Rambam Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Mamrim, Chapter 1: The power of the Supreme Court

Hilchos Mamrim

Number of mitzvahs in this section:

Nine. There are three positive commands in six negative commands.

The mitzvahs:

  1. To follow the rulings of the Supreme court.
  2. Not to deviate from their rulings.
  3. Not to add to the mitzvahs of the Torah neither in the written or oral Torah.
  4. Not to subtract from the mitzvahs of the Torah.
  5. Not to curse one’s father and mother.
  6. Not to hit one’s father and mother.
  7. To honor ones father and mother.
  8. To fear one’s father and mother.
  9. Not to be a rebellious son.


Chapter 1: the Halachic power of the Supreme Court

Halacha 1: The obligation to adhere to the Supreme court’s rulings

  • The foundation of the oral Torah: The Supreme Court in Jerusalem is considered the main pillar of the oral Torah and its instructions, from which laws are legislated for the entire Jewish people.
  • A positive command: This idea that the Supreme Court can serve to pass ruling and legislation on behalf of all the Jewish people is a positive command.
  • The necessity to rely on the Supreme Court: Whoever believes in Moses and his Torah is obligated to place all of his trust in relation to the Jewish religion on the Supreme Court, and to rely on them for instruction and legislation.

Halacha 2: The negative command and their power of legislation

  • A negative command: Whoever does not follow the laws of legislation of the Supreme Court is considered to have transgressed a negative command.
  • Lashes: Transgressing this negative command does not carry with it the penalty of lashes.
  • Zakein Mamrei: Nonetheless, a Sage who argues on their legislation is liable for capital punishment through strangulation.
  • The legal power of legislation of the Supreme Court: The Supreme Court holds three powers of legislation of law.
    • The Supreme Court is able to legislate [biblical law] based on oral tradition dating back to Moses on Sinai, which is otherwise known as the oral Torah.
    • The Supreme Court is able to legislate [biblical law] based on one of the rules [i.e. Yud Gimel Midos] in which the Torah is expounded.
    • The Supreme Court is able to legislate rabbinical laws in accordance to the necessities of the times in order to make a fence around the Torah. This includes all forms of decrees, institutions and customs.
  • It is a positive command to adhere to the directives of the Supreme Court in all the above three matters of legislation and anyone who does not adhere to the directives of the Supreme Court in any of the three above matters, transgresses a negative command.

Halacha 3: Dispute in the Supreme Court

  • Traditions from Moses: Traditions that date back to Moses from Sinai and are passed from generation to generation are not subject to debate, and any law which is under debate is certainly not a tradition from Moses.
  • Yud Gimel Midos: If there is a dispute amongst the members of the Supreme Court regarding if a certain law should be legislated on the basis of the rules for expounding Torah [i.e. Yud Gimel Midos], then we follow the majority opinion of the Supreme Court.
  • Rabbinical Decrees and institutions: If there is a dispute amongst the members of the Supreme Court regarding if a certain decree or custom should be enacted, then the matter is to be debated amongst the members of the court, and have a final judgment given based on the majority opinion of the Supreme Court.

Halacha 4: How the Supreme Court prevented disputes

  • No disputes existed in times of the Supreme Court: When the Supreme Court existed, there were no disputed laws amongst the Jewish people.
  • The lower courts brings its questions to the higher courts: The reason for this is because any time a halachic matter could not be settled in a local court of one city, it was brought to a Higher regional court in Jerusalem for them to settle. If they too could not settle the matter, then it was brought to the Supreme Court which was found in the temple area.
  • The Supreme Court gives a final law: If the Supreme Court has a clear opinion on the matter then they would instruct the people as to the law that could not be settled in the lower courts. If, however, they too are contested regarding the subject, then they would hold a discussion regarding it until they come to a unanimous conclusion or hold a final vote to follow majority. They then tell the petitioner’s final ruling.
  • The disputes of today: The above was only in times that the Supreme Court was in existence, however, in today’s times and it is no longer in existence, disputes in Jewish law have spread amongst the Jewish people, as each court in Rabbi gives a decision and ruling based on reasons understood to him, with some prohibiting and some permitting.

Halacha 5: Who to follow in times that we do not have a Supreme Court

  • Any time that two sages or two courts have a halachic dispute in times that the Supreme Court is not in existence, then regarding a biblical matter you must follow the more stringent opinion while regarding rabbinical matter you may follow the more lenient opinion.
  • The same rule applies if there is no clear ruling on the matter from any rabbi or court.
  • The above only applies if you do not know to which side the law leans towards, otherwise you are to follow the opinion that you lean towards.

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