We previously mentioned that one who knows that the Sanhedrin is wrong is not allowed to follow their decision. This is based on the Gemara in Horayos (2b). This idea is even more explicit in the Yerushalmi (1:1) which states clearly that if the Sanhedrin tells you that “your right is left” (or vice versa), one should not listen to them. Additionally, the language of the Sifrei is “if it appears to you that they have erred, then you should follow them”, which tells us that if we are sure that they have erred, then we should not follow them.
It is important to keep in mind that all of these sources are talking about the Sanhedrin Gedolah when situated in the chamber of hewn stone — which is the supreme court, and final arbiter of Jewish law. As such, there also exists a halacha prohibiting one from arguing with them, mandating a death sentence for one who persists in doing so.
Given this, how do we decide who can argue with a Sanhedrin, and when?
In Private vs. In Public
The first point that must be clarified is that there is a difference between maintaining one’s own dissenting opinion privately, versus publicizing one’s dissenting opinion. The purpose of mandating a death sentence on the recalcitrant elder who persists in his opinion is to unify observance. The unifying purpose is accomplished by mandating against the publicizing of the opinion.
Indeed, one is actually allowed to publicize his dissenting opinion so long as he does so in a way that makes it clear that he is not suggesting a change in the established halacha, but is rather only making a point in learning. Thus, the Torah does not mandate that the scholar negate his thought process and limit his capacity to think. Rather, the Torah tells us that we simply need a process which will allow the Jewish nation to serve HaShem with a single, unified halachic system.
Since the breakdown of the Sanhedrin at the end of the second Beis HaMikdash, this has become an irrelevant point. Unfortunately, unity of practice has now become impossible. The lack of a unified halachic system today is so pervasive and commonplace that not only do we find it hard to understand the above mitzvos, in actuality the halacha today mandates against them.
As is known, Ashkenazim and Sefardim have different halachic decisions. The same applies to German Jews versus Lithuanian ones versus the Chassidim, and so on, all of whom have different halachic decisions and decisors.
However, we do still have two halachos which remind us of the above principles of halachic unity. The first is the Biblical prohibition of “lo sisgodidu”, while the second is the Rabbinic prohibition of “al tishana mipnay haMachlokes”. Both of these prohibitions exist to mandate uniform observance at a public level.
Who Can Argue?
We can now discuss who, exactly, has the ability to decide when the great Sanhedrin has erred.
The Gemara in Horayos (2b) mentions someone who does not actually sit on the Sanhedrin, but possess the same level of scholarship. The Gemara even gives an example of Shimon Ben Azzai, one of the great Tannaim, who did not even reach the level of semicha1. The point of the Gemara is that in order for one to state that the Sanhedrin has erred, one must be on a level akin to this that sit on the Sanhedrin.
This explains the language of the Sifrei we quoted above that states “if it appears in your eyes as if they erred.” This is obviously not referring to the ignoramus, for what appears in his eyes is obviously not a proof of anything. Rather, the Sifrei was referring to someone that is a scholar, but not the same level as the Sanhedrin. In such a person’s eyes it would appear that the Sanhedrin erred, but he cannot say so with certainty. However, someone who is almost on the level of those on the Sanhedrin, can, with certainty, decide that the Sanhedrin has erred. The first person should annul his opinion before the Sanhedrin’s, while the second is not allowed to.
In terms of how this would apply today without a Sanhedrin, it is similar to what I once heard from R’ Herschel Shachter, and is something obvious in the Chareidi world, that “not all rabbis are equal.” This should be something obvious, for how can one think that a young scholar who has just received his semicha possesses the same level of scholarship, or understanding of the halacha, as the Senior Rabbis of the generation. Certainly, how can we entertain that a layman would have the same understanding of the halacha as the Senior Rabbis?
Once again, this does not forbid the young rabbi from holding his opinion, or even printing and publicizing it. However, it certainly behooves him — and anyone who would like to follow his opinion — to at least take a second and third glance. This would apply even more so if the attempt to argue would be making some change in the accepted halacha or minhag. Indeed, there is nothing to be ashamed of in consulting Senior Rabbis — the halachic literature is full of such things.
The details of rabbinic authority, and how they square with the laws of Sanhedrin, still need to be explained. We hope to address these matters in the coming installments.
1. See Rashi on Avos 4:1↩