The Rebellious Elder of the Mishnah Part Two

Posted by Boaz Willis on

This post is a continued explication of mishnah Sanhedrin 11:2, a tradition spelling out the ritual procession of the ‘rebellious elder.’ We have seen the rebellious sage brought to the highest courts in the land, inside the (long since burned and broken) temple complex, atop which he would be prompted to defend his teachings. One critical insight mentioned was that the rabbis transmitting the tradition were living in a reality far removed from being able to practice the ritual itself. As the rabbis locate this procession in a past where they had the power to adjudicate trials of capital punishment, it becomes a reflection of their desire to impress a markedly rabbinic character onto Israelite structures of organization and power. The recitation of this tradition by later Tannaim plays a role in reinforcing the legitimate right of the rabbis to act as a ruling class in the post-temple landscape. These insights were mainly derived from the geographic (temple based) and historic (post-temple reality) components included in the Mishnah. In this post, we’ll look a bit deeper into the person of the rebellious elder, and how one was expected to defend oneself from receiving the death penalty.

When the rebellious elder is brought by his peers to the first court at the entrance to the temple complex, he’s prompted to explain himself. He begins by presenting his interpretation of Scripture in relation to those surrounding him.


כָּךְ דָּרַשְׁתִּי וְכָךְ דָּרְשׁוּ חֲבֵרָי, כָּךְ לִמַּדְתִּי וְכָךְ לִמְּדוּ חֲבֵרָי
‘I have interpreted as follows: - and my friends have interpreted as follows:
This is how I have taught – and my friends have taught as follows:’


While the formula is recounted in pithy Mishnaic character, the elder presenting his case would have done so differently. The nature of the elder’s defense seems as though it must be justified by Scripture (דָּרַשְׁתִּי,) not taken as a given, or cited as a received tradition. He is required to cite his fellow’s interpretations just after his own. This may serve many functions; foremost however, it serves to position him on a spectrum of who’s ‘in’ vs. ‘out’ in the rabbinic community.

 A rabbi can only be judged worse than their peers engaging in similar discourse and practice, so that’s exactly what the Sanhedrin is trying to gauge: how legitimate or illegitimate are the interpretations of his fellows that he veered away from? Also: How has this individual internalized his fellow’s interpretations? The manner in which the tried elder recounts his peers’ positions is also a reflection of the inner workings of his mind and may provide evidence for how he arrived at his position.

 The nature of his interpretation is called into question. Does his interpretation demand action? A new commandment or decree? If his fellows have refrained from ruling on a given subject and this elder begins deriving a path forward from Scripture, it could very well undermine the established power of his fellows. In the same line of thinking, what if this elder began deriving imperatives that clearly violate one Scriptural dictate by invoking another? All these questions are at play as he presents his case in front of the court. Not all of these questions will be answered, neither are the primary concern of the court. There is one factor that is of utmost important to the court and reveals their true role in the proceedings: Whether they have already heard an interpretation of the sorts this elder is putting forward.  

 After hearing the plea of the elder, the court only has one job: to tell the cohort of rabbis standing before them whether they’ve previously heard the interpretation/teaching of the elder being tried. ‘אִם שָׁמְעוּ, אוֹמְרִים לָהֶם’ - ‘If they have heard [this interpretation before,] they tell them.’ If the first court  is familiar with the tradition/teaching, they affirm the elder in holding that interpretation to be true and legitimate. Seemingly, that would mark the end of the proceedings and the tried elder should have no problems continuing to interpret as such. However, if neither of the first two courts they approach are familiar with the tradition, they are prompted to visit the ‘grand beit din in the hall of hewn stone from which Torah goes out to all of Israel as it says [in scripture,] ‘From that place which God will choose’’ (Deut. 17:8) This is the most authoritative court in the land, comprised of seventy-one elders. Those gathering in this court are also the most senior, elderly, and well-versed in the traditions and interpretations of their ancestors. Once they’ve gone through the highest court, the ritual procession is over with, and the mishnah goes on to state “Once he has returned to his city, if he recites and teaches in the same way he has taught, he is exempt [from death by strangulation,] However, if he instructed others to act [upon those teachings,] he is liable – as it says, ‘The person that carries out intentionally,’ meaning, he is not liable until he instructs others to act.”


It seems then, that the ritual procession recited in Sanhedrin 11:2 is a pre-requisite to imposing the death penalty on any given ‘rebellious elder.’ Now we come to the critical question: what can be learned from this tradition as it reflects a rabbinic body struggling to establish a legacy? This mishnah establishes clear procedural boundaries for normative interpretation and practice in rabbinic communities. All should be aware of the dire consequences that come along with unhindered interpretation and instruction, though, what qualifies as such is left ambiguous; it is in the hands of those devoted few practitioners to decide and act upon, to bring their fellow and try him in the highest courts of the land. As this tradition is recited in a landscape bereft of those very courts, those reciting the tradition assume the role and power of those all-knowing and senior elders. Those reciting the tradition take on the power to establish the boundaries of legitimate and illegitimate interpretation. Those reciting hold the power to decide who’s ‘in’ vs. ‘out.’; they will decide who shall be tried, indicted, and strangled, against those that will fall back in line, curb their desire to decree truth in public - they must refrain from instructing others to act upon their perception of what God demands.

The ShtarkShirts Project is an attempt to reconsider and reform modern Jewish practice in the likeness of the early rabbis. Through our own recitation and recounting of our rituals, processions, taboos, and holy things, we gain the power to establish the boundaries of legitimate and illegitimate, acceptable and unacceptable, punishable and merely rebukeable, praiseworthy and laughable all on our own terms. By engaging our past critically, we maintain the consciousness of our own fallibility, as well as the perspective to know that our actions have serious consequences. We believe that we have the strength to shape cultures in our image, open the doors wide to those interested in engaging, and keep out those that would cause harm to the integrity of the whole.

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