Hebrew Voices #28 – The Renewed Sanhedrin

The Sanhedrin in deliberations on Mount Zion next to David's Tomb on March 30, 2016. The man standing on the far left is Professor Hillel Weiss. Photo by Nehemia Gordon.In this episode of Hebrew Voices, The Renewed Sanhedrin,  Nehemia Gordon chats with Professor Hillel Weiss, official spokesperson for the Jerusalem Sanhedrin. Their conversation is recorded near David’s tomb—the strategic meeting place of this Sanhedrin.  They begin with an historical overview of the Sanhedrin from each of their own perspectives as well as the perspectives of others.

Established in 2004, this modern Sanhedrin recently made news for hearing the testimony of two witnesses regarding the sighting of the new moon—something that has not occurred for 2,000 years. While not doing away with the Hillel calendar, Weiss sees the Sanhedrin’s work as a step in the process of correcting the Hebrew calendar. He also views other functions of this Sanhedrin as exercise or practice for a future time. While Gordon objects to the Sanhedrin on grounds that no human can hold the keys to the Law, he closes by standing on common ground with Weiss and looking forward to the day when biblical institutions are fully restored.

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Transcript

Shalom. This is Nehemia Gordon with Hebrew Voices. I'm excited to bring you an exclusive interview with Professor Hillel Weiss, the official spokesman of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. According to Professor Weiss, the Sanhedrin was an institution established by Moses himself in the Book of Numbers, chapter 11. Secular historians date it back to the early 1st century BC, during the Hellenistic period. Sanhedrin is a Greek word meaning "council". All agree that the Sanhedrin was forcefully disbanded by Roman decree around 359 AD. On October 13, 2004, a council of 70 rabbis gathered in Tiberias to re-institute the Sanhedrin. Since then it has received a mixed reception in the Jewish world. Most ignore it. Some Orthodox Jews even condemn it. Professor Weiss himself has even described it as the "Renewed and Rejected Sanhedrin". My interview with Prof. Weiss was recorded sitting on stone benches in an ancient Jerusalem alleyway, about 50 feet from David's Tomb, with thousands of tourists streaming by. Professor Weiss chose this location, because it is one of the main locations where the Sanhedrin meets. It also has symbolic significance for the Sanhedrin. The Catholic Church is currently trying to take over the Tomb of David and the Israeli government seems intent on letting them do so. Professor Weiss and the Sanhedrin are opposed to handing over what they consider to be a Jewish holy site to the Catholic Church and that's why they chose this spot to hold some of their meetings. I guess they are saying if Pope Francis wants the Tomb of David, he'll have to drive out the Sanhedrin to get it. The sound quality isn't ideal, but listening to this brief interview will be well worth your time.Gordon: Shalom Professor Weiss.

Weiss: Peace and Blessings.

Gordon: Professor Weiss, let's start with who you are. You're an Orthodox Jew and you were a professor at Bar Ilan University. You're now a professor emeritus. What were you a professor of?

Weiss: Hebrew literature and especially classic Hebrew literature, like Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Bialik.

Gordon: I think a lot of my listeners won't know who Shai Agnon or Bialik were, but they're actually luminaries of modern Hebrew literature. Israelis study Shai Agnon and Bialik the way maybe Americans study Shakespeare or Mark Twain. It's really modern Hebrew literature, that was your expertise. But now you are the spokesman for the Sanhedrin. Let's start with something really basic. What is a Sanhedrin?

Weiss: The Sanhedrin is the supreme high court, according to Jewish law and it should hold all the authority of the law and scatter the law all over the nations.

Gordon: To spread the law throughout the world?

Weiss: Exactly.

Gordon: I've read some stuff you've written on your website TheSanhedrin.org, we'll post a link on NehemiasWall.com, and they talk there on the website about how according to your understanding the Sanhedrin goes back to the time of Moses, tell us a little about that.

Weiss: Of course! Hashem (God) said to Moses to collect the elders of Israel from the time of Egypt, before Sinai, they went to Pharoah and all of them ran away, because they were afraid.

Gordon: So that was the first Sanhedrin? They ran away?

Weiss: And all of history is like this.

Gordon: Let's just be clear, so you're saying the first Sanhedrin, which is a council of 71 elders...

Weiss: They were elders, it's not written there were 70. After, in the desert, after Jethro came...

Gordon: Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses.

Weiss: Yes, he gave advice how Moses would not be exhausted.

Gordon: That's around Exodus 18 or so.

Weiss: Also in Bamidbar (Numbers) there is some more, and then he collected the 70 elders with prophecy. This was really the first activated Sanhedrin. And Joshua also collected the elders and so it came from generation to generation, there was this court, that represents all of the nation and holds the keys of the law and has the authority to change law, to add laws, and to do everything according to the Torah that gives it the authority to handle and to impose the Torah upon the people of Israel and also the entire world. If they are Gentiles, they are Gentiles. There is no wish to make Gentiles into Jews.

Gordon: Just so I understand, so you're saying, maybe in modern English terms, I would say in my American language, that the Sanhedrin is the supreme religious authority of the Jewish people and really for the whole world, according to Orthodox Judaism.

Weiss: Yes. It should be like this.

Gordon: So what happened? Now we're in 2016. When was the last time there was a universally recognized Sanhedrin among the Jewish people?

Weiss: I think until the third or fourth century, even after the Second Temple was destroyed...

Gordon: There continued to be a Sanhedrin?

Weiss: Yes.

Gordon: Ok, so let's go to today. When was this modern Sanhedrin established?

Weiss: It was established 11 years ago. It was a long process. The Sanhedrin was established in Tiberias on the 28th of Tishrei, in October 2004. From then and on we started to be active and to raise courts for special topics, to find experts that will deal with these major topics. Only very rarely do we all gather, on very special occasions.

Gordon: Tell me what happened a couple of weeks ago. It was reported in the media that the Sanhedrin gathered at the Cardo in Jerusalem and performed a ceremony related to the new moon for the first time 2,000 years. What happened at the Cardo?

Weiss: I will explain. Three judges came from the court to an event, which was an exercise on how Rosh Chodesh will be in the Temple with the sacrifices.

Gordon: Rosh Chodesh is the beginning of the Hebrew month. You say it was an exercise, explain what that means.

Weiss: It means now the Temple doesn't exist. The work of the Temple has been stopped for 2,000 years. There are so many laws and fears from those ceremonies and the meaning of sacrificing.

Gordon: Did you say fears?

Weiss: Fears, yes.

Gordon: People are afraid?

Weiss: They are afraid.

Gordon: So Jewish people are afraid, you're saying, of the Temple sacrifices and ceremonies?

Weiss: Not only from this. They are afraid to be Jews!

Gordon: Wow.

Weiss: Like the first Sanhedrin that all of them ran away from Pharaoh, all the Jews are running away from the Temple mount. They are running away from their identity. They say we are "usual", "normal" people. We are not "chosen". Leave all these stories.

Gordon: A couple of weeks ago you got together at the Cardo and what happened? You did an exercise.

Weiss: It was the 10th of March. This day was the beginning of Rosh Chodesh Adar Bet.

Gordon: The beginning of the 13th Hebrew month, Adar Bet.

Weiss: According to Jewish law, from the Torah, from the Bible and from Chazal (the Rabbinical sages of the Talmud and Mishna), two witnesses, at least two witnesses that saw the new moon of the new month must come to the court that should sit on the Temple mount in Lishkat HaGazit (the Chamber of the Hewn Stone on the Temple Mount). Then the Rabbis will investigate them, whether they really saw the moon or they just imagined it. If they are persuaded that they saw the moon, then they say "Mekudash,, Mekudash".

Gordon: Which means, "Sanctified, Sanctified, Sanctified." They say it three times, right?

Weiss: Yes.

Gordon: Mekudash, Medudash, Mekudash. Sanctified, Sanctified, Sanctified.

Weiss: And then they light a big light all over the big mountains of the Land of Israel.

Gordon: The signal fires.

Weiss: Yes, the signal fires.

Gordon: So this was done up until, if I understand correctly according to your understanding, up until the time of Hillel II in 358 or 359 AD/ CE.

Weiss: Yes. That's what most people think.

Gordon: In other words, there were other Jewish groups or possibly quasi-Jewish groups, like the Samaritans, who set up false signal fires and as a result they sent messengers instead of signal fires, but what we're supposed to do is to have a signal fire, and I believe the first on is on Har HaMishchah, next to Mount Scopus.

Weiss: The Mount of Olives, yes.

Gordon: And then Sartaba...

Weiss: Until the Golan, and from the Golan Heights to Syria, and from there all of the Diaspora.

Gordon: Now if you light something on the Golan Heights you'll get rockets from Jabhat al-Nusra, but that's a different discussion. You know from al-Qaeda in Syria. So that was done according to everybody up until 358/359 CE.

Weiss: Israel was scattered. We have been exiled. We couldn't do it.

Gordon: And Hillel II came along at the last Sanhedrin and he established the...

Weiss: The new calendar, which is an automatic calendar according to calculations and he put inside all kinds of calculations that the holidays will not make too much trouble.

Gordon: So he establishes this calculated calendar. And just to be clear, the Sanhedrin today that was established in 2004, they haven't come and said, We're doing away with the Hillel calendar"?

Weiss: No, no, not exactly, no.

Gordon: So let's be clear about that, because that's the impression people are getting.

Weiss: No. We take upon us all the usual tradition and the Jewish law, and the main point is that Hashem gave the Jewish people the law, the authority, the symbol to appoint the time. The main thing is the authority. What is the law at all? What is the difference between the Torah, the Jewish law, and every other law? If a Karaite or a Christian will say, "Oh, I see the moon!", it's not enough.

Gordon: So there needs to be the authority of the Sanhedrin, not just the moon being seen. It needs to be proclaimed that it was seen by the Sanhedrin.

Weiss: Exactly. This is the mitzvah (commandment).

Gordon: The actual commandment isn't to sight the moon, you're saying, it's for the Sanhedrin to proclaim that the moon was sighted.

Weiss: When the great codifiers of the Jewish law, let's say in the time of Rabbi Saadia Gaon, from the 10th century and to the Rambam, and to many others, there is a debate, if in the future, the Jews will start again to make the months according to seeing the moon or whether it will go on automatically.

Gordon: In other words, will the Hillel II new calendar continue for all time, or will it only be until the Mashiach (Messiah) comes, or the Sanhedrin is established.

Weiss: Exactly, exactly.

Gordon: And by the way, this debate was raging in an Israeli newspaper a week or two ago and you were part of that debate. Can I read something you wrote in that debate?

Weiss: Yes.

Gordon: This is my English translation. You wrote about the calculated calendar "It insults anyone with intelligence who observes every month anew, the alienation, from the first public foundational commandment, which is..." And then you quote from Exodus 12:2. "This month shall be for you the beginning of months." Explain what you mean. That's an amazing concept.

Weiss: You are coming to the synagogue, you hear the gabai or chazzan say that the month will be, let's say, on Wednesday.

Gordon: I got to explain that, because people don't know. In the Orthodox synagogue, every month, you said the cantor or I guess deacon is the best way to translate gabai. One of the lay leaders will announce and say this is when the month begins down to the second. And you're saying that insults people's intelligence, because they go outside and they see it's not there?

Weiss: Exactly.

Gordon: Wow. And that's an alienation from a public foundational commandment. What is this concept of a public foundational commandment? You said "mitzvat yesod tziburi". This is an interesting concept.

Weiss: This is a very, very interesting concept, because it is the foundation of the Jewish people. When we read about the Exodus, before the exodus from Egypt, it starts "hachodesh haze lachem rosh chodeshim", "this month will be [the beginning of months]" It's the renewing of time for all the world, not only for the Jewish people. I want to tell you a story. This is the fifth year in which we are performing the exercise of the Passover sacrifice. This year it will be, God willing, on the Mount of Olives and it's exactly... In the beginning of the Second Temple, in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, all the Gentiles that sat on those mountains, they wanted to stop the building of the Temple and they made a lot of trouble for all of the Jews and now we are in the same situation.

Gordon: So when you're doing it now for the fifth year in a row, you call it an exercise. In other words, you're very explicitly saying, this is not the Passover sacrifice, this is practice. Is that right?

Weiss: We are always doing it on the 10th of Nissan. Always, because it says on the 10th of the month, you should take the lamb and slaughter it in the eyes of the nations and don't be afraid. And all the Jews did it. They tied the lamb to the leg of the bed for four days and the Egyptians were collapsing, they said, "What? They are killing Allah! They are killing our lamb. What will be?"

Gordon: Because the lamb was their god.

Weiss: Yes!

Gordon: They worshiped sheep. This was back in the story of Joseph, they said the Hebrews are an abomination, because they eat sheep.

Weiss: Exactly. And on the 14th of Nissan comes the evening of the Seder. All the Jews went out, by God's will, with a Yad Ramah.

Gordon: With a high hand, not afraid, not embarrassed.

Gordon: So you are doing this as a symbol to say what exactly?

Weiss: We are trying to educate the Jewish people not to be cowards and to be proud of their laws and to activate them. And then the Jews will become for themselves elevated and have dignity and maybe some nations also will say, "Oh they are real Jews. They are not afraid. They're serious."

Gordon: Here's something you said in an interview.

You said, "For 2,000 years we practiced Judaism a certain way. Even though we are in Israel, the Torah and mitzvot (commandments) are still in galut." They translated it as "Diaspora", but galut isn't "Diaspora", it's "Exile". Then you made the statement in the article you wrote in Hebrew. You talked about the proclamation of the new moon as a commandment, the trampling of which parallels the trampling of other public foundational commandments for which there is no difficulty to keep other than a love of galut, of Exile, and an affinity for empty excuses." Explain to people who aren't Jewish or even to Jews who are in the Diaspora, what is this, the love of galut, what does this mean? Our commandments are in galut, even though we are in Israel?

Weiss: The Jews are afraid of their inner identity. They deny that they are kings.

Gordon: What do you mean they deny they are kings?

Weiss: Every Jew is a king or a son of a king. In the Talmud it says "kol yisrael, bnei milachim hem", "All Israelites are sons of kings" (Baba Metzia 113b). What I want to say is that the Torah says in Deuteronomy 16:18 that you must make a court, and if you will not make a court, you will be expelled from your land. It's written.

Gordon: So you're saying making a Sanhedrin is a Biblical, a Torah commandment, to have a Sanhedrin.

Weiss: You cannot live in the Land of Israel without law and the law is the Torah and the Torah is the Sanhedrin. And if there is no Sanhedrin, it's like you have no court.

Gordon: Professor Weiss, I received an e-mail just this morning from someone who wrote to me as follows. They said, "Shalom Nehemia, we heard that the Sanhedrin observed Passover at Jerusalem already in March of 2016. Is that true?

Weiss: No, that's nonsense.

Gordon: Where are they getting this idea from, Professor Weiss?

Weiss: This is their own wishes. They read about the story with the moon and they say, "Oh the Sanhedrin threw out the old calendar and now they are making a new calendar."

Gordon: So you didn't throw out the Hillel II calendar?

Weiss: Chas V'shalom!

Gordon: "God forbid!", you're saying. "Chas V'Shalom."

Weiss: Chas V'Shalom! We want the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Ultra-Orthodox People, that everyone will see what is the power of the Torah and why the Torah gives this power to the Court. Not to Hillel Weiss, not to our Court, to any court which is a Sanhedrin in all the generations that will be in the Land of Israel. And if you leave this commandment, you leave the Torah, you leave the authority, you are going back to the Exile.

Gordon: So what you did was, again, as an exercise, as a practice to show this what should be done?

Gordon: But you by no means are saying you have abolished the traditional Hillel II calendar from 359? That still has the authority, until when?

Weiss: Exactly. Until many people, and other authorities in the Land of Israel, and the Chief Rabbinate too, will say, we must change our conception of the Torah, our courts, our will, how we will apply to Hashem, how we apply to ourselves and to all the other nations. We are not only making exercises. The exercises, they are aimed, their purpose, is to make it real, not to be stopped by the exercises.

Gordon: But right now it's not real?

Weiss: Now, it's a sign on the way. We are going to the Temple Mount! We are going to build the Temple! We are going to raise the Kingdom of David! And we are very close to this time! When Hashem started to speak to Moses, "Prepare to go out from Egypt", He started with the start of the moon of Nissan, let's say April, Kazeh Re'eh V'Kadesh (When you see the crescent, sanctify!)

Gordon: So let's explain that. The first commandment, according to Jewish sources, the first commandment given to Israel as a nation. And it's interesting because there was an article about this in Breaking Israel News, and they said it was first commandment given to the Jews after the Exodus, which isn't true. It was before the Exodus. But it was the first one given to Israel as a nation.

Weiss: Fourteen days before the Exodus. It was a preparation.

Gordon: So before that maybe we had certain commandments like the sciatic nerve, Gid Hanasheh. And maybe we had the commandment of...

Weiss: Of milah, milah.

Gordon: of circumcision, but those weren't for Israel as a nation.

Weiss: Those weren't national commandments. They were personal commandments.

Gordon: So, the first commandment given to Israel as a nation was "This month is for you..."

Weiss: Hachodesh Hazeh Lachem ("This month is for you" Exodus 12:2). Lachem in the plural.

Gordon: So in English that's, "All y'all," in the Southern part of the US. It's the plural of "you". That was the first commandment given to the people of Israel as a nation. And the way that has to be carried out, according to your understanding, is the Sanhedrin has to meet and they have to hear from two or more witnesses and they have to proclaim: Mekudash! Mekudash! Mekudash! Sanctified! Sanctified! Sanctified!"

Weiss: Exactly.

Gordon: I want to read something Rashi said.

Rashi is the Jewish commentator, a canonical Jewish commentator. In his commentary on Genesis 1:1, he talks about this very issue. He actually quotes from a midrash and he says as follows "Rabbi Isaac says," this is from the Midrash, "the Torah should have begun with Exodus 12:2, 'This month shall be for you the beginning of months.'" In other words, that's the first commandment. Why are we starting in Genesis 1:1? The Torah should have started with the first commandment, it's a book of commandments. "Torah" is "instruction". And then he says "Because of the power of His deeds, God gave His people the land of the nations. For if the nations of the world, would say to Israel, 'You are robbers!'" And I love this, in Hebrew it says "listim". You are highway robbers!" "You conquered the lands of the Seven Nations, Israel can respond to them, The entire Earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He. He created it and gave it to whom He saw fit. It was His will to give it to the Canaanites (I added the word Canaanites) and it was His will to take it away from them and give it to us.'" I read that and I was almost in tears, because the nations of the world actually say these exact words. Rashi wrote this 800 years ago. Today the nations of the world say, "You're robbers! You stole that Land from other people!" Can you believe this? And this is in the midrash. Amazing.

Weiss: The citation of "Rabbi Isaac said" is from Genesis Rabbah. It's from the 3rd Century.

Gordon: So 1700, 1800 years ago, people were already saying... and this to me is what nearly put me to tears: There's a connection in ancient Jewish sources between three things. Between God's creation of the universe, between Israel's claim to the Land of Israel, and the sanctification of the new moon. Those three are intimately intertwined in Jewish thought and in Scripture. That's amazing!

Gordon: So now, you made this statement in your article in this Israeli newspaper, where there was this discussion. Where some people were saying no, we're never going to go back to sighting the new moon, because it's too convenient the pre-calculated calendar and you came out against this and the Israeli New Moon Society also came out against it. And you referred to the Sanhedrin here as, I'm looking for the phrase, something like...

Weiss: Denied.

Gordon: HaSanhedrin HaMitchadesh VeHaMuchash, the Renewed and Rejected Sanhedrin. What do you mean by the Renewed and Rejected Sanhedrin, or Denied Sanhedrin?

Weiss: Look, we are in a process of renewal. We are starting this way. We take ourselves very seriously and some people were persecuted by the government came to us and sometimes we succeeded to help them or to stand for them. There are many, many very strong stories about it, not only once, not only ten times.

Gordon: In other words, Jews who have decided to live in certain parts of the Land of Israel, the government of Israel has persecuted them for that.

Weiss: Exactly.

Gordon: Because they didn't read the Rashi in Genesis 1:1 that says the nations will say to you, "You are robbers!" and now the government is saying "You are robbers!" The government of Israel!

Weiss: Therefore, the Sanhedrin is making trial, starting a trial, against all the nations.

Gordon: What? Wait a minute. The Sanhedrin has a trial against the world...

Weiss: The seventy nations, because they denied that the Land of Israel, Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, belongs to the Jews. Also according to international law, the secular international law. Not only the one law.

Gordon: So you're putting the United Nations, by international law, the seventy nations, on trial? Wow. That's amazing.

Weiss: You see it's very simple. It's very logical. Because you read the Rashi!

Gordon: Wow. That's amazing. This is historic what's happening. The Sanhedrin, you're saying is in a process of being renewed. So look Rabbi, from the perspective I'm coming from, I'm not a fan of the Sanhedrin, that's not a secret. And when the Sanhedrin is established, I will be maybe it's biggest objector and opponent. But I think this is wonderful what the Sanhedrin is doing, that it should be reestablished and as I said when it's finally accepted, I will oppose it, but I think it is a good thing that the Jewish people have some body which is attempting to do the things that you've talked about, which is reestablish Torah law over the people of Israel. And may it be soon. Thank you very much.

Weiss: Thank you very much.

Gordon: Shalom.

I was so blessed to have the opportunity to sit with Professor Weiss. After speaking to him, I have a better understanding of what the Sanhedrin is trying to do. I think they're approaching this as part of a historical process of restoration. It reminds of the revival of the Hebrew language under Eliezer Ben Yehudah. When he arrived in Israel in 1881 with the dream of raising up a generation that could speak the language of the Bible, he was mocked and condemned. In fact, he was even formally excommunicated by the Orthodox Jewish religious authorities. Today, millions of people speak, read, write, and dream in the once dead language of the ancient prophets of Israel. Now, I have conflicted feelings about the Sanhedrin. I don't believe the Torah gives any human institution what Professor Weiss calls the "keys of the law" and I certainly don't accept that it has the "authority to change law, to add laws". My opposition to this concept is nothing new. This is a debate within Judaism that goes back over 2,000 years, to the time when, the way I understand it, the Rabbis first appeared in history. But having said that, I admire what the new Sanhedrin is trying to do. Their goal is to re-establish Biblical institutions that were abolished by Roman decree, historical circumstances, and well-meaning traditions. I look forward to the day when the public institutions mandated in the Torah are re-established, when we have a Melech Mashiach, the King Messiah, over Israel that brings peace to the world, when we have a Kohen Gadol, a High Priest, serving in the Temple, and when we have Biblically kosher courts. When these institutions are restored, all mankind will call upon the name of the Creator of the universe with one accord. Bimherah beyameinu! May that be swiftly in our days! Amen!

The photo at the top of this page us of the Sanhedrin in deliberations on Mount Zion next to David's Tomb on March 30, 2016. The man standing on the far left is Professor Hillel Weiss. Photo by Nehemia Gordon.

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Further Reading
The Re-established Jewish Sanhedrin
Sanhedrin Performs Rare Biblical Commandment Not Seen For 2,000 Years

  • trish392016 says:

    It is well and good to read because if I had not been reading I would have know that the Sanhedrin is the Jewish court -“I now see where the world derived they court

    Now why would the Catholic Church Wacted to take over David tomb

  • Luke Schrimsher says:

    Nehemiah, are you opposed to a Sanhedrin altogether or just a Sanhedrin that believes that it can add and take away from the Torah?