Literally a “house of law,” the beit din (also called beis
din or beth din) is a Jewish court of law. The obligation to establish courts of law
was given by G‑d in the verse, “Appoint judges and officers in all your gates.”
In ancient Israel there was an intricate network of courts. A high court
(called the beit din hagadol, “great
house of law”) of 71 sages would convene in Jerusalem, on the Temple Mount.
This court went back to Moses himself, who called for 70 elders to join him in
guiding the nation, making 71 elders altogether.
In later generations, the wisest sage on the court, called the nasi, took the place of Moses. This
court had the final say on all legal matters.
There were several courts of 23 judges, which would meet in Israel’s
larger cities. Like the great court, these courts were authorized to administer
monetary rulings, as well as corporal and capital punishments.
In small communities (comprising less than 120 adult males) there were
courts of just three (or more, provided that the number remained odd), which
were not authorized to administer corporal or capital punishments.
It should be noted that it was very uncommon for the death penalty to be
administered. The sages in the Talmud state that any court that would execute
as often as once every 7 years—or, according to an alternative tradition, 70
years—was considered “murderous.”
In addition to being wise, humble, G‑d fearing, money-loathing,
truth-loving, beloved and reputable,
every member of a beit din had to be
given authorization to rule.
This authorization, called semichah,
could only be granted in the Land of Israel by someone who had received semichah himself. Thus, there was an
unbroken chain of authority going back to Moses. Only someone with semichah was honored with the title
This presented a problem. As persecution in Israel prevented the sages
from conferring semichah, and the
center of Jewish gravity shifted to Babylon, authentic semichah became extinct.
The term “rabbi” is still used in the ordination of rabbis today, but it
does not carry the weight that it once did. As a result, the modern beit din does not have full power to
function as the courts of old. Even if they wanted to, they could not
administer punishments or charge certain
Despite these restrictions, the beit
din still has an important function today. It adjudicates between feuding
individuals, performs conversions to Judaism, oversees divorces and provides
guidance to the community. The court rabbis often supervise local eateries and
factories, certifying that the food produced there is kosher.
(At times, an ad hoc court can be formed for the purpose of
mediating a specific dispute. Each party chooses a judge they believe to be
trustworthy, and the two judges choose a third to join them. This is known as a
zabla, which is an acronym for the
Hebrew words zeh borer lo echad, “This
one chooses one for himself [and this one chooses one for himself]”. Before the
arbitration begins, each party agrees to abide by the ruling of the court.)
Here are some common terms you may come across when
interacting with a beit din:
This title applies to all members of the
beit din. In some places (such as in the UK), it is used before the name of
the judge. So instead of “Rabbi Goldstein,” you’d call him, “Dayan Goldstein.”
Av Beit Din: Head
of the beit Din. This is the title given to the most senior member of the
court, who takes a lead role in decision making.
Beit Din Shtiebel: “Shtiebel”
is a Yiddish term for “small house.” Thus, in Yiddish-speaking communities it
refers to the court chambers.
summons issued by the beit din for
A to’ein may be enlisted to assist
someone in presenting a case before the beit
“document.” This refers to a specially written bill of divorce, the only way of
ending a marriage between two living Jewish spouses.
Geirut or Giyur: Conversion. Can refer to the
process of becoming a Jew (or the division of the beit din that oversees this important function).
Din Torah: Torah
law. This term has come to refer to a court case seen in beit din. Thus one person may say that he is calling another to a din torah.
This refers to the final decision issued by the beit din. It can also refer to guidance issued by a highly
qualified rabbi who was asked to consult on a specific matter.
Some Final Thoughts:
Sometimes the work of the beit din thrusts them into situations where there is dispute,
fractured families and dishonesty. Yet, their work is vital to bringing peace
to their community. Thus, says the Talmud, a judge who judges honestly and
fairly is considered a partner with G‑d in the creation of the world.
G‑d creates the world, and judges make it a habitable, holy and G‑dly place.
When two litigants appear before the beit din, they often feel upset, wronged and frustrated. Even the
wisest of judges will have a hard time satisfying them both. Yet, our sages say
that when the litigants depart, having accepted the judgment upon themselves,
they are both to be seen as completely righteous.