The great Sanhedrin in Yerushalayim brought unity and stability to Jewish life for centuries. This is where the most halachic issues found their resolution. It came to a tragic end just when Jews. hearts were surging with new hope. In 363 C.E., many Jews were convinced that the arrival of Moshiach was imminent when the Roman Emperor, Julian, granted permission to rebuild the Bais Hamikdosh, even ordering a local governor to grant them every assistance. Hashem thought otherwise. Natural catastrophes, possibly a Galilean earthquake, destroyed the foundations of the nascent Bais Hamikdosh and halted the work. This tragedy marked the end of an epoch. the Sanhedrin was about to perish.
A Hateful Emperor
Perhaps in reaction to Emperor Julian’s Judeophile stance, the next emperor, Theodosius I (last ruler of the Roman Empire before it split into east and west) enacted vicious anti-Semitic decrees including the outlawing of the Sanhedrin and semicha. Any town where semicha took place would be totally destroyed. In those desperate circumstances, Hillel II formulated our mathematically based calendar that was adopted at a secret session of the Sanhedrin in 358. Semichah, a precondition for becoming a member of the Sanhedrin, languished for the following twelve centuries.
Rav Yaakov Beirav of Tzefas made the first attempt to revive semichah in 1538, basing his renewal on the Rambam’s famous p’sak (Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:11) that, “It appears to me that if all the sages of Yisroel consent to appoint dayonim and grant them semichah, they have the status of musmochim, etc.” His attempt had limited success, largely due to the opposition of the Maharalbach (Rav Levi ben Chaviv) of Yerushalayim. All traces of Rav Yaakov’s semichah vanished within a couple of generations.
Napoleon was next to think of setting up a Sanhedrin. Halachically, his 1806 Sanhedrin was a joke as its members had no semichah, the Sanhedrin is supposed to sit in Eretz Yisroel, and the members of Napoleon’s Sanhedrin knew that their real job was to deliver made-to-order p’sakim according to Napoleon’s whims.
For example, in reply to Napoleon’s question, “Can a Jewess marry a Christian, or a Jew a Christian woman, or has the law declared that Jews may only marry among themselves?” his Sanhedrin diplomatically said that intermarriages contracted according to the laws of the Code Civil were civilly binding, and that, although they cannot be invested with religious forms, they would not result in cherem. Only the Hebrew text noted that such marriages were actually null and void.
Rav Yisroel of Shklov, one of the talmidei HaGra who arrived in Eretz Yisroel in the early 1800s, yearned to renew semicha due to sources in Chazal indicating that the Moshiach will only come after a Sanhedrin already exists. Instead of following the course of Rav Yaakov Beirav, he followed the advice of the Radbaz (Chief Rabbi of Egypt, died 1573) who suggests that semichah might be reintroduced by contacting the Ten Lost Tribes who no doubt have semuchim among them.
“It is well known,. Rav Yisroel wrote, “that according to our holy rabbis. there must be a great Beis Din of semuchim in Eretz Yisroel before the Moshiach comes. Now, due to our many sins and the weight of harsh decrees, semicha has been lost. Yet Hashem has testified that there must be a great Beis Din as it says, I will return your judges as at first, and your advisors as at the beginning, and afterwards, You will be called the city of righteousness, the faithful town.“(Yeshayahu 1:26-27).
To achieve a Beis Din of semuchim. Rav Yisroel sent Rav Boruch of Pinsk on a grueling search for the lost tribes. After a two year search, Rav Boruch gave up and became the private physician of a young Yemenite ruler. His close relationship with the king aroused the jealousy of the royal retinue, and the Muslim imam murdered him in 1834.
Although Rav Yisroel wrote to Amsterdam appealing for help to continue his endeavor, the 1831 rebellion of the Palachim (Arab peasants) of Tzefas put an end to his plans. The Jewish Yishuv was now in too much turmoil to finance and outfit a search through hundreds of miles of arid desert.
20th Century Efforts
A third attempt to institute semicha was initiated by Rav Aharon Mendel Hakohen, Rav of the Ashkenazi kehillah of Cairo, in 1901. He sent out the .Knesses Hagedolah. pamphlet calling for a world union of rabbonim that would be the first step towards establishing a Sanhedrin in Yerushalayim. Although five hundred rabbis joined his Aggudas Rabbonim, only about fifty arrived for his 1903 congress in Krakow, which was acknowledged as a general failure.
In 1910, Rav Avraham Yitzchok Kook suggested to Rav Aharon Mendel that although there was merit in his idea, it was premature. Before introducing semicha, it was first necessary to prepare a cadre of talmidei chachomim proficient to pasken in the entire Torah. Therefore, Rav Kook suggested, he should first organize a beis din or council to “deal with preparing the generation to the degree that granting semicha would be possible.” This plan never got started due to Rav Aharon Mendel’s involvement in the founding of Agudas Yisroel and the outbreak of World War I.
The next catalyst for a Sanhedrin was Rav Tzvi Kovsker, who arrived in Eretz Yisroel from Moscow in 1940, and his initiative was continued by the religious Zionist leader, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon, in 1949. Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Herzog was hesitant to accept the idea of renewing the Sanhedrin, and it was strongly opposed by prominent gedolim led by the Brisker Rov and the Chazon Ish who regarded the idea of establishing a Sanhedrin in our time as brazen and ridiculous.
The Brisker Rov wrote letters to world rabbinic leaders and organized opposition to the idea, killing it.
The Latest Push
The latest effort to found a Sanhedrin began in 2004 when a Group of rabbis granted semicha to a hundred people in Teveriyah, the town where the last Sanhedrin had been disbanded, and formed a beis din of seventy-one members. Although the organization claims to have the backing of some gedolei hador, no evidence of this backing in public statements or written message exists. “To avoid disagreements over who was worthy to sit on the Sanhedrin,” the organization explains, “a beis din of 71 was immediately formed. It was formed with the best scholars available, with the public announcement every one of them has agreed to step aside the moment a more deserving candidate should step forward. Lastly, the Nasi has indicated that the beis din would wait until the best scholars of Eretz Yisroel were represented on the beis din before beginning to fully function halachically as the Sanhedrin of old.” In other words, the organization no longer claims to be an actual Sanhedrin, but rather a nascent or developing Sanhedrin. This does not stop it from issuing p’sakim. One well-known example of the Sanhedrin’s activities was its formal opinion regarding the Gaza expulsion crisis. “Since its meeting on 28th Shevat 5765,” it publicized, “the Sanhedrin has deliberated the initiative of the Prime Minister of Israel, the decisions of the government, and legislation enacted by the Knesset regarding the plan known as ‘The Disengagement,’ henceforth referred to in this document as ‘the uprooting.’ The Prime Minister’s program of uprooting stands in direct contradiction to the Torah of Israel. Therefore, the decision of this government – which has also violated its promises to its own electorate – is null and void.”
The Sanhedrin has also been involved in trying to reintroduce the Korban Pesach. “The committee organized a delegation of a shochet, a Kohein of documented lineage, an animal, and a portable stone altar,” the Sanhedrin reported. “On the 10th of Nissan 5767 (29 Mar 2007), legal documents were sent to the Prime Minister, the Supreme Court, and the Chief of Police. The Prime Minister did not respond. The Supreme Court appeared to uphold the right to perform the sacrifice, but denied it on Grounds of security. This answer was also echoed by the Chief of Police. “On erev Pesach, the delegation appeared at the Mugrabi Gate (Rambam Gate) to the Temple Mount, and waited for several hours in the hopes that the decision would be reversed. There have been many cases where simple visits by Jews to permitted parts of the Temple Mount have been denied for ‘security reasons’ but then approved at the last minute. In this case no permission was forthcoming.” The following year, the fictitious Sanhedrin organized a “demonstration sacrifice” as a joint project of the Sanhedrin, the Temple Institute, and the King David Museum. This was held on the First of Nissan in the Old City. “The study day is to include a public sacrifice which is being termed a ‘general rehearsal’ for the actual Pesach sacrifice on the Temple Mount,” it reported, “a ritual prescribed by the Torah but currently forbidden by the Israel government and courts. In addition the committee sent a formal request to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Minister of Public Security Avi Dichter to allow them to conduct the sacrifice on the Temple Mount.” At the time, animal rights activists challenged the demonstrational Pesach Sacrifice on the Grounds that, “Carrying out a ‘general rehearsal’ in which a live animal is sacrificed for demonstrational purposes only, while a substitute like a model of a sheep can be used, is unjustified and unnecessary.” Last Pesach, based on the so-called but really non-existant Sanhedrin.s p’sak, a New York born Jew prepared three hundred sheep and goats for the Pesach sacrifice, inviting Jews to join his chaburos for twelve shekels apiece. Thousands signed up. Fearful of international Arab insurrection, the Israeli government, as usual, did not give the phony Sanhedrin a green light.
We must yearn and pray for the imminent return of judges and advisors as of old. As Rav Moshe Feinstein once explained when he refused to undergo a certain medical procedure until he knew exactly what it entailed, he was concerned it might render him a baal mum and invalidate him to sit on the Sanhedrin.