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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

B. Law

1. Mishnah, Sanhedrin, 4:3–4 : The Great Sanhedrin

( 4:3 ) The Sanhedrin was arranged like half a round threshing-floor so that they might see one another, and two judges' clerks stood in front of them, one to the right and the other to the left, and wrote down the arguments for acquittal and the arguments for conviction. Rabbi Judah said: There were three: one to write down the arguments for acquittal, one to write down the arguments for conviction, and a third to write down the arguments both for acquittal and for conviction.

(4) Three rows of Students of the Sages sat in front of them, and each one knew his place. If they needed to appoint (another judge), they appointed him from the first row, and one from the second row moved up to the first row, and one from the third row moved up to the second; and they selected someone from the assembly and seated him in the third row. He did not sit in the place of the former, but he sat in the place appropriate for him.

Comment: The picture is not entirely clear, nor is its historical accuracy certain. One way of understanding it is to suppose that the actual members of the Sanhedrin, numbering seventy-one according to the Mishnah (m. Sanh. 1:6 ), sat in three, tiered, semi-circular rows. The Students of the Sages sat opposite them in three straight rows. Behind the rows of the Students of the Sages stood a general audience (‘the assembly’) comprising other scholars and perhaps members of the public and friends of the parties. The action took place in the semi-circular space between the rows of the Students of the Sages and the members of the Sanhedrin. In this space the clerks of the court sat, and perhaps also the two senior judges, whom the Talmud calls the President (nāśî᾽) and the Father of the Court (᾽āb bêt dîn). The Students of the Sages were senior scholars who were, in effect, learning how to be judges by observing the Sanhedrin at work. They provided a necessary pool from which to fill temporary or permanent vacancies on the bench. See further MAJ GEN B.4, 11.

2. Papyrus Murabba῾at, 19: An Aramaic Bill of Divorce (Get)

(1) On the first of Mareshvan, in the year six, at Masada: (2) ‘I divorce and repudiate of my own free will, 1, (3) Joseph, son of Naqsan, from [—]ah, resident at Masada, you, (4) Mariam, daughter of Jonathan [f]rom Hanablata, resident (5) at Masada, [you] who were formerly my wife, so that you are (6) free for your part to go and to become the wife of any (7) Jewish man, whom you wish. And let this serve you as a document of repudiation from me (8) and as a bill of divorce. And her[ew]ith I am giving back [to you] the [dow]ry, and for all destroyed or damaged or [—] property I will [re-embu]rse you, as I am obliged to do, (10) and I make fourfold restitution. And whe[never] you ask me, I will provide you with another copy of (11) [this] document, for as long as I live.’

  • (26) Joseph, son of Naqsan, for himself

  • (27) Eliezer, [son of] Malkah, witness

  • (28) Joseph, son of Malkah, witness

  • (29) Eleazar, son of Ḥananah, witness.

Comment: The Bill of Divorce is a Torah law, though the wording of the document is not laid down: see Deut 24:1–4 (cf. Mt 5:31; 19:7; Mk 10:4 ). This document was written in the year III CE. Like the marriage contracts of the period, the text is written twice, once on the front and once on the back of the papyrus. Though divorce seems easy, the necessity to repay dowry, with the fourfold restitution for any damaged or destroyed property, must have acted as a powerful restraint on hasty action. See further MAJ GEN B.8.

3. Mishnah, Sebi῾it, 10:3–6 : The Prosbul of Hillel

( 10:3 ) A Prosbul is not cancelled [by the Seventh Year]. This is one of the enactments of Hillel the Elder. He saw that people were reluctant to give loans to one another and transgressed what is written in the Torah, ‘Be careful that you do not harbour in your heart a mean thought [by saying, The Seventh Year, the year of release, is coming. You view with hostility your poor brother, and lend him nothing; and he cries out to the Lord against you, and you incur guilt]’ (Deut 15:9 ). So Hillel ordained the Prosbul.

(4) This is the formula of the Prosbul: ‘I entrust to you, so-and-so, the judges in such-and-such-a-place, that I may be able to collect any debt due to me [from so-and-so], whenever I wish.’ And the judges or the witnesses sign below.

(5) An ante-dated Prosbul is valid, but a post-dated one is not valid. Ante-dated bonds are not valid, but post-dated ones are valid. If one borrows from five persons, a Prosbul is drawn up for each of them separately. If five persons borrow from one, only one Prosbul is drawn up for them all.

(6) A Prosbul may be written only for (a loan secured by) immovable property. If the debtor has none, the creditor gives him title to part, however small, of his own land. If the debtor has land held in pledge in the city, a Prosbul may be written on its security. Rabbi Ḥuṣpit says: They may write a Prosbul for a husband on the security of his wife's property, or for orphans on the security of their guardians' property.

Comment: Since all debts were cancelled by the sabbatical year (Deut 15:2–3 ), it became increasingly difficult as the sabbatical year approached to raise loans. Hillel's Prosbul allowed debts to be collected after the sabbatical year: the written declaration, signed by the court, made the court ultimately responsible for the collection of the debt, and the court, being a corporate body, was not affected by the law of Deut 15:2–3 , which envisages transactions between individuals. It illustrates how clever jurists could ameliorate the law. If the tradition is genuine, then it suggests that the sabbatical year was still being observed in the time of Hillel in the early first century CE. The term Prosbul is probably a shortening of the Greek pros boulē(i) bouleutōn, ‘before the assembly of counsellors’. See further MAJ GEN B.8, 11.

4. The Temple Scroll (II QTemple), 56:12–57:21 : Laws Regarding the King

( 56:12 ) When you have come into the land that I am giving to you, and you have taken possession of it, and settled (13) in it, and you say, ‘I shall set over myself a king like all the peoples round about me’, (14) then set over yourself a king whom I will choose. From your brothers you may set a king over yourselves (15) but you may not place over yourselves a stranger who is not your brother. Even so he may not (16) acquire for himself many horses nor lead the people back to Egypt to make war in order (17) to acquire for himself many horses and much silver and gold, since I have said to you: ‘You must never (18) return on that way again.’ And he must not acquire for himself many wives, lest they turn his heart away from me. Also silver and gold he must not acquire for himself in great quantity. (20) And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, they shall write (21) for him this Torah on a scroll in the presence of the priests.

(57:1) And this is the Torah [that they shall write for the king in the presence of the] priests. (2) On the day when they install hi[m] as king [they shall take a ce]nsus of the Israelites from (3) 20 years old to 60 years old, according to their divisions, and he will appoint (4) at their head commanders of thousands, commanders of hundreds, commanders of fifties, (5) and commanders of tens throughout all their cities. And he shall select for himself from them a thousand men (6) from each tribe, so that he shall have with him twelve thousand warriors (7) who will never leave him unattended, so that he can be taken captive by the nations. And all (8) those selected men whom he has chosen shall be honest, God-fearing, (9) disdaining ill-gotten gain, able-bodied warriors. And they shall stay with him constantly, (10) day and night, to guard him from every sin (11) and from foreigners, lest they should take him captive.

Twelve (12) leaders of his people shall be with him, and twelve Priests and (13) twelve Levites. They shall sit in council with him to administer justice (14) and Torah. And he shall not be too proud to listen to them, nor shall he do anything (15) without their advice.

He may not take a wife from any of (16) the daughters of the nations; rather he shall take for himself a wife from his father's house, (17) from his father's family. And he may not take any other woman in addition to her, but (18) she alone shall be with him as long as she lives. And if she dies, he may take (19) for himself another wife from his father's house, from his family.

He must not pervent justice, (20) nor take a bribe to pervert righteous judgement. And he shall not covet (21) any field, vineyard, property, house or anything valuable in Israel so as to steal [it].

Comment: Comparison with the law of the king in Deut 17:14–20 shows that the Temple Scroll not only repeats the biblical text more or less verbatim, but also interprets it and supplements it with new laws. 56:12–21 largely reproduces Deuteronomy, the standard text of which is presented in italics above. Note, however, that the Temple Scroll systematically recasts the passage in the first person (‘the land that I am giving you’, rather than ‘the land that the LORD your God is giving you’, emphases added). 57:1–21 purports to contain the contents of the scroll which Deuteronomy stipulates should be written for the king on his accession to the throne. Its laws regarding the royal bodyguard and the royal council (consisting of equal representation from the three estates—People, Priests, and Levites) are not biblical, nor is its law that the royal consort must be from the king's clan. And its stipulation that the king must have only one wife at a time is a curiously strict interpretation of the Deuteronomic injunction not to ‘acquire for himself many wives’ (Deut 17:17 ). On the Temple Scroll see MAJ GEN B.9.

5. Damascus Document (CD), 10:14–11:18 : Sabbath Laws

(10.14) Concerning the sabbath, how to observe it according to its law.

No man shall (15) work on the sixth day from the moment when the sun's disc is (16) distant from the gate [where it sets] by its full diameter, for this is what Scripture means by saying, ‘Observe (17) the sabbath day to sanctify it’ (Deut 5:12 ).

No man shall speak (18) a vain or idle word on the sabbath day.

He shall not make a loan to his neighbour. He shall not take any decision relating to money or profit. (19) He shall say nothing about matters of business or work to be done on the following day.

(20) No man shall walk about in the field to carry out his tasks (21) on the sabbath. He shall not walk more than one thousand cubits beyond his town.

(22) No man shall eat on the sabbath day anything that has not been prepared beforehand. He shall not eat anything lying about (23) in the field. He shall drink only in the camp. (11.1) If he is on a journey and goes down to bathe, he may drink where he stands, but he may not draw water into (2) any vessel.

He shall not send a Gentile to do an errand on the sabbath day.

(3) No man shall put on dirty clothes, or clothes that have been kept in a store, unless (4) they have been washed with water or rubbed with frankincense.

No man shall starve himself (?) voluntarily (5) on the sabbath.

No man shall walk after an animal to pasture it outside his town (6) more than two thousand cubits. He shall not raise his hand to strike it with his fist. If (7) it is stubborn he shall not take it out of his house.

No man shall take anything from his house (8) outside, or bring anything from outside into the house. If he is in a temporary shelter, he shall not take anything out from it (9) nor bring anything in.

He shall not open a sealed jar on the sabbath.

No man shall carry on himself (10) perfumes while going out and coming in on the sabbath.

He shall not lift in his dwelling-house (11) either stone or dust.

No man minding a child shall carry it while going out or coming in on the sabbath.

(12) No man shall scold his male or female slave or his hired servant on the sabbath.

(13) No man shall help an animal to give birth on the sabbath day. And if it should fall into a cistern (14) or pit, he shall not lift it out on the sabbath.

No man should rest in a place close (15) to Gentiles on the sabbath.

No man shall profane the sabbath for the sake of [acquiring] wealth or profit on the sabbath day.

(16) If anyone falls into water or [into a pit], (17) no one should pull him out with the aid of a ladder or rope or any such instrument.

No man shall offer on the altar on the sabbath any offering (18) other than the sabbath burnt-offering, for thus it is written, ‘Except your sabbath offerings’ (Lev 23:38 ).

Comment: The laws found in this sectarian document go well beyond the outline sabbath legislation in the Torah. The position taken is strict. Saving of human life on sabbath is permitted, but not if a utensil has to be used! Saving of animal life is not permitted (cf. Mt 12:11; Lk 14:5; Deut 22:4 ), nor is assistance to an animal giving birth. A child may not be carried between one domain and another, nor may perfumes be worn (presumably in containers such as sachets or phials), since this would constitute ‘carrying’—a form of work forbidden on the sabbath. A strict position is also taken on the feeding and watering of animals on the sabbath, which would obviously have been an issue in farming communities (cf. Lk 13:15 ). One may ‘walk after’ (the language is precise; one may not ‘lead’) the animal no more than 2,000 cubits out of the town. Note also the stipulation to ‘add’ to the sabbath, i.e. begin it early, before the sun has actually set, in order to avoid any risk of profaning it. On the Damascus Document see MAJ GEN B.10 and F.3.

6. Mishnah, Baba Batra, 2:1–3 : On Not Causing an Nuisance to Neighbours

( 2:1 ) No one may dig a cistern (on his own land) close to a cistern of his neighbour; nor may he dig a trench, cave, water-channel, or laundry-pool unless he keeps it at least three handbreadths away from his neighbour's wall, and plasters its sides with lime. He must keep olive-refuse, manure, salt, lime, or stones at least three handbreadths away from his neighbour's wall, and he must plaster it with lime. He must keep seeds and furrows and urine at least three handbreadths away from the wall. Millstones must be kept at least three handbreadths from the wall measuring from the lower millstone, or four measuring from the the upper millstone. An oven must be kept at least three handbreadths from the wall measuring from the belly of the oven, or four measuring from the rim.

(2) No one may set up an oven inside a house unless there is a void of four cubits above it. If he sets it up in an upstairs room there must be a concrete floor at least three handbreadths thick beneath it, or, for a small stove, one handbreadth thick; and if it causes damage (to the floor) the owner of the oven must pay for the damage caused. Rabbi Simeon says: These measurements were stipulated so that if, (having observed them,) damage ensues, he will not be liable to pay.

(3) No one may open a bakery or a dyer's workshop beneath his neighbour's food-store, nor (may he open) a cowshed. In fact, they allowed all these under a wine-store, apart from the cowshed. If someone wants to open a shop within a courtyard, his neighbour may stop him on the grounds that he would not be able to sleep because of the noise of the customers. However, if he is making articles to take out and sell in the market, his neighbour cannot stop him on the grounds that he would be unable to sleep because of the noise of the hammer, or the noise of the millstones. Nor can he protest about the noise of (school) children.

Comment: The matters dealt with here would be regarded today as secular and falling within the remit of municipal planning by-laws. Here no such distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ applies: to create a civil society is a religious duty. The formulation of the law, as throughout the Mishnah, is casuistic, i.e. concrete illustrations are given of a fundamental principle, which is not itself stated. Here the underlying principle (the kelal) is clear: no one, even when acting within his own domain, has a right to cause a nuisance to a neighbour. These laws are not found in the Torah, but can be seen as an attempt to work out concretely the commandment to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Lev 19:18 ). On the Mishnah see MAJ GEN B.11.

7. The Halakic Letter (4QMMT), B.52–62 + C.7–12: Disputes over the Interpretation of the Law

(B.52) [And further]more concerning the deaf who have not heard the statute, the [jud]gement or [the rules of] purity, and have not (53) [he]ard the ordinances of Israel, [we are of the opinion] that he who has not seen and has not heard [these] does not (54) [k]now how to perform [them]. However, they may partake of the pu[r]e food of the Sanctuary.

(55) [And] furthermore, concerning streams of liquid, we are of the opinion that they are not in themselves (56) [p]ure, and furthermore that streams of liquid do not separate between impure (57) [and] pure liquids, for the poured liquid and the liquid in the receptacle into which it is poured are alike, (58) a single liquid.

And one must not bring dogs into the h[o]ly camp for they (59) may eat some of the [b]ones from the Sanctua[ry] to which meat is still attached. For (60) Jerusalem is the holy camp and the place (61) which God has chosen from all the tribes of Is[rael. For Jer]usalem is the head of (62) the [c]amps of Israel…

(C.7) [And you know that] we have separated ourselves from the mass of the peo[ple and from all their impurity, (8) and] from joining with them in these matters, or going along w[ith them] in these things. And you k[now that no] (9) treachery or lie or evil can be found in our hands, for [w]e are paying [close attention] to [these matters].

[And furthermore] (10) we [have written] to you (sing.) so that you should understand the Book of Moses [and] the Book[s of the Pr]ophets and Davi[d and the enactments] of every age. And in the Book is written [—for] (12) you, and the former things [—]. And furthermore it is written that [you would depart] from the w[a]y and that evil would befall [you] (cf. Deut 31:29 ).

Comment: The text has been patched together out of fragments from different copies of the original work. The ‘you’ (sing.) of C.10 is probably the high priest of the day, to whom the writer has sent a letter disputing certain interpretations of the law proposed by a third party. The issues may now seem very trivial, but they were of vital interest to priests who had to maintain strict and complex purity laws. If pure water in one vessel is poured into impure water in another, the pure water is contaminated as soon as the stream of pure water touches the impure water. The alternative view presumably was that the pure water remained pure because impurity could not travel upwards against the flow of the stream. The attitude towards the physically challenged is also noteworthy. At Qumran there was a move to exclude anyone with physical impairment from public worship, just as any physically handicapped priest was excluded from public dutes. On the Halakic Letter see MAJ GEN B.12.

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