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.”1

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.2 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.”3

Whom to Appoint?

In addition to being wise, humble, G‑d fearing, money-loathing, truth-loving, beloved and reputable,4 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 “rabbi.”

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 punishments5 or charge certain Torah-mandated fines.

The Courts Today

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:

Dayan: Judge. 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.

Hazmanah: The summons issued by the beit din for hearings.

To’en: Advocate. A to’ein may be enlisted to assist someone in presenting a case before the beit din.

Get: Literally, “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.

Psak: Ruling. 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. 6 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.7