My altar.' And this is followed by: 'And these are the judgments.'" We already explained this in chapter Moshe kibel, that judgment in particular needs moderation because judgment belongs to God… Therefore, a person should be deliberate in judgment, because judgment is not with man, but rather judgment belongs to God in particular as is known. Therefore, one should be deliberate in judgment. This is what they said in tractate Pesachim (54a) that the depth of judgment and the law is concealed from man. What this means is that a person should not think that he will reach the full depths of judgment, for there are judgments whose depths a person cannot reach… because the depth of judgment is concealed from man, and therefore judgment requires deliberation so that one can understand and reach the depth of judgment. One who is hasty and leaps and issues a judgment ruins the judgment, because judgment is not that of man. Therefore, a person can only reach judgment through deliberation. It seems regarding that which the Torah says: "You shall not go up by steps to My altar," that the reason for the prohibition is that the service on this altar must be performed in order, and when there is any veering from the order, there is a veering in the service performed on the altar… And therefore the Torah said: "You shall not go up by steps to My altar, that your nakedness not be exposed on it." That is to say, this stride is a stride that veers from the order, and it exposes the nakedness, and this is not proper for service that is on the altar, as we have explained. Even though elsewhere it is nothing, only with respect to the service is it something strange, because the service itself must not have any veering from the order. And from this itself we also learn that a judgment must not veer from the fitting order, and with something little, a judgment veers from the order… Therefore [a judge] must be deliberate in judgment… for reason is not found in him completely and judgment is not by him, and therefore he must have deliberation, and if he does not do that, but rather acts hastily in the matter, he veers from fitting judgment… And that which they learned from "You shall not go up by steps to My altar" that he should be deliberate in judgment, is a very venerable exposition. This midrash should not be trivial in your eyes, even though it appears far-fetched, as it has already been explained that judgment is like the altar; just as the altar belongs to God, so too judgment. Therefore, they said (Mekhilta Mishpatim) that the Sanhedrin should be placed next to the altar. And just at the Torah warned not to go up by steps to My altar, as this is a veering from the order and it is not befitting the service that there should be anything like this, so too it is not fitting that there should be found in judgment something that veers from the fitting order, and that which befits judgment is deliberation… and hastiness in judgment veers from the order. And similarly that which was expounded that a judge must not trample over the heads of the people, as it is written: "You shall not go up by steps [i.e., force your way] upon My altar; and it is written afterwards: "And these are the judgments," is the same thing, for when one tramples over the heads of the people, this striding veers from the order… and this is disqualified in the case of a judge who sits in judgment. For it has already been explained that judgment is that which does not veer at all from that which is fitting. Also understand that which was learned that one must be deliberate in judgment, since it is written: "You shall not go up by steps to My altar," for Scripture warns about two things with respect to the altar: "You shall not go up by steps to My altar," and before that it warned: "For if you lift up your tool upon it, you have defiled it," for the altar should not incline toward iron which cuts [life], nor should it incline to forbidden sexual relations. (Netiv Ha-Din, chap. 1)


The Maharal emphasizes that the depth of judgment is concealed from man and is known only to God. Accordingly, one must be deliberate in judgment and careful not to veer from the fitting order, just as the service at the altar must not veer from the correct order.


Just as a Blemish Disqualifies a Sacrifice, so it Disqualifies a Member of the Sanhedrin


The Keli Yakar offers three explanations of his own for the juxtaposition of the Sanhedrin to the altar. His words are brought below.


This also explains why it was necessary to command them about making an altar. Granted that civil laws were immediately needed; but the altar was not so immediately needed, as they were not yet commanded about the Mishkan. Rather, it is certainly for this reason that the building of the altar precedes Parashat Mishpatim, to teach you that you must set the Sanhedrin next to the altar so that they should learn from the altar that whatever disqualifies for the altar disqualifies for the Sanhedrin.

The first is that which it says: "And you shall sacrifice on it your burnt-offerings." Therefore, mention is made of the animals that are sacrificed to teach you that just as a blemish disqualifies an animal that is to be sacrificed, so a blemish disqualifies for the Sanhedrin. As is stated in tractate Yevamot (101a): "As the court must be clean in respect of righteousness, so must they be clear from all physical defects, for it is stated: 'You are all fair, my love; and there is no spot in you' (Shir Ha-Shirim 4:7)." And from where did they learn to say this? Surely a Torah law is not learned from the Writings. Rather, certainly, King Shelomo learned this from the juxtaposition of this parasha, and from the juxtaposition of "You shall not sacrifice" (Devarim 17:1), for all agree that in the book of Devarim, we do expound juxtaposition, even those who do not expound it in other places. And therefore he inscribed on his throne the verse: "You shall not sacrifice to the Lord your God any bullock, or sheep, in which is a blemish," for in this way he showed that all the members of the Sanhedrin who sat on the throne of justice were clean of blemishes like a sacrifice.

And in Parashat Emor (21:17), it will be explained that a physical blemish does not disqualify so much in itself, but because it indicates some bad trait in the body, whether in an animal or in a person. Therefore, it says: "in which is a blemish, or anything evil," because a blemish indicates something evil, as stated. And therefore they were careful that the members of the Sanhedrin should be clean of any blemish. Therefore they said: "Just as they were clean in respect of righteousness so must they be clear from all physical defects." Why did they hang defects on righteousness? Surely because the one depends on the other. And by way of allusion we can say that the obscure is learned from the explicit. It is written here: "blemish"; and it is written there (Devarim 15:21): "And if there be any blemish in it, as if it be lame, or blind." Just as there lame or blind, so too here. And learn from this about a blemish that disqualifies with respect to the Sanhedrin, which is talking about taking a bribe, as it leads to blindness, and about one who perverts justice, as he limps on his side and his leg does not stand straight, but rather he limps between two opinions, and he falls. As it is stated (Tehillim 15:5): "Nor does he take a bribe against the innocent. He that does these things shall never fall." This implies that one who takes [a bribe] will fall, and it is the way of a lame person to fall.


Not to Sit in Judgment Alone Just Like a Pillar of One Stone is Forbidden


            The Keli Yakar continues:


The second is that which was written on his throne: "Neither shall you set yourself up any pillar." That is, of a single stone. That is to teach you that one should not sit in judgment alone, for only the Holy One, blessed be He, sits in judgment alone. He learned this as well from the juxtaposition of this section which states: "And if you will make me an altar of stones," implying that it is made up of many stones, and not a pillar of a single stone. So too the Sanhedrin, who are men of distinction and called stones of a crown and stones of holiness, must be many, and not one. Rashi explains in Parashat Shofetim: "Which the Lord your God hates – Although it was pleasing to Him in the days of the patriarchs, etc." And similar to this regarding a single judge, in the days of the patriarchs, God was not so particular about this, because Shem and Ever, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov sat in judgment alone, and similarly Yehuda said: "Bring her out and let her be burnt." Infer from this that he sat in judgment alone. And similarly Moshe sat in judgment alone before Yitro came, since they were perfect in mind, and they had of the mind of their Maker, and were not afraid of error. But when the minds diminished and became deficient, God commanded that one should not sit in judgment alone.

There is another allusion in an altar of stones, that the altar should be of whole stones, and not hewn. So too a judge must be whole, free of all blemishes, with nothing added or missing, and he should not need external adornment or embellishment. Like a hewn stone over which a tool has been lifted and it is defiled from its sanctity, so too a judge who requires external refinement, so that there is room for the axe and the hewer to say, I appointed you, and on your own you are not worthy of this. Therefore it is good to choose whole stones that do not require external refinement. And Rashi explains that a kal va-chomer argument can be put forward from the stones that do not see, etc., but since they promote peace, the Torah says (Devarim 27:5): "You shall not lift up any iron tool upon them; all the more certainly, then, one who makes peace between a man and his wife, punishment will not come upon him.” It seems that Rashi means with this kal va-chomer to give a reason for the Sanhedrin's proximity to the altar. For anyone sitting in judgment brings peace between man and his fellow. But lest he fear a man, that he who is found guilty will chase after him, and he wishes to remove himself from judgment, so that evil should not befall him – therefore the Sanhedrin sat next to the altar, so that they should learn by way of a kal va-chomer from the altar that evil will not befall him. This is a wonderful explanation.


The Members of the Sanhedrin Must be Humble Just as the Altar is Made of Earth


            The Keli Yakar continues:


And the third is, "And you shall not establish for yourself an Ashera." Chazal expounded this (Sanhedrin 7b) in reference to one who appoints an incompetent judge, and in a place where a competent scholar is to be found, that he is like one who plants [an Ashera] next to the altar of God. And similarly they expounded there the verse: "You shall not make with Me gods of silver and gods of gold," as referring to a judge who is appointed on the basis of gold and silver. And the matter of an Ashera we learn from that which is written: "An altar of earth you shall make for Me," either filled with earth or close to the earth. And all this comes to teach that the members of the Sanhedrin should also be low in spirit, for every humble and low spirited person lowers his full height to the ground. Therefore it says (Tehillim 25:9): "He directs the humble in justice." But one who is arrogant in his ruling is foolish, evil, and arrogant, for he does not judge with deliberation, as he is embarrassed to ask about his uncertainties. And it is known that an incompetent judge is sometimes appointed because of his own arrogance or that of his relatives who run after him so that he be fortunate (me'ushar)in the land, to be for them for fame and praise, as is indicated by the word Ashera… And Chazal say (Sota 5a) that whoever has arrogance should be cut down like an Ashera. It is written here (Devarim 7:5): "And their Asherim you shall cut down." And it is written there (Yeshaya 10:33): "And the high ones of stature shall be hewn down." What is the connection between arrogance and the Ashera? Because this incompetent one was set up because of the happiness and praise of his relatives. He is like an Ashera which has many branches and leaves to sit in their shade. So he is appointed judge so that his relatives should sit in his shadow, and in truth their shadow is removed from them… And that which they said: And in a place of a competent scholar, it is as if he planted it next to the altar, for there is the seat of the Sanhedrin. And for this reason they said: "Before them" – but not before Gentiles, as it is stated (Devarim 7:7): "Not because you were more in number than any other people" as you are in the minority. And Chazal said in tractate Chullin (89a) that Israel diminish themselves, but this is not the way of heathens, as they are tall and arrogant. Therefore they are not fit to be judges, because arrogance ruins all judgments.


In this shiur,aside from the various sources for the obligation to arrange that the Sanhedrin be close to the altar, we brought different expositions which go well beyond the plain sense of the Scriptural text. It is, however, interesting that all the expositions teach various lessons that are connected to the world of justice and its juxtaposition specifically to the altar.



(Translated by David Strauss)