Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Chasam Sofer: Sanhedrin is not protected against error

From Daas Torah (translation copyrighted)

Chasam Sofer (Choshen Mishpat #191):
The Sifri concludes, “Even if the Sanhedrin tells you that right is left… and surely if they tell you that right is right and left is left [you must obey them].” This doesn’t seem to consistent. What is the second part which starts with, “and surely”? The Zakein Mamre (rebellious judge) is asserting that what he considers right is truly “right” and that the position of the majority of the Sanhedrin is “left” i.e., false. Therefore who is to determine that the second  part is ,”and surely”? This seems to be a major difficulty. In fact, however, the clear explanation is as follows. The Zakein Mamre (rebellious judge) and his colleagues are major scholars who are in dispute with the Sanhedrin. And even though the Sanhedrin is  composed of the leading Jewish authorities - who sit in G-d’s presence in His house (i.e., the Temple) - there is no necessity that their reasoning in this matter is true. In fact it could be that the Zakein Mamre’s understanding of the Torah verse is closer to the truth than theirs is. This is so even if they are more numerous and in general sharper in their thinking. On the other hand it is possible that in fact that the Zakein Mamre and his supporters number in the tens of thousands while the Sanhedrin can not be more than 71 people. Nevertheless G﷓d has decreed we must follow the scriptural understanding of the Sanhedrin in halacha since its source is no longer in Heaven. Therefore we don’t pay attention even to bas kol (voice from Heaven) or a prophet who claims to know the halacha in Heaven. Furthermore a prophet who claims prophetic knowledge of halachic is deserving of the death penalty for this crime of being a false prophet – since G﷓d would never provide a prophet vision of a halachic question. Even when Yehoshua ben Nun forgot thousands of halachos, they weren’t restored through prophecy but rather through the legal reasoning of Ozniel ben Kenaz. Besides who knows for certain that Ozniel ben Kenaz ascertained the truth through his reasoning? The understanding of man is transient in its understanding of Biblical verses as well as the reasoning of kal v’chomer and other midos. The fact is that legal authority is because G﷓d gave the Torah according to man’s understanding in order that there shouldn’t be an every growing number of unresolved disputes – [and not because the truth was necessarily ascertained]. Therefore G﷓d made the provision that if chas v’shalom the majority of Sanhedrin erred and permitted a substance which was actually prohibited and the people ate it  – G﷓d would not count it as a sin. In other words since the Sanhedrin erred, the people did not commit a sin by eating the prohibited substance. Furthermore if the Zakein Mamre himself decided to be stringent and not eat this substance because of his original suspicions – even though in Heaven it is known that he was correct – he is deserving of death as the Rambam rules (Hilchos Maamrim 4). This punishment is deserved even if he merely refrained from eating the disputed substance. This law is very constructive in that it works to prevent unresolved disputes amongst the Jews. Consequently this Zakein Mamre should not have had the slightest concern about eating the substance that Sanhedrin had declared permitted – even if prior to the final ruling of Sanhedrin he was certain it was prohibited. Similarly if Sanhedrin declares a certain type of activity prohibited on Shabbos, he should not be concerned about his initial certainty that it was prohibited. In other words even if the Sanhedrin mistakenly tells you concerning a halacha which it is clear in Heaven [“right”] that it is the opposite of what they say [“left”]  - their ruling is in fact correct [“right”]. That is because G﷓d accepts what they do even though it is mistaken in the objective sense. However there is an alternative explanation of the Sifri. We are to believe that what the Sanhedrin is saying is true [“right”] and that they have not erred. In other words we are to believe that they have ascertained the proper understanding of what G﷓d expressed in the Torah because G﷓d gave the Torah according to their understanding. Thus we see that both side are sincerely motivated to discover the truth. However if the Sanhedrin errs in their rulings then all Jews end up erring also – but it is considered that they had been forced. However this alternative explanation assumes that G﷓d guards his pious ones from erring and thus misleading the Jewish people – since they want to do G﷓d’s will. Now we can properly explain the second part of the Sifri, “and surely they must be obeyed when they say that the truly right is right.” The explanation of the Sifri according to this alternative explanation is that even when they had erred in ascertaining what the Torah mandates, nevertheless they would have discovered what appears to them to be the truth – and G﷓d would accept the validity of their erroneous decision. And surely we are to understand that they have in fact not erred and have correctly told us what the Torah actually mandates. Thus the alternative explanation is based on the assumption that the Sanhedrin is protected from error. However this second explanation is problematic since it is asserting infallibility. In other words the second explanation is saying that by nature man is capable of error, however the sanctity of the Temple prevents it. However this seems to be a violation of Torah not being in Heaven – since even a Bas Kol and even a prophet can not make halachic decisions. Therefore it would seem that the first explanation is better. Thus the Sifri clearly means that even if the Sanhedrin errs, G﷓d will not count it as a sin and thus G﷓d is not allowing the Sanhedrin to cause the people to sin. If you study the comments of the Ramban to Torah you will understand that he is also expressing this view. So while the Sanhedrin is forgiven when it makes an honest mistake, G﷓d forbid to say that they have the power to deliberately alter even the slightest matter. Such a view is that of the Sadducees and early heretics.

1 comment :

  1. Thank you for translating and posting. It is a very interesting bit of torah.

    I realize that explaining this version of lo sasur demands more than the alternative version in Yerushalmi. Are you aware of discussions reconciling the two versions or positing explanations for the differences besides taos sofer.


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