Members of the Sanhedrin wait as police inform them of the conditions of their entry to Har HaBayit (Photos: Natan Gesher)
Given the newly-mandated restrictive conditions, many of the s'muchim refused to ascend at all, especially as a group of over 100 non-Jewish tourists filed past the waiting rabbis and up towards the holy site. “It is unconscionable that on the eve of Chanukah, which celebrates the rededication of the Holy Temple, we should once again be barred from worshipping – by our own people,” Rabbi Chaim Richman of Jerusalem’s Temple Institute told IsraelNN’s Ezra HaLevi.
Rabbis on the ramp leading up to the Temple Mount
The Sanhedrin, a religious-legal assembly of 71 sages that convened during the Holy Temple period and for several centuries afterwards, was the highest Jewish judicial tribunal in the Land of Israel. The great court used to convene in one of the Temple’s chambers in Jerusalem.
This past October, the Sanhedrin was reestablished for the first time in 1,600 years, at the site of its last meeting in Tiberias.
“There is a special mitzvah [commandment], not connected to time, but tied to our presence in Israel, to establish a Sanhedrin,” Rabbi Meir HaLevi, one of the 71 members of the new Sanhedrin, told Israel National Radio’s Weekend Edition. “The Rambam [12th-century Torah scholar Maimonides] describes the process exactly in the Mishna Torah [his seminal work codifying Jewish Law]. When he wrote it, there was no Sanhedrin, and he therefore outlines the steps necessary to establish one. When there is a majority of rabbis, in Israel, who authorize one person to be a samuch, , an authority, he can then reestablish the Sanhedrin.”
Those behind the revival of the Sanhedrin stress that the revival of the legal body is not optional, but mandated by the Torah. “We don’t have a choice,” says Rabbi Richman. “It is a religious mandate for us to establish a Sanhedrin.”
The Sanhedrin was reestablished through the ordination of one rabbi agreed upon by many prominent rabbis in Israel and approved as “fitting to serve” by former Chief Sefardi Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef and leading Ashkenazi Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. That rabbi, who is then considered to have received authentic ordination as handed down from Moses, was then able to give ordination to 70 others, making up the quorum of 71 necessary for the Sanhedrin.
“Even Mordechai HaYehudi of the Purim story was accepted, as it is written, only ‘by the majority of his brethren,’ and not by everybody," Rabbi HaLevi explained. "Anyone who deals with public issues can not be unanimously accepted.”
The rabbis behind the Sanhedrin’s reconstitution claim that, like the State of Israel, the old-new Sanhedrin is a work-in-progress. They see it as a vessel that, once established, will reach the stature and authority that it once had.
'Samuchim' gathered in front of the entrance to the Temple Mount
“The first members requested that their names not be published, so as to allow it to grow without public criticism of individuals,” HaLevi said. “We want to give it time to develop and strengthen the institution, giving a chance for more rabbis to join.” He added that each of the current members of the Sanhedrin has agreed to be a conditional member until a more knowledgeable rabbi joins, taking his place.
Rabbi Richman, also a member of the Sanhedrin, hopes the body will bring about a revolution in Jewish jurisprudence. Declining to discuss exactly what issues are on the Sanhedrin’s agenda, Richman said that one of the main long-term goals of the Sanhedrin is to reunify Jewish observance in Israel. The Sanhedrin includes members of Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Hasidic, National-Religious and Hareidi communities.
“We Jews went into exiles all over the world,” Rabbi HaLevi said. “Every community established its own court. We are talking about more than 50 different legal systems developing separately from one another. Part of our return to Israel is the reunification of our Jewish practices.”
Members of the Sanhedrin enter the Temple Mount through the Mughrabi gate, above the Western Wall
A tradition is recorded in the Talmud (Tractate Megillah 17b, Rashi) that the Sanhedrin will be restored after a partial ingathering of the Jewish exiles, but before Jerusalem is completely rebuilt and restored. Another Talmudic tradition (Eruvin 43b; Maharatz Chajas ad loc; Rashash to Sanhedrin 13b) states that Elijah the Prophet will present himself before a duly-ordained Sanhedrin when he announces the coming of the Messiah. This indicates that despite common misconceptions, a Sanhedrin is a pre-, not post-messianic institution.
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