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Obedience to  the Oral Law is a Commandment
by Rabbi Avraham Feld
Excerpts from
Rabbi Dr. Herzog
(former Chief Rabbi of Israel)

<<Justice is one of the key-notes of the entire system of Judaism.  The Torah lays the greatest possible stress upon the right administration of justice, free from all bias and favor, whether for the rich or for the poor. The slightest deflection from the truth on the part of the judge is censured with the utmost severity.  Justice forms, in fact, and integral
element in the G-d-idea of Judaism and the Almighty himself is represented as the Supreme Judge, ‘the judge of the whole earth.’ The human judges are, as it were, His deputies, and they are actually designated by the term elohim, whose whose ground-meaning is Power, but which is so frequently used of G-d as the All-Powerful.  The Court of Justice is called adat el  the congregation of G-d.

<<The great prophet Micah, in reducing religion to three leading principles, places justice at the forefront.  When foretelling the approaching fall of the Jewish State, all the prophets unite in pointing to prevalence of injustice as largely responsible for the impending doom. Our sages, the mental heirs of the Prophets, echoing the voice of the Torah, the Prophets and the Psalmists, never tire of accentuating the paramount importance of the right administration of justice which they regard as one of the three pillars supporting the entire edifice of civilized society.
<<And yet, it is only shallow thought that will envisage Judaism as merely a religion of justice, or law.  Judaism enjoins us to go, at times, beyond the boundaries of sheer justice  lifnim meshurot haDin.  It recognizes a kind of higher law issuing from hesed  loving-kindness, love  and it often bids us waive what is due to us by mere law, or allow to our fellow man, with whom we happen to have a dispute, what he is not entitled to by the letter of the law, or by mere forensic justice.  And this is quite distinct from charity in the ordinary sense. Forensic justice is not the maximum: it
is the minimum that the Torah demands from us in our relations with our fellow-men. It is not so much justice that is extolled, as injustice that is condemned. When the Torah contemplates the courts established for administering the law, it insists upon strict justice without favor even to the poor and the lowly. Yet even here the higher law, the law of hesed, is sometimes allowed to exercise very considerable influence upon the law.

<<It is in keeping with the great importance attached to justice in the economy of Judaism that we find the necessity of courts of law coinciding with the birth of Israel’s religion.  At first, Moses himself takes charge of the administration of justice. Later on, yielding to the sage counsel of Jethro, he institutes tribunals of various orders, reserving to himself the
power of deciding difficult cases beyond the ken of his subordinate judges. For the future, a divine command ordains that ‘judges and officers of justice’ shall be appointed in all the cities of Israel. But all this is only of a general nature.  Neither in the Torah nor in the Prophets are we given specific rules governing the constitution of the courts or their
functioning. The Torah only indicates in a general way the qualities and virtues that one must possess to become eligible for the judiciary. Again details, real life, real time, was left to the Oral Torah. The actual administration of the law would appear to have been chiefly vested in the heads of the clans  rashei batei abot  and the city-elders or city
notables  zekenim  whether Levites or non-Levites. How one attained the rank of an elder or zaken and thus became eligible for the office of judge we are not told in the Bible, but instead relied upon the Oral Torah. The Levites, more especially the priests, owing to their expert knowledge of the law and of the national customs and traditions of which they were, in a sense, the hereditary custodians, were indeed from the time immemorial closely associated with the courts of law (DEUT. XVII, 9, 12; ibid. XXI, 5 etc.). In fact, even at a much later date, when the knowledge of the Torah
had long ceased to be the special charge of the priesthood, it was still thought desirable that the court of law, at all events, the Supreme Court, should include priests and Levites among its members; but this was not deemed essential (Sifre, section Shofetim. Cf. II, CHRON. XIX, 5-11. Cf. also YOMA 26a).

<<Ezekiel, in his plan of the future theocracy, still represents the priests as functioning in the capacity of experts at every law-case (EZEK. XLIII, 24, cf. MIC. III, II, which shows that the priests acted chiefly as experts and interpreters of the law and not necessarily as the actual judges). Even in the messianic times we still will have Rabbis to help clarify law. This must have been so at the commencement of the Second Commonwealth; but, in the course of time, the regenerators of Judaism, inspired by the fervor a zeal of Ezra, succeeded in spreading the knowledge of Torah to such an extent that the priests ceased to figure distinctively in connection with the judiciary and eventually the only vestige of their
pristine juric eminence became embodied in a special Priestly Court  Bet Din Shel Kohanim(KET. 12: Yerushalmi, KET. Ch. I.)  endowed with a very limited specific jurisdiction.

<<The judges  Shofetim  or rather national chiefs of the pre-regal epoch, exercised judicial authority among the ancient Hebrews. So did the Kings in Israel  after them. But both the Shofetim and the Kings seem to have constituted courts of appeal charged with the duty of righting local judicial errors.

<<From the Scriptural data it would hardly be possible, as already remarked, to evolve any definite idea of the judicial system actually in vogue among pre-exilic Israel. It is only when we pass from the Bible to the Oral Torah are we enabled to glean information which affords us knowledge, more or less detailed, of the way in which the law was
administered in the period contemporary with those sources and long before their date. It is in the period of the Second Temple that the Jewish Court first appears under the collective designation of Bet Din, or House of Judgment, and it is by this term that it is still known to the present day. In Biblical times the court was often called sha’ar  gate, because of the fact that sessions were usually held over the city gates. This practice seems to have maintained itself until a very late date; for, in the well-known post-Talmudic prayer  Yekum Purkan  which is still recited in the synagogue on the Sabbath, reference is made to the ‘judges of the gate’.  The term Bet Din probably dates from the Age of Judges.

<<The Return from Babylon marked the beginning of a new era in Jewish history.  It initiated the reign if the Torah, the written and the oral, in Jewish life, private and public.  The Torah became the very life-breath of the nation and the Bet Din the agency for administering justice in accordance with its principals and laws.  Henceforth we but rarely hear
complaints about the perversion of justice and the corruption of judges so often echoed by the prophet during the earlier period (MAL. III, 5  ‘those that turn aside the stranger’ (i.e., from justice)  probably dates from a time before Ezra had reorganized the Jewish Courts in Judea. And, quite apart from this, it does not reflect a state of things anything near that
which the pre-exilic prophets denounced in thundering words). The fiery admonitions of the prophets, scarcely heeded during their lifetime, now burnt themselves into the consciousness of the Jewish people.  It is highly significant that the Anshei Kneset haGedolah  the Men of the Great Assembly (who included prophets)  laid down the foundations of the new-old order.  Unlike the prophets of old, did not deem it necessary to warn it against the perversion and corruption of justice. ‘Be patient in judgment’ was the only admonition which they addressed to their disciples.

<<The over-towering figure among the regenerators of Judaism in the period immediately following the return from Babylon is undoubtedly Ezra, whom teachers later likened to Moses. His arrival in Palestine (about 457 B.C.E.) inaugurated the reconstitution of the judiciary upon the basis of the Torah. He came armed with a Royal Charter which invested him with plenary powers to appoint ‘judges and magistrates’ and to enforce the law. It is from this moment that we may date the institution of the Bet Din, as the Mishnah and the Talmud know it.  The name did not occur.  The Book of EZRA still speaks of ‘the elders and the judges of each city’, while the term Bet Din had it already been current, would have been more convenient.  But the institution itself was, without doubt, already operating as an agency which took charge of the whole of the Torah and whose function it was to declare the law, to adjudicate disputes, to watch
over the observance of the commandments of the Torah, to look after the interests of the poor, of the stranger, the widow and the orphan and, in addition to all these, to spread the knowledge of the Torah among these people. Many measures would not all be specifically attributed to Ezra. They were not new enactments, but merely the resuscitation of institutions ordained by the Torah as traditionally interpreted.

<<The success which attended Ezra’s salutary activities at the beginning, would seem to have waned for some years.  The courts established by him continued to hold their sittings and to act up to the standard set by him.  When Nehemiah arrived upon the scene thirteen years after the advent of Ezra, he had occasion to complain of many abuses, but we hear no charges made against the honesty or competencies of the judiciary. Yet it is manifest that the law, while vested in the hands of men of honor and ability, had in the meantime lost much of its power. For otherwise, the abuses of which Nehemiah complains so bitterly would never have become rampant.  Would a Bet Din armed with real power have allowed the public desecration of the Sabbath in Jerusalem and in the cities of Judah? The same applies to the civil law. Political currents weakened the Jewish courts, but never succeeded in abolishing this crucial agency of
transmission and practice of Judaism.

<<The Great Assembly  Keneset haGedolah  is said to have consisted of 120 members.  Whatever the critics may say, the historicity of that body cannot be questioned by sound, really scientific, criticism. The Great Assembly was not a court invested with a definite jurisdiction. It was rather a kind of academic-legislative assembly charged with the reorganizing of Jewish life, private and public, in accordance with the letter and the spirit of the Torah and the Prophets.

<<The number 120 has puzzled inquirers. A possible solution: 120=12 x 10, that is a congregation -  ten is the minimum number for constituting a ‘congregation’  edah  for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. The tribal divisions were no longer maintained in the Second Commonwealth, but the reminiscence of the division of Israel into twelve tribes was still quite
fresh in the minds of the people who rebuilt the Jewish National Home in Palestine after the Return. At the dedication of the Second Temple  ‘twelve atonement sacrifices’ were offered up ‘according to the number of tribes of Israel.’ The Great Assembly consisted of twelve congregations representing the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
<<Access to any of the bodies of judgment and law was open to anyone willing and talented enough to learn all of general studies and Torah. Quite egalitarian for those days.>>

Obedience to the Oral Law is a Commandment
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