I heard once that the Sanhedrin had to know exactly what the different forms of idolatry were and how they worked in order to correctly judge cases of avodah zara brought before them. Does anyone know the source of this?

  • Rambam hilchos Sanhedrin 2:1
    – Mordechai
    Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 21:39
  • @Mordechai thanks. Why not write it as an answer? Also, is there somewhere in the gemara that says the same?
    – Harel13
    Commented Jan 5, 2020 at 6:16

3 Answers 3


As Mordechai pointed out, the Rambam Sanhedrin (2:1) writes

אֵין מַעֲמִידִין בְּסַנְהֶדְרִין בֵּין בִּגְדוֹלָה בֵּין בִּקְטַנָּה אֶלָּא אֲנָשִׁים חֲכָמִים וּנְבוֹנִים. מֻפְלָגִין בְּחָכְמַת הַתּוֹרָה בַּעֲלֵי דֵּעָה מְרֻבָּה. יוֹדְעִים קְצָת מִשְּׁאָר חָכְמוֹת כְּגוֹן רְפוּאוֹת וְחֶשְׁבּוֹן וּתְקוּפוֹת וּמַזָּלוֹת וְאִצְטַגְנִינוּת וְדַרְכֵי הַמְעוֹנְנִים וְהַקּוֹסְמִים וְהַמְכַשְּׁפִים וְהַבְלֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה וְכַיּוֹצֵא בְּאֵלּוּ כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּהְיוּ יוֹדְעִים לָדוּן אוֹתָם. וְאֵין מַעֲמִידִין בְּסַנְהֶדְרִין אֶלָּא כֹּהֲנִים לְוִיִּים וְיִשְׂרְאֵלִים הַמְיֻחָסִים הָרְאוּיִים לְהַשִּׂיא לִכְהֻנָּה. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (במדבר יא טז) "וְהִתְיַצְּבוּ שָׁם עִמָּךְ" בְּדוֹמִין לְךָ בְּחָכְמָה וּבְיִרְאָה וּבְיַחַס:

Only wise and intelligent men, who are eminent in Torah scholarship and possess extensive knowledge, should be appointed members of either the Great or the Small Sanhedrin. They should be somewhat aware of such branches as medicine, mathematics, astronomy, forecasting constellations, astrology, methods of soothsayers, augurs and wizards as well as idolatrous superstitions, and the like, in order to be competent in dealing with them.

  • Is there a base for this in the mishna/gemara/other earlier source?
    – Harel13
    Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 6:32
  • 1
    @Harel13 Doesn't look promising - there are a few sources which are close, but not precisely Avoda Zara. Notably, if you unpack the other sources (Sefer Hachinuch 491, Sefer Hamitzvos 96, etc) connected to the Rambam on Sefaria, you'll notice they mention most points shared in the Rambam EXCEPT idolatry.
    – NJM
    Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 15:07

Another reference in the Rambam (Hilchos Avoda Zara 3:2)

עבודות הרבה קבעו עובדי כוכבים לכל צלם וצלם, ולכל צורה וצורה, ועבודת זה אינה כעבודת זה, כגון פעור שעבודתו שפוער אדם עצמו לו, ומרקוליס שעבודתו שיזרוק לו אבנים או יסקל מלפניו אבנים, והרבה עבודות כגון אלו תקנו לשאר צלמים.

לפיכך הפוער עצמו למרקוליס, או שזרק אבן לפעור, פטור, עד שיעבוד אותו דרך עבודתו, שנאמר "איכה יעבדו הגוים האלה את אלהיהם ואעשה כן גם אני".

ומפני זה הענין צריכין בית דין לידע דרכי העבודות, שאין סוקלין עובד כוכבים עד שידעו שזו היא דרך עבודתו:


The idol worshippers established different services for each particular idol and image. These services do not [necessarily] resemble each other. For example, "Pe'or" is served by defecating before it. "Marculis" is served by throwing stones at it or clearing stones away from it. Similarly, other services were instituted for other idols.

One who defecates before "Marculis", or throws a stone at "Pe'or" is exempt of liability, until he serves it according to the accepted mode of service, as is stated (Devarim 12:30): "[Lest one inquire about their gods, saying,] 'How did these nations serve their gods? I will do the same.'"

For this reason, a court must know the different types of idol worship, because an idolater is stoned to death only when we know that he has worshiped the idol in the mode in which it is traditionally worshiped.

  • Rav Chaim Kaninevski in Kirias Melech, his book of sources for the Rambam, says that this is from the Gemara Avoda Zarah 14 about Avraham Avinu having four hundred chapters of mishna about avoda zarah.
    – Mordechai
    Commented Jan 27, 2020 at 23:35


מנחות סה א

דאמר רבי יוחנן אין מושיבים בסנהדרין אלא בעלי חכמה בעלי מראה בעלי קומה בעלי זקנה בעלי כשפים

Menachot 65:a

Rabbi Yochanan said, people are not nominated to the Sanhedrin but, owners of wisdom, owners of looks, owners of height, owners of age, owners of sorcery.

  • 1
    Sorcery isn’t idolatry though...
    – ezra
    Commented Jan 5, 2020 at 16:03
  • @ezra it's closely related, see Dedvarim 18:14 Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 10:28

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