Fundamentals of the Jewish Faith
Chapter Ten: The Oral Torah (Part 6)
So an institution was established just to adjudicate differences of
opinion among sages so as to determine the ultimate Halacha, and it was
termed the Sanhedrin.
The Torah spoke of its prototype at a certain point, when Moses was
apparently overburdened by the number of goodly souls who “stood around
him from morning till evening” (Exodus 18: 13) in order “to seek G-d's
will” (Ibid. 15) and to have him “inform them of G-d's decrees and laws”
(Ibid. 16). Yitro, his father-in-law, suggested that Moses would soon grow
too weary to carry out so taunting a task day after day, and so he should
set up a judicial system to represent him for the people. He advised Moses
to “provide out of all the people able men who fear G-d, who are men of
truth and who hate greed” and to set them up as leaders and judges (Ibid.
G-d later confirmed that when He commanded Moses to in fact “assemble …
seventy men of the elders of Israel” (Numbers 11:16) to serve as its
Supreme Court, its main legislative body in all Torah laws, its arbiter of
all things touching upon the Oral Torah -- its Sanhedrin. In Ramchal’s
words, the esteemed members of the Sanhedrin were entrusted to “safeguard
the mitzvot of the Torah, so that G-d’s word would be obeyed” by the
entire Jewish Nation.
Along such lines, they (and their successors) enacted both civic and
ceremonial rules that came to be known as the Rabbinic Laws, which were
intended to ensure the sanctity and observance of G-d’s Torah. And
whenever a controversy arose among its members as to the final Halacha,
the matter would be put to a vote, and the majority ruling would be
Astoundingly enough, the Sanhedrin even had the power to “set aside one of
the Torah’s mitzvot when the purpose (in doing that) was to safeguard the
Torah itself”, Ramchal points out. And so, for example, they disallowed us
to blow on the Shofar on a Rosh Hashanah that fell out on a Shabbat, so as
to ensure the sanctity of the Shabbat (see Rosh Hashanah 29a and Sukkot
When the Sanhedrin was disbanded (425 C.E.), its authority was passed on
to the sages of each generation, down to our own. That is based on the
idea that G-d gave each qualified Torah scholar the right (and
responsibility) to decide questions of Halacha following the prescribed
And so there followed a long line of eminent rabbis who decided the actual
Halacha for their own and subsequent generations from the time of the
Talmud (until 499 C.E.) and through the eras of the Savoraim (until 589),
the Gaonim (until 1038), the Rishonim which lasted unti l the death of
Rabbi Yoseph Caro who authored the pre-eminent Code of Jewish Law known as
the Shulchan Aruch (1574), which was followed by the era of the Acharonim
which is still in place at the present time.
And all that has served to inform us of what G-d requires of us at any one
time so that we might draw close to Him, which is the point of it all.
Rabbi Yaakov Feldman has translated and commented upon "The Gates of Repentance", "The Path of the Just", and "The Duties of the Heart" (Jason
Aronson Publishers). His works are available in bookstores and in various
locations on the Web.