By Daniel Pinner
“And He said to Moshe: ‘Ascend to Hashem – you and Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel; bow down from afar. But only Moshe shall approach Hashem; they shall not approach, neither shall the nation ascend with him’. Moshe came and related to the nation all the words of Hashem and all the judgements, and the entire nation responded with a single voice, saying: ‘All the words that Hashem has spoken, we will do’… Moshe and Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel ascended” (Exodus 24:1-9).
Immediately after proclaiming the Ten Commandments, when Israel was still on a spiritual high, G-d launched the nation onto its eternal course. Significantly, this did not involve lofty philosophical ideas or mystical secrets, but practical halacha, the nitty-gritty of day-to-day life. Our Parashah begins with 42 mitzvot bein adam la-chavero (between man and his fellow-man) from Exodus 21:1-23:9; then proceeds to 10 mitzvot bein adam la-Makom (between man and G-d) from 23:10-33.
And then, after all these commandments, comes the command to establish Israel’s Supreme Court, the institution that would later be called the Sanhedrin, which consisted of between three and seventy-one judges, depending on what case was being judged. Several months later, G-d would reiterate this command: “Hashem said to Moshe: ‘Gather for me seventy men from the elders of Israel, whom you know to be from the elders of the nation and its officers. Take them to the Tent of Meeting, for them to present themselves there with you. I will descend, and I will speak with you there; and I will magnify part of the spirit that is upon you, and I will place it upon them, so that they will carry, with you, the burden of the nation, so you shall not carry it alone’” (Numbers 11:16-17).
1,400 years later, Rabbi Dosa ben Horkanus – one of the great sages of the Talmud – would give an insight as to why the Torah does not tell us the names of the seventy elders: “When [the Torah] says, ‘Moshe and Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel ascended,’ why were the names of the seventy elders not specified? – To teach that every single triumvirate that has ever arisen as a court to judge Israel are like Moshe’s court” (Rosh ha-Shanah 2:9).
The Rambam gives clear guidelines as to who sits on the Sanhedrin – whether the Small Sanhedrin of 23 judges, or the Complete Sanhedrin of 71 judges: “Only wise and discerning men, distinguished by their wisdom in Torah and tremendous knowledge, who also know other subjects such as medicine, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, black magic, witchcraft, the idiocies of idolatry and the like, so that they will have the knowledge necessary to judge them” (Laws of Sanhedrin 2:1).
And some more criteria: “No one who is old and advanced in years can be appointed to any Sanhedrin, neither can a eunuch, because there is cruelty in them; nor someone who has no children, so that [the judges] will be compassionate” (ibid. 2:3).
Such are the criteria of the men who are judges on the Sanhedrin.
The complete Sanhedrin of 71 judges is called the Sanhedrin Gedolah (“the Great Sanhedrin”) or the Sanhedrin Mallei (“the Complete Sanhedrin”). It is interesting to note that the word mallei (“full, complete”) is spelt mem, lammed, alef; the gematria of mem is 40, the gematria of lammed is 30, and the gematria of alef is 1, for a total of 71; the very word mallei already indicates the number of judges on the complete Sanhedrin.
And it goes far deeper than that: the mem is written in the form of a kaf and a vav joined to each other; the lammed has the form of a kaf with a vav atop of it; and the alef has the form of a diagonal vav with a yud adjoined on each side. The gematria of kaf is 20; the gematria of vav is 6; and the gematria of yud is 10. So each of the three letters (mem, lammed, alef) hints at an “inner gematria” of 26 – the gematria of G-d’s Name yud-heh-vav-heh, the Name that connotes His attribute of compassion.
The greater the court, the greater is the justice that it is enjoined to enforce; but also, the greater the court, the greater is the damage that it can potentially cause. The highest court of all, the Complete Sanhedrin, must perforce be infused with the attribute of compassion, even while imposing justice. Anyone who is even potentially devoid of compassion must never be allowed to judge; and anyone who is not guided by the Torah’s wisdom can also never be allowed to judge. The clearest commentary on the wisdom of the Sages in decreeing this can be found not in the pages of the Talmud or of the Mishneh Torah, but in the courts in Israel of today and in the headlines of tomorrow.