The Sanhedrin - Final Key to the Redemption
“Shi’abud Malkhuyot” translates literally as “the enslavement of the kingdoms.” We will get back to what exactly that means.
Some have understood the above statement as meaning that the only thing that will be different about the Messianic era will be that the Jewish people will not be subject to the power of the nations of the world. No miracles. No literal “lions laying down with lambs” or anything of that sort. Just being left alone by the Gentiles.
But the statement can be understood in a different way; i.e. the only thing between this world and the Messianic era, which is to say, the only thing standing in the way of the transition into the Messianic era, is Shi’abud Malkhuyot. In fact, this understanding better fits the actual wording in Hebrew.
What is Shi’abud Malkhuyot?
In the Jewish view of history, there are four kingdoms which oppressed/are oppressing the Jewish people. These are Babylon, Medea/Persia, Greece and Rome. The sequence of these four nations is alluded to all over the Bible. In the second verse of Genesis. In Hashem’s covenant with Abraham. In the book of Daniel. These four kingdoms are called the Arba Malkhuyot (which is Hebrew for “four kingdoms”). We also speak of Arba Galuyot, or four exiles, referring to the periods of exile under each of these kingdoms, with the exile of Rome understood as continuing to this day.
As a result of the parallel Arba Malkhuyot and Arba Galuyot, the two are often seen as the same. But this is not the case. We are said to live in a time of Shi’abud Malkhuyot. Yet “Malkhuyot” is plural. And we are certainly not living under Babylon or Medea/Persia or Greece any more. Or are we?
The answer to this puzzle lies in the Exile which, for us, is the paradigm of all Exile: The Exile of Egypt. When Hashem freed us from Egyptian bondage, He used four terms of redemption. He said,
- “I will take you out (v’hotzeiti) of the land of Egypt,
- And I will save you (v’hitzalti) from serving them.
- And I will redeem you (v’gaalti) from slavery to freedom,
- And I will take you (v’lakachti) to Me as a nation”.
These Arba Leshonot Geulah, or four expressions of redemption, are parallel to the Arba Malkhuyot. We say that מעשי אבות סימן לבנים. That the early experiences of the Jewish people are considered to foreshadow our later experiences in history. For us, history truly repeats itself. And so our Egyptian experience is a forerunner of all the later times we would be oppressed by the nations of the world.
How We Fell into Shi’bud
The Jewish people was sovereign in its own land. Until the Babylonians came and destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem and took us off into Exile. This was the beginning of Shi’abud Malkhuyot. The Shi’abud in question, though, was not simply a physical subjugation. It was a psychological one. It was the negation of the first expression of redemption: “I will take you out (v’hotzeiti) of the Land of Egypt.” Taking us out of Egypt was intended to be the equivalent of returning us to our own land, and had we not sinned, it would have been in fact as well. The result of the Babylonian Exile was not merely the destruction of the Temple and our physical exile; it was the creation of a new worldview in the minds of the Jewish people. A worldview that said there was nothing strange about us living outside of our own land. That didn’t look at exile as something existentially wrong. but as a natural way of things. How many Jews today, even the fiercest of Zionists, actually look at the fact that there are Jews living outside of Israel and say, “How totally bizarre!” They don’t like it. But they don’t find it unnatural. This alteration in the Jewish mindset was the essence of the Shi’abud of Babylon, and it continues to this day.
We were willing exiles, but we still understood that Hashem is the only One upon whom we can truly depend. Until the Medes and Persians came along. The story of Esther and Mordechai shows that even when it seems as if we are saved by natural means, it is truly Hashem operating behind the scenes, so to speak, who is responsible. This is the message that the Sages teach us, at any rate. But what did the average Jew understand at the time it was happening? We were endangered by Haman, who worked through the temporal powers of the time (Ahasuerus) to try and destroy us. The answer? Mordechai and Esther working through the same temporal power to save us. What we learned, as a nation, and what worked its way into the very consciousness of the Jewish people, was that we are dependent upon the good will of the nations of the world. That in order to be safe, we must ingratiate ourselves with them. This was the negation of the second expression of redemption: “I will save you (v’hitzalti) from serving them.” We forgot that it is Hashem who saves us. How often do we hear even “religious” Jews, who lay claim to tremendous faith in Hashem, saying things like, “But Israel needs America”? Try telling one of these people that all we need is Hashem, and watch the incredulous looks. Some people will accept, in theory, that this is so. But in their guts, Jews “know” that we are dependent on nations such as America. This aberration was the essence of the Shi’abud of Medea/Persia, and it too continues to this day.
We were comfortable with the idea that most of us lived outside of our land, and that we had to depend on our “hosts” for protection. But we still believed in ourselves. We still possessed the self-respect of a people that knows it is special. That possesses a sense of pride. And then Greece came along. And Hellenism came along. And Jews began to be embarrassed at how “backwards” we were compared to the “civilized” Hellenes. And they began to believe, in their heart of hearts, that Greek culture was superior to the culture of the Torah. The Maccabees fought a gallant fight against this phenomenon, but to no avail in the long run. The Hasmonean kings, descendants of the Maccabees, came to embrace Hellenism themselves. This was the negation of the third expression of redemption: “I will redeem you (v’gaalti) from slavery to freedom.” In the Shemoneh Esrei prayer, the progression of the middle thirteen blessings is understood to be the order of events in the eventual redemption of the Jewish people. The blessing “Ga’al Yisrael”, or “Who redeems Israel”, speaks of Hashem fighting our battles. Of our special status as His people. The essence of the Shi’abud of Greece was the loss of this belief in the hearts of the Jewish people. Even as we continued to claim that we wereHis chosen people, a growing segment of the population just didn’t really believe this anymore. Even many “religious” Jews today feel that they are “religious” because that’s just what we do. It’s our ethnicity. Does Hashem really see us as special? Ask this question and you are likely to hear that it doesn’t really matter one way or the other. This is what our fathers did, and this is what we’ll do as well. The Shi’abud of Greece, like those before it, remains with us to this day.
The Jewish people was in a bad way. We had been uprooted from our land, made dependent on other nations, and had lost any real faith in our purpose. But we at least remained a single, united people. Why? Because we had the Torah. And we had the Torah mandated system of courts that insured that it was the same Torah for every Jew, no matter where he lived and no matter what his ancestry. The pinnacle of this system, the apex, the crown, was the Sanhedrin. It was the Sanhedrin which had the final word on what Jewish law was. It was the Sanhedrin which served as the linchpin, holding the entire Jewish people, scattered as it was, together. And then Rome came along.
The Romans were smart. They understood the importance of the Sanhedrin. To give “credit” where it is due, they were informed of this by turncoat Jews, but the source of the knowledge is unimportant. Seeing that even in exile, even strewn to the four corners of the world, the Jewish people stubbornly retained its national identity, they went for the jugular. They disbanded the Sanhedrin and instituted capital punishment for any Jew daring to give smicha-ordination to another. The special ordination that carried with it the unimpeachable authority stretching in an unbroken chain from Sinai.
The Romans were successful. Much, much more successful than they could have dreamed of. Because they didn’t merely eliminate the Sanhedrin, and destroy the pure authority that had united the Jewish people and made it whole, but like their predecessors, they taught us the most awful of lessons. They taught us that this was normal. That it was natural for us to be without a central authority. How often have you heard Jews actually bragging, “We don’t have a single authority like the Catholics, with their Pope. We’re pluralistic, we are.” And today, even with the return of so many Jews to the Land of Israel, even with a growing number of rabbis speaking out about how the failure to convene a central authority to determine a unified law for all Jews is a breach of Torah law, nothing is done.
Today, there is no Jewish people. Merely a sad collection of Jewish communities, with scarcely more than a memory of what we once were and one day will be again. This is what Rome did to us. This is the essence of the Shi’abud of Rome, and like the Shi’abud of Babylon, the Shi’abud of Medea/Persia and the Shi’abud of Greece, it is with us to this day.
And this is why we speak of the Shi’abud Malkhuyot, in plural. Because they are all with us, lessons that we learned in our souls and have clung to as stubbornly as we have to our traditions.
Undoing the Shi’abud
But this is not the end of the story. By no means. As the stages of Shi’abud Malkhuyot came, so will they go, and that process has already begun. The problem is that the process of ridding ourselves of these “lessons” is a cumulative one. Each step can only progress so far until the next step is taken.
In the 18th century, the Vilna Gaon announced that the time to return to the Land of Israel had come. Following his direction, many of his students moved to Israel, desolate as it was. This began a trickle of return which increased even more with the birth of the secular movement of Zionism. For all its faults, Zionism was a basic negation of the Shi’abud of Babylon. And a partial fulfillment of Hashem’s promise: “I will take you out (v’hotzeiti) of the land of Egypt.”
But Zionism petered out. So long as we still believed that we were dependent on the non-Jewish nations, so long as we failed to believe in our special purpose, so long as we remained a fragmented people, a religion rather than a nation, the draw to Israel was seriously limited. The dream of all Jews returning home failed to come to fruition.
And then the State of Israel was born. In the face of opposition from most of the world, we stood up to them and said: “We don’t need you.” This sentiment was flawed, in that it left out the fact that we do need Hashem, but it was a start. And miraculously, the same nations that had oppressed us for so long chose to support us in our independence. For all its faults, the fight for and establishment of the State of Israel was a basic negation of the Shi’abud of Medea/Persia. And a partial fulfillment of Hashem’s promise: “And I will save you (v’hitzalti) from serving them.”
And the attainment of this second level of redemption fed into the previous one as well. With the rise of the State of Israel, even more Jews flooded into the Land.
But the State was rotten within from its very inception. So long as we failed to believe in our special purpose, we were just one more colonial creation in an area where we weren’t wanted. So long as we remained a collection of religious communities the world over, there was no raison d’etre for the state. And not only did the flow of Jews to Israel slow down to a sad crawl, but the proud stand of the Jews of Israel in the face of the nations of the world was worn away to nothing.
And then the Teshuva Movement began. Are there even words for such a miracle? For the first time since Sinai, Jews in large and increasing numbers, raised knowing nothing at all of Judaism and of Torah, began to seek out their roots and return to the ways of their fathers. It was the very antithesis of the Shi’abud of Greece. Where the Hellenized Jews had once fled Judaism and Jewishness, Jews young and old turned around and came home. Our Sages teach that אין לך בן חורין אלא מי שעוסק בתורה “There is none as free as one who busies himself with Torah.” And the Teshuva Movement was a partial fulfillment of Hashem’s promise: “And I will redeem you (v’gaalti) from slavery to freedom.”
Nor was the Teshuva Movement ineffective in battling the Shi’abudim of Babylon and Medea/Persia. For years, the bulk of those Jews who returned to the Land of Israel were religious Jews. Those Jews who support the stand of Israel against world pressure to surrender are almost entirely religious as well. The Jews who resisted the return to Judaism were mostly the same Jews who dreamed only to leave Israel or to remake it in the image of the western nations they idolized.
But the Teshuva Movement could only go so far. And although it has not stopped, it has slowed to a trickle. Because the four expressions of redemption are cumulative. And none of them can reach their culmination without the next one. Today, even growing segments of the religious community, segments that were once at the forefront of the fight for Israel as a special place, a place where Jews would stand tall and be what we were intended to be, even here, there is a growing sentiment that says, “Perhaps we truly are dependent on the non-Jews after all. Perhaps we really do need to bow to their notions of propriety.”
And this should come as no surprise. Because none of the steps in our redemption can be fulfilled in their entirety so long as Shi’abud Malkhuyot remains.
אין בין העולם הזה לימות המשיח אלא שעבוד מלכויות בלבד
There is nothing between this world and the Messianic era but Shi’abud Malkhuyot alone.
The key, the final element and expression of redemption, is the reestablishment of the Sanhedrin. The one act that will constitute a fulfillment of Hashem’s promise: “And I will take you (v’lakachti) to Me as a nation.” The verb “to take” has the connotation in Jewish law of marriage, and the Revelation at Sinai is considered by the Sages to have been a marriage between Hashem and Israel. It was there that we truly became His people.
The Arba Leshonot Geula, or four expressions of redemption, were promises for the time of our forefathers, and not only a prophecy of things to come. Hashem did take us out of Egypt. At the Red Sea, He taught us that He is the source of our salvation and that we can rely on no other. At Rephidim, when Amalek attacked us, He taught us that only when we looked towards heaven and recalled our special relationship with Hashem could we prevail. And at Sinai, He made us His own people.
It is this last element that keeps us from the final redemption. It doesn’t matter if the central authority is made up of rabbis with true smicha-ordination or not. Hashem never asks of us that which cannot be done. But so long as we have no unified identity, the vast majority of Jews will have no interest in Judaism. So long as we remain a mostly secular people, the vast majority of Jews will never believe that we can stand against the world. And so long as we have no sense of pride, the vast majority of Jews will go on living out their lives among the nations of the world and see nothing at all wrong with it.
There is a pattern to history. It is there for all to see. We will achieve this final expression of redemption. May it be Hashem’s will that we do so before more needless suffering comes to pass.
The following is a brief overview of how the Sanhedrin and system of Batei Din are meant to work, and why this is fundamentally different from the way Jewish law is determined today.
When the Sanhedrin and its system of Batei Din exist, this is how they work. Every town had at least one beit din of three members. If you had a halakhic question, you'd go to your local beit din and ask them. If they knew the answer, they’d tell you. There was no place for creativity. If they didn’t know the answer, they couldn’t try to deduce it themselves. That wasn’t their job. Instead, you would go, with a representative of the beit din, to the nearest regional beit din of twenty-three.
If the beit din of twenty-three knew the answer, they would tell you and representative of your local beit din, and they’d issue announcements to all the other local batei din in their area so that everyone would know for the next time. If they didn’t know, they weren’t allowed to decide either. Instead, you, with the representative of your local beit din and a representative of the regional beit din, would go to Jerusalem, where you would bring the question to a special beit din of twenty-three which stood outside the entrance to the Temple Mount.
If this special beit din knew the answer, they would tell you and the representatives of the batei din with you, and they’d issue announcements to all other regional batei din, who would issue announcements to all of the local batei din in their areas, so that everyone would know the next time. If they didn’t know, there was another special beit din at the entrance to the Azarah (the Temple Courtyard). You would go to this beit din with all of the representatives of the batei din you’d been to already.
If the beit din outside the Azarah knew the answer, they would tell you and the representatives. If not, you would go, along with all the representatives from all the batei din you’d been to so far, as well as a representative from this latest beit din, and you’d bring the question before the Great Beit Din, also known as the Sanhedrin, which sat on the Temple Mount, adjoining the Temple itself.
If the members of the Sanhedrin knew the answer, they would inform you along with all the representatives, and announcements would be issued to all Jews and Jewish communities, informing them of the ruling. If they didn’t, or if there wasn’t a consensus, they would discuss and debate, bringing traditions of their teachers and logic to bear on the question until they reached a consensus. Or if no consensus was reached, they would vote, and whatever the majority of the Sanhedrin concluded would be the law. And announcements would be issued to all Jews and Jewish communities with the new law.
Only the Sanhedrin had the authority to derive new laws from old ones. Only the Sanhedrin had the authority to issue decrees which required changes in Jewish practice. Lesser batei din existed as executive/judicial bodies, determining whether cases met the criteria of the halakha and settling disputes between litigants. There were no poskim other than the Sanhedrin, and there were no disputes over what the halakha said.
Contrast this to our current situation, in which Jews living in the same building, to say nothing of the same city or country, are considered to have different obligations and allowances in the eyes of halakha.