This past weekend I was reading through the Torah Temimah on Vayikra and a paradox occurred to me.

The Zaken Mamre is specifically applied to one who is in a position of authority over a community. If he preaches to his followers to act against the ruling of Sanhedrin (i.e.: following Beis Shammai after the psak of Beis Hillel was establish as law), then he is first warned and later executed for contravening the courts.

Conversely, the Par He'elem Davar Shel Tzibbur is a communal sacrifice brought because the Sanhedrin made a mistake in psak that lead to a large number of individuals (the specifics aren't important in this question) committing a sin that is chayiv kares. In this case, someone who knows the proper halacha is not "exempted" as the rest of the congregation, since he knows they ruled improperly, IIRC.

BUT it would seem that we have a contradiction - if the Zaken KNEW the ruling was incorrect, he cannot follow it, but it would ALSO appear that preventing OTHERS from following that mistaken ruling (to prevent a case of lifnei eiver) would lead to him becoming a Zaken Mamre!

In fact, this would seem to be the precise issue of Tanur shel Achnai (and later tanur ben Dinai), where one shittah held it was tamei and the other held it was tahor - the side holding it was tahor would potentially lead to someone bringing tumah into the Beis Hamikdash, an issur kares!

Taken to a logical conclusion, Beis Shammai would be required to "shut down" it's yeshivah once it was paskened that the halacha was no longer like them, since continuing to teach their halachic mesora would lead to Zaken Mamre, yet we see that Beis Hillel and Shammai did taharos "on top of one another" - that Beis Shammai continued to practice according to their mesorah!

Are there sources that deal with the tension between these two conflicting principles? And what are the boundaries of Zaken Mamre vs. the Moreh Halacha who (it would seem) must teach others to prevent the mass violation of halacha?


4 Answers 4


The Ramban in Sefer Ha-Mitzvos (shoresh 1, quoted by R. Elchanan Wasserman in Kuntres Divrei Sofrim), and many other sources, indicate that one who knows the rulings of the Sanhedrin to be incorrect may be stringent upon himself. This would not make him a zaken mamrei, as to be a zaken mamrei one must teach others to follow his view against that of the Sanhedrin. Thus, as long as one does not tell others to contravene the ruling of the Sanhedrin, there is no contradiction.


I think the Tanur shel Achnai (BM 59a-b) is an answer, not a basis for your question.

For those who don't know the story, R' Eliezer and the Chachamim got into a dispute about this oven, more specifically whether the items placed inside were pure or impure. The Chachamim held it was tamei, and R' Eliezer held it was tahor. R' Eliezer, who felt that he was in the right, demanded, separately, that a tree be uprooted, a river flow backwards, and the walls of the Beis Midrash fall if his opinion was correct. All three happened. (Well, the walls didn't collapse. They began leaning, and R' Yehoshua convinced them to stop. Thus, they're still crooked today.)

Finally, R' Eliezer demanded that Shamayim prove that he is right, and, indeed, a Bas Kol rang out and said R' Eliezer was correct. R' Yehoshua exclaimed, "Lo BaShamayim Hee" - since the Torah was given to mankind, only men can decide the halacha. (Feel free to check out the various places in Shas where this statement of R' Yehoshua's is quoted, and the story of Rabbah's death in BM 85a, for more details.) Later, Eliyahu HaNavi related that Hashem was laughing at the time, saying that his children had triumphed over Him. (Whatever that means.)

The story continues for quite a bit, but that last paragraph is the key part here: it's up to the Sanhedrin to decide the law. Whether that law is actually correct or not is irrelevant; we follow the Sanhedrin, and if they are wrong, that's what the Par He'elam Davar is for. According to this logic, the guy should allow the people to follow the Sanhedrin.

(As an aside, why didn't the guy go up to the Sanhedrin Gedolah and tell them why they're wrong? If, indeed, they were wrong, the Sanhedrin would correct themselves, and they'd offer the Par He'elam Davar if applicable, and several thousand, if not million, Chata'os if not.)

  • But by your logic the par heelem davar is impossible, since the ruling of sanhedrin changes halacha! Sep 11, 2016 at 1:46
  • @Isaac Once they reverse themselves, they bring a Par He'elam Davar. Until that point, you are correct.
    – DonielF
    Sep 12, 2016 at 13:20
  • then the mishnah that prohibits someone from following Sanhedrin when he knows they've erred is impossible, since halacha has changed and they have NOT ipso facto erred. Sep 12, 2016 at 13:42
  • Also, the whole interlude later about showing up on your Yom Kippur" doesn't apply here, since the calendar was explicitly given over to the courts to determine. Sep 12, 2016 at 13:46
  • You're referring to RH 25a? R' Akiva reassured him that we follow the Beis Din. What's the issue?
    – DonielF
    Sep 12, 2016 at 20:26

Mishna Orayot 1, 1:

הוֹרוּ בֵית דִּין, וְיָדַע אֶחָד מֵהֶן שֶׁטָּעוּ, וְאָמַר לָהֶן טוֹעִין אַתֶּם,‏ ... הֲרֵי אֵלּוּ פְטוּרִין

The Bet din did decide and one of them was aware of the error and said them, "you are wrong", there are exempted from par heekem davar shel tsibbur.

Bartenura (from Gemara 3a):

דְּאָמַר קְרָא (וַיִּקְרָא ד) וְאִם כָּל עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁגּוּ, עַד שֶׁיִּהְיוּ כֻּלָּם מַסְכִּימִים בַּשְּׁגָגָה

The verse says that the whole congregation did this error.

YIkar TYT:

הָכִי אִיתָא בַּגְּמָרָא. וּבְמַסְּקָנָא לֹא קָאֵי. אֶלָּא אִי אִיכָּא כֻּלָּם [סַנְהֶדְרִין שֶׁל שִׁבְעִים וְאֶחָד] הַוְיָא הוֹרָאָה [אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁלֹּא הוֹרוּ כָּל אוֹתָן שֶׁיָּשְׁבוּ לְהוֹרוֹת. רַשִׁ"י], אִי לֹא לֹא. וְהַיְנוּ דִתְנַן וְאָמַר לָהֶם טוֹעִין אַתֶּם, דְּאִי לֹא אֲמַר הָכִי, כֵּיוָן דְּכֻלָּם הָיוּ, הֲוֵי שִׁגְגַת בֵּית דִּין:‏

Gemara's conclusion: If the whole Sanhedrin of 71 is present at the meeting, even if a part of them didn't vote the law, this is a public decision, if not, it isn't. If the UQ are here and he says "you are wrong", there are exempt from par heelem davar.

if the Zaken KNEW the ruling was incorrect, he cannot follow it, but it would ALSO appear that preventing OTHERS from following that mistaken ruling --> From the moment that he explained himself before the vote and after, despite that he needs to follow the majority, he already canceled the case of heelem davar from the actual situation.

  • But your mishnah only applies where the sage in question was present at the time of the ruling. If they're not, we still would have the problem above, where he cannot follow the ruling but cannot prevent others from following it... Mar 9, 2017 at 17:54
  • @Isaac Kotlicky fine! I just soon a previous my comment referring to the Mincha's chinuch. I need to clarify the matter
    – kouty
    Mar 9, 2017 at 20:01

Over the weekend, I came across a piece in the Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 496 - which addresses Zaken Mamrei) that seems to discuss this. In short, the Chinuch explains that the reason it's so important to have a Sanhedrin that everyone must listen to is because otherwise everyone would interpret the Torah in their own way, and then Judaism would fall apart fairly quickly since everyone would have their own version of it. In the Chinuch's own words:Okay, in Artscroll's elucidation of the Chinuch's words, which I then reformatted.

In expressing the inherent truth and the great value of this mitzvah, [the Sages], of blessed memory, stated (Sifrei to Deuteronomy 17:11):

When the Torah states, "you shall not deviate from it, right or left," it teaches that even if [the Sanhedrin] tells you that right is left, and that left is right, you may not deviate from their instructions.

That is to say, even if [the Sanhedrin] is in error regarding some matter, we have no right to dispute them; rather, we are to act in accordance with their error. The reason is that it is better to bear the burden of a single error, and that all of the nation be always subservient to their worthy opinion, than to have every individual act in accordance with his own opinion; for that would result in a devastation of the observance of the Torah, a splintering of the heart of the populace, and the complete ruin of the Jewish nation.

He seems to address your very case. It can be that the Sanhedrin is wrong. They are human. But it's better to follow them always, even when they're wrong, rather than to never follow them, or to choose when to do so. So even in your case, where the Zaken Mamrei is right and the Sanhedrin is wrong, such as the Tanur shel Achnai case (BM 59b), we still follow the Sanhedrin.

The Chinuch uses this to explain that Gemara in Bava Metzia. The Gemara there says that at that time, Hashem laughed and said, "My children have triumphed over Me." How can anyone triumph over Hashem, and why would He laugh for that? It doesn't mean that we triumphed over Him, but over the correct Halacha. Nevertheless, He laughed in delight, for that was the correct decision. The Halacha dictates to go against Halacha in such a case.

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