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Just as the members of a court of law must be cleared with respect to uprightness, so must they be clear of any physical defect. Every effort should be exerted in an intensive search for sufficiently mature candidates, who are tall and handsome, easily articulate, and conversant with most of the spoken tongues, so that the Sanhedrin may dispense with an interpreter. Hil. Sanhedrin 2

I'm having difficulty understanding this particular ruling: the requirements that relate to the judge's ability to exercise justice and wisdom are easy to agree with, but height and handsomeness don't sound like a Jewish tradition to me. I recall R' Yochanan being women-like beautiful but besides that, I couldn't connect physical appearance to intellectual qualities.

In addition, Rambam seems to insist heavily on that requirement.

Please help to understand this ruling.

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  • Additionally, what are we to make of the requirement to be "conversant with most of the spoken tongues" when a stam Sanhedrin judge needed to speak 70 languages to sit on the Sanhedrin at all? – Josh K Mar 11 at 18:15
  • For better or for worse, physical appearance contributes to the image of a leader. For instance, most United States presidents (especially in the modern era when everyone sees them on television/internet) have been tall, and while handsomeness may be subjective, they are all clean-shaven and are usually not bald or balding. – Alex Mar 11 at 23:51
  • See my answer here that it’s not meakeiv. – Alex Mar 11 at 23:52
  • It’s interesting that you mention R. Yochanan’s beauty, as he is the one in the Talmud whom this rule is attributed to. – Alex Mar 11 at 23:53
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Rambam is quoting the gemara in Sanhedrin 36B:

דתני רב יוסף כשם שב"ד מנוקין בצדק כך מנוקין מכל מום אמר אמימר מאי קרא (שיר השירים ד, ז) כולך יפה רעיתי ומום אין בך

The Gemara then continues:

ודילמא מום ממש אמר רב אחא בר יעקב אמר קרא (במדבר יא, טז) והתיצבו שם עמך עמך בדומין לך

While there are multiple ways of reading this gemara (see Rashi to the parallel piece in Kidushin), it seems Rambam would read it in the way it is translated on Sefaria:

The Gemara asks: But perhaps you should say that this is referring to an actual blemish, that one who has a physical blemish may not be appointed to the Sanhedrin. Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said: It is not necessary to derive the halakha that one who has a physical blemish may not be appointed to the Sanhedrin from this verse, as the verse states with regard to the transfer of the Divine Spirit from Moses to the Elders: “That they may stand there with you” (Numbers 11:16), and the phrase “with you” is explained to mean: With similarity to you, teaching that the members of the Sanhedrin must be whole in body like Moses.

Moshe's height is attested to in several midrashim. In terms of him being handsome, this article gives several sources that attest to that, but I have not had time to investigate them further: https://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/11049-moses#anchor20

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  • Far from "simply quoting", the Gemmorah speculates on physical defects, while Rambam adds height and handsomeness all by himself. – Al Berko Mar 12 at 10:18
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    @AlBerko It becomes clear from the next line of the gemara. Height is pretty explicit, handsomness a bit less so. See the edited answer – chessprogrammer Mar 12 at 15:38
  • In my jargon, explicit means mentioned. "Hinted through additional Midrashim" is not "explicit". Moses' height was primarily allegorical IMO, so no straight Halachic requirement can be derived from it. – Al Berko Mar 14 at 7:09
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The Rambam first states that we are only permitted to appoint a judge that has the following qualities:

א אין מעמידין בסנהדרין, בין בגדולה בין בקטנה--אלא אנשים חכמים ונבונים, מופלאין בחכמת התורה, בעלי דעה מרובה, ויודעין קצת משאר חכמות, כגון רפואות, וחשבון תקופות ומזלות, ואיצטגנינות, ודרכי המעוננים והקוסמים והמכשפים והבלי עבודה זרה וכיוצא באלו, כדי שיהיו יודעין לדון אותם.

We appoint to a Sanhedrin - both to the Supreme Sanhedrin and to a minor Sanhedrin - only men of wisdom and understanding, of unique distinction in their knowledge of the Torah and who possess a broad intellectual potential.

Which is to say that wisdom and understanding are mandatory prerequisites for appointment to the position without which appointment is altogether improper.

He later states:

וצריך להשתדל ולבדוק ולחפש שיהיו כולן בעלי שיבה, בעלי קומה, בעלי מראה, נבוני לחש, ושיהיו יודעין ברוב הלשונות כדי שלא תהיה סנהדרין שומעת מפי התורגמן.

An effort should be made that they all be white-haired, of impressive height, of dignified appearance, men who understand whispered matters, who understand many different languages so that the Sanhedrin will not need to hear testimony from an interpreter.

These qualities, concerning appearances and knowledge of many languages, ought be searched for ("an effort should be made"), but if they are found to be lacking are not preventative of appointment to the position. They are ab initio preferences, but ultimately not mandatory. The Kesef Mishneh and Lehem Mishneh confirm this reading (משמע דהנהו לא הוו לעיכובא אלא לכתחלה צריך לבדוק אחר אלו)

The mandatory qualities of paramount value are and remain the individual's wisdom and understanding, not their appearance.

If your question, concerns why appearance ought factor in at all - even ab initio, consider the fact that for various reasons (psychological, evolutionary, conditioning, etc.), people are programmed to trust and listen to attractive people more than unattractive people (as is confirmed in many studies). Given that this is so, it would make sense to attempt to appoint justices to whom we are instinctually disposed towards. When not just their wisdom and understanding appeals to people but the entirety of their persona draws people to heed their decisions.

Armed with this understanding, we see that it is not that we are placing aesthetics on a pedestal, but rather it is an attempt to speak to and exploit the natural human condition, in order to effectuate the needs of justice. A handsome judge is preferred (though not mandatory) because quite simply, people are more likely to heed his directives and it thus makes him more effective at his job, which is to effectuate changes in human behavior.

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  • Thank you for your effort. Every factor makes sense on its own, but all together they don't. Rambam starts with the assertion that every sage knows his positioning in the Halachic hierarchy. Then, he mentions vague mandatory categories, as you propose. Then, after we selected the best of the mandatory, do we select the most handsome between equals, or do we weigh handsomeness over languages or what? – Al Berko Apr 12 at 22:04
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Tall and handsome usually denotes intelligence and competence. Although, sometimes looks may be deceptive. For example, Samuel chose David's brother because he was good-looking. G-d said, while man judges by the outer apprentices, the L-rd judges by the heart. This is the basic meaning of the enactment.

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  • Is this a guess? – Alex Mar 12 at 2:03
  • @Alex No, Rambam speaks about this. – Turk Hill Mar 12 at 2:19
  • I don't see that in your answer. – Alex Mar 12 at 2:25
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    The source for that is cited in the question. The question is why. – Alex Mar 12 at 2:29
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    +1 I liked the idea, you're saying Rambam continued his Aristotelian tradition linking men's physical appearance to their intelligence. This makes lots of sense. – Al Berko Mar 12 at 10:21

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