This bothers me since a long time. The biggest Jewish halachic authority, arguably, the peak of the Torah world which can be ever imagined, which has its most basic definitions in the Chumash (70 sages & Moshe Rabbeinu) has no official Hebrew name, rather a Greek name is used and is the name of a Talmudic tractate (the only tractate name which is not expressed in a Semitic language). Rather, it is expressed in the language of the Greeks, which culture is symbolic in standing against Torah philosophy.

Is it known at least when the term was started to use? And maybe: why was introduced?

For those who are unfamiliar with the idea that the word "sanhedrin" originates from Greek, see this link. The word "sanhedrin" comes from the Greek word συνέδριον (sunhedrion) which means "sitting together."

  • 2
    +1 however it is always good form to provide sources for any assumptions such as the Greek origin of the word, even if you think it is common knowledge. Even a link to Jastro is fine:) – user6591 Aug 30 '17 at 19:46
  • 1
    Welcomne to Mi Yodeya. I echo the last comment. I'm not following your assumption in the 2nd sentence of the Q, esp. "the peak of the Torah world which can be ever imagined, which has its most basic definitions in the Chumash (70 sages & Moshe Rabbeinu) ". Regardless, note that the Torah itself has a number of Aramaic words. So, using foreign words is far from unprecedented. Sometimes, a foreign term conveys the most accurate concept. The 2nd paragraph may need a separate question as you're asking about the history of the term. I'm not sure.. – DanF Aug 30 '17 at 20:50
  • 1
    Related: judaism.stackexchange.com/q/52928 – msh210 Aug 30 '17 at 21:56
  • 6
    Not that Chazal call greek a beauitiful language, with halachic ramifications regarding writing Torah etc. The Hellenist ideology is not indivisiable from the language. – Orangesandlemons Aug 31 '17 at 11:34
  • 1
    +1 Interesting. I wonder if the Sanhedrin existed during the time of Anchei Kennest HaGedolah and what they would have called it in that pre-Greek period. Wikipedia says that the first Sanhedrin was established under the Hasmoneans, thus during the Hellenistic period. I wonder if Jewish tradition agrees. – Mike Sep 1 '17 at 2:10

The book - The Great Sanhedrin (Sidney B. Hoenig) suggests that the original term was Bais Din Hagadol,which is a Hebrew term. However, he notes that due to Greek influence the term synedrion was Hebraized to Sanhedrin,and became popular. He also explains the words dikasterion, and kriterion should have been used since its more of an exact translation of bais din, but since these words were used to describe lower tribunals the term synedrion was a better classification in general.

  • Bais Din HaGadol. Sounds good. What speaks against re-establishing this term and replace it with the evil greeco-amalekit term? – Anonymous Mar 12 at 14:01

I don't think there's a source for when it started to be used, but it is definitely a later term. And we know this because we have much older books that describe a Sanhedrin type system, but do not use the word Sanhedrin. Sanhedrin starts being used in conjunction with the older terms around the time of the New Testament. So not only is Sanhedrin a Greek word, but it turns out it's probably also one of many Greek words we've used.

The closest Biblical references to something like a Sanhedrin are those in the books of Maccabees. Many scholars believe the books of Maccabees were part of the Hebrew Bible since we see them as part of the original canon of the Septuagint. This explains why the Catholic church still has the books of the Maccabees, as they canonized the Septuagint. Although at a later point the books of Maccabees were taken out of Biblical canon amongst Jews, we still rely on the historical information present in them. And although the word Sanhedrin/High Court isn't used in Maccabees, a word that describes something similar is used.

2 Maccabees 11:27-33 New American Bible (Revised Edition) (NABRE)

27 The king’s letter to the people was as follows: “King Antiochus sends greetings to the Jewish senate and to the rest of the Jews. 28 If you are well, it is what we desire. We too are in good health. 29 Menelaus has told us of your wish to return home and attend to your own affairs. 30 Therefore, those who return by the thirtieth of Xanthicus will have our assurance of full permission 31 to observe their dietary and other laws, just as before, and none of the Jews shall be molested in any way for faults committed through ignorance. 32 I have also sent Menelaus to reassure you. 33 Farewell.” In the one hundred and forty-eighth year, the fifteenth of Xanthicus.[a]

Source: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Maccabees+11%3A27-33&version=NABRE

The word used there in Maccabees is Gerousia – "senate" or "council." This is the oldest term which was used toward the end of the Persian period (cf. Josephus' Antiquities 12.3.3 and II Maccabees 11:27). It is used in the New Testament in the book of Luke in Acts 5:21 along with "Sanhedrin." The author of Luke may have used the word Gerousia juxtaposed to Sanhedrin as a way of explaining the term to Greek speaking readers who did not use the term Sanhedrin the same way the Jews were using it. In much the same way my wife has to explain to me that a "kitchen roll" isn't a type of bread, but how British people say "paper towels."

So why did we choose that word? Most Scholars would say because it's not a historical biblical institution, and therefore there isn't a historical Hebrew word for it, which means that as this new court system "develops" so to does the word for it.


The mishna was written in the land of Israel, under Roman occupation, when Greek was a spoken language (and was a first language for many Jews). It incorporates many Greek words even when Hebrew words were available (e.g. פיילי "bowl" from φιάλη in Sota 2:2). The midrashim (from a slightly later date) use even more Greek loan words.

You seem surprised that the title isn't from a Semitic language, but I don't know why a Greek source for סנהדרין is any more surprising than an Aramaic title for גיטין, considering that both Greek and Aramaic are the sources for many words throughout the mishna.

  • Aramaic is at least Semitic. But to support your first paragraph, Tosfos Yom Tov understands גמטריא at the end of Avos 3 as cognate to the Greek γεωμετρία, or in English, geometry. And no, I don’t speak Greek, I literally popped that into Google Translate because it’s a fun word to throw around as often as I cite this TYT. – DonielF Aug 9 '18 at 3:42
  • 1
    @DonielF Why is a word being Semitic a better reason to include it as the title of a tractate? And there are many more Greek loan words throughout the Mishna, Midrash, Targum and Talmud (especially Yerushalmi); identifying them dates back at least as far back as the Aruch – b a Aug 9 '18 at 7:24
  • It doesn’t, particularly, but the wording of the second paragraph indicates that it might - “you seem surprised that the title isn’t from a Semitic language, so here is a non-Hebrew Semitic example.” – DonielF Aug 9 '18 at 15:17
  • @DonielF The argument I intended to make was that both Greek and Aramaic have words in the text of the Mishna, so Greek should be no different than Aramaic for the title of a tractate – b a Aug 9 '18 at 15:44
  • I get your argument. I just think it could be worded better is all. – DonielF Aug 9 '18 at 15:54

I'm going kamikaze here but I would like to share my unsourced understanding of the idea of the Sanhedrin after learning Masechet Sanhedrin a couple of times.

  1. The idea of the 70 elders as it appears numerous times in the Torah was a theoretical representation of the highest Jewish council (not a court), but there never was a real one. From Moses, thru the Judges and the Kings, somebody took the whole control and all the rest stayed anonymous. Like "Moses and his court" or "David and his court". As the rest of the judges could not object to the head they were completely irrelevant.

  2. When the epoch of the kings passed the Jewish nation has found itself in a uncharted territory - democracy. It started with the Knesset Hagdola, which was a mess as it included a couple of prophets initially, and the balance between a prophecy and the logic of the sages was not clear. The number was also unclear (from 80-120).

  3. It is probably true that the Hasmoneans were the ones to establish the first true and functioning Jewish court of the 71, to mimic the Greeks' democracy that they called the Sanhedrin as everything Greek. As they had no true Jewish precedent, Sanhedrin was the only name that stuck to it.

  4. Also I see no way of "democratically" choosing the Jewish High court by comparing their wits (as Rambam suggests they all knew their IQs and were seated accordingly). So some kind of an external government control was needed to do the job - which were the Hasmoneans and later the Romans.

  5. This explains the numerous disputes in the Gemara that look as there was no tradition of a Jewish court for 2000 years. This also explains the name of the Masechet that could not be Halachah from Moses.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .