The Source of Rabbinical Authority

For a podcast discussion of the sources of Rabbinical authority please click here.

Many arguments are made to justify the authority of the Rabbis. There are no Rabbis mentioned in the scriptural text, and modern Pharisaical/Rabbinical Judaism represents a significant departure from the Zadokite-led Judaism that prevailed before the Romans conquered Judea. What are some of the arguments in favour of Rabbinical authority that are based on the written Torah? Which ones might hold some validity? Who holds legitimate authority in Judaism under the Torah and written scriptures? This article will explore these questions and offer opinions based upon the author’s research into the topic.

Here is an excerpt from the Jewish Virtual Library concerning the origins of Rabbinical authority:

A number of biblical passages, particularly Deuteronomy 17:8–13, enjoin that a decision for every future problem, whether arising from a precept governing man’s relationship with the Divine, or with his fellow man, must be sought at the hands of “the priest, the levite, and the judge,” sitting at the particular time in the midst of the people, in judgment over them. This combination of priest, levite, and judge was designed to ensure, according to the halakhic interpretation, that the law should be determined by teachers and judges deciding according to their human knowledge and understanding, since the function of the priest and levite was to instruct and teach the people (cf. Deut. 33:10; Ezek. 44:23–24; Mal. 2:7; Josephus’ reference to the prophet (Ant., 4:218) within the context of Deuteronomy 17:9 is contrary to the plain meaning of the text). Hence, when in the course of time the teaching of the law ceased to be the exclusive function of the priests and levites, it was decided that while it was proper for priests and levites to be members of the bet din, their absence would not affect its competence (Sif. Deut. 153).

The Rabbis claim that many details are omitted from the Torah, such as how to slaughter, that are purportedly included in the oral tradition. Without the oral tradition, they argue, how could we know how to slaughter (among other things)? The answer to this argument is that the Torah creates legitimate corporeal authorities who are to lead the people and provide the requisite details within the context of the written Torah. There is a priesthood empowered to provide religious leadership and laws, including the aforementioned slaughtering issue. There are administrative offices like the Shofet (ruler/chieftain/judge) or King, who are to govern the people. There are administrative courts with ministers/judges (Sarim) who are leaders of the thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. For a time Moshe had a council of 70 elders to help him judge the people, a kind of supreme court. These institutions provided the needed details.


When I hear the argument that there must be an oral law in order to enact the Torah, I commonly ask what is the oral law for the United States Constitution? It is a written document, how can we possibly enact it without an oral constitution? How can we know how to pass a law or how the President is to issue orders to the military without an oral constitution? The fact is, the US Constitution provides for a Congress to make laws, establish the particular authorities of the institutions of government, and provide for the Constitution’s enactment. There is a President empowered to execute those laws and a Supreme Court to hear cases concerning their application, their constitutionality, and to oversee judicial procedure. There is no need for an oral constitution because the document itself provides for institutions that will enact it. The Torah does the same.

Article I, Section 8 holds a clause that explains this very eloquently:

The Congress shall have the power… To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

Clearly, the United States Congress is empowered by the document to provide the laws necessary to its enactment. Does the Torah contain similar passages? Devarim (Deuteronomy) 17:9 makes a clear statement concerning corporeal authority (click here for Hebrew and English side by side):

You shall come to the priests, the Levites, and to the judge [shofet] that shall be in those days; and you shall inquire of them and they shall declare to you the sentence of judgment.

Verse 11 makes a more ambiguous statement about learning from “them” and accepting “their” authority.

According to the law which they shall teach you, and according to the judgment which they shall tell you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside from the sentence which they shall declare to you, to the right hand, nor to the left.

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 17:11 is often held up as providing for Rabbinical authority. Clearly, the “them” from whom we are to learn and accept judgments are the Rabbis, right? When you pluck this passage out of its context, that is one possible interpretation. But when we consider the passage in its proper context and place in the chapter, we see that verse 9 refers very specifically to the priests (Cohanim), the Levites, and the Shofet. To whom is verse 11 referring as “them?” To those referenced in verse 9, specifically to the priests, Levites, and the Shofet in that time. In these passages the Torah is merely reinforcing that one must accept the authority of the institutions provided for in the Torah that enact the law. This is part of the Torah’s version of the Necessary and Proper Clause of the United States Constitution, cited above.

Devarim 17:12 goes it a step farther:

And the man that acts presumptuously, in not hearkening to the priest that stands to minister there before YHVH your G-d, [at the Temple] or to the judge [Shofet], that man will die; and you shall exterminate the wicked from Israel.

Even the death penalty can be applied to those who are disobedient to the priests and the Shofet. Obviously, this means a very serious disobedience. What prevents these men (or a woman in the case of the Shofet) from abusing the law? The fact that the law is written and fixed. It cannot change, nor can the authorities who function beneath it be easily changed. I must digress briefly here to define the role of the Shofet, as this has led to some confusion. The root for Shofet can be translated as “one who judges” and this leads to the English translation of the word as judge; and its modern use in that respect in Israel. In the context of the office for which the title is used, however, it has a meaning more akin to “one who makes decisions” or perhaps more clearly “one who leads.” Basically, this office is the administrative leader of the tribes, not unlike the role of President of the United States. In the book of Shoftim (Judges) these leaders are diplomats and policy makers (Devorah), political leaders in ordinary times (Tolar), but mostly they were war leaders, men who led troops into battle to defend the Israelites (Otanel, Gidon, Shamgar, etc).

The Shoftim exercised a decision making power within a certain jurisdiction of the law: the application of the civil law. Generally, these were serious cases that defied the ability of local or tribal elders or judges to decide them; or involved inter-tribal conflicts that could not be satisfied by the interested leadership of either tribe. The Shoftim never addressed ritual or religious matters that are the clear jurisdiction of the priests, nor did they teach the law as is the role of the Tribe of Levi (including the priests).

This position of Shofet was a single office, held by a single officer and cannot be equated in any way with any institution of judges. There is an argument that this position somehow grants authority to the Rabbis who claim to be the inheritors of the tradition of the court that sat with Moshe. That court was an entirely separate institution and there is no reference to it anywhere in Devarim 17. This office of Shofet is not the “nassi” or prince of the court and the offices cannot be equated. That the court of elders is conspicuously absent from the passage is worthy of note.

Documentary depiction of Shofet Yehoshua (Joshua)

The next question is that of the King. The office of King is likewise omitted from the passage. Later, Kings would exercise the same if not slightly broader jurisdiction at civil and criminal law throughout the land. While the Torah states the Israelites may choose to have a king, the office is not required in the Torah and is not mentioned in Devarim 17. Since later Kings did exercise this jurisdiction it stands to reason that in Devarim 17 the office of Shofet can be more broadly understood as the administrative/executive leader of the nation, to include the Shofet (because this is who led the people in the time of the Torah’s authorship and for centuries thereafter) but also to include the later King when the people chose to have one anointed. The Israelites also have a general power to choose leaders both locally and nationally and it stands to reason that this power culminates in the choice of a King and in the grant of power to that office. Thus the term Shofet can be more broadly interpreted to include the office of King or any administrative or executive officer the people might appoint; perhaps even the Prime Minister who leads our people in modern times.

Second D’vrei Hayamim (2nd Chronicles) 17 describes the efforts of King Yehoshafat (Jehoshaphat) to reassert the Torah law over the people of the Kingdom of Yehudah (Judah) in his time. Let us examine the process he used: First, he sent garrisons to fortified cities to assert his direct authority as King (administrator/executive) throughout the land (17:2); this ensured his position as de facto leader. He then destroyed the idols in the land including the asherim (ritual objects associated with the worship of the Canaanite fertility goddess Asherah) and the altars in high places (mountain tops) to cleanse the land of foreign beliefs and practices (17:6). Having rid the land of competing religious traditions and cults, the central authority of the Israelite/Jewish religion was now secure.

Map of the Southern Kingdom of Yehudah (Judah)

In verse 7 he sends his government ministers/ administrative judges (Sarim) out to teach the (civil/criminal) law to local authorities. King Yehoshafat next saw fit to send several prominent Levites along with them to teach the Torah to the people, these men would be familiar with the entire law including the ritual and religious aspects. Among these Levites were two prominent Kohanim (priests) who could represent the institution of the priesthood (17:8). This delegation went forth and taught the law (17:9). Why did Yehoshafat choose these men? Why is there no mention of a court or of a “nassi” or prince of that court? If such a court existed surely it would have warranted some recognition?

In chapter 19 Yehoshafat notes that the Judges in the land must faithfully execute the Torah on behalf of Hashem. He notes in verse 10 that when controversies arise that are too significant for local authorities to handle, they can send the case to Jerusalem to be judged, a passage that utilizes some of the same language as Devarim 17. What is truly telling is what is stated in verse 19:11:

Behold, Amaryah the High Priest is over you in all matters of YHVH; and Zevadyah the son of Yishmael, the ruler of the house of Yehudah, in all the king’s matters; also the officers of the Levites before you. Deal courageously, and YHVH be with the good.

Here the High Priest (literally the first priest or chief priest) is granted jurisdiction over “L’chol devar adonai;” literally “all the matters of G-d.” This phrase is used elsewhere to describe the whole Torah and the words of Hashem. Generally, this is a substantial grant of power over all religious matters and matters pertaining to Torah. Zevadyah of the tribe of Yehudah (Judah) is given jurisdiction over “L’chol devar haMelekh;” literally, all the matters of the King. This applies to administrative and executive authorities ranging from the collection of taxes to the administration of national affairs. Zevadyah has no authority over Torah matters or religious matters, the High Priest Amariyah holds that authority. The King is solidifying the religious authority of the Zadokite (Sadducee) priests over religious matters. The book of Yekhezkel (Ezekiel) likewise grants authority to the Zadokite priests for their dutifulness to Hashem.

Briefly, there is an unbroken chain of religious authority from Aharon, endorsed as High Priest in the Torah itself, to his descendants, who are represented most righteously by the Zadokite lineage/priestly party. The Levites also receive a mention in addressing the King’s business and leading the people. Again, conspicuously absent is any reference to a central court, council of elders, or prince of the court to render final decisions on any matter or controversy. If a Rabbinical court like that which the Rabbis claim existed throughout the history of the Jewish people had existed, why would it not have played a role in Yehoshafat’s reforms? Why not have it serve as court and legislature over the Torah? Why not join such a court to the priesthood or have it hear cases of a particular jurisdiction? The omission of this court from this episode and from elsewhere in the TaNaKh is conspicuous.  As I will discuss in greater detail later in the article.

In the book of Nehemiah Chapter 8, Ezra reads the Torah to the people in a morning. He is flanked left and right by the prominent Zadokite priests and prominent Levites of his time; including Zechariyah who was the grandson of the Levite Iddo. The Levite jurists helped to explain the Torah to the people. Nowhere is any non-Levite involved in the service of reading and explaining the Torah. It was the clear role of the Kohanim and Levites to teach the Torah and guide the people in its interpretation and implementation; even following the exile. Again, we have no mention whatever of mere elders, Sarim, Elders or any other officers. Nehemiah’s presence is mentioned after the service had concluded, excused by the nature of this office, although he may himself have been a priest or Levite.

The Transition to Rabbinical Authority

Rabbinical commentaries (quoted in full at the beginning of this article) suggest that “when in the course of time the teaching of the law ceased to be the exclusive function of the priests and Levites, it was decided that while it was proper for priests and Levites to be members of the bet din, their absence would not affect its competence (Sif. Deut. 153).” This raises a very serious question: the Talmud claims that 250px-talmud-pagethe teaching ceased to be the sole jurisdiction of the priests and Levites and that they should simply be part of the (Rabbinical) leadership of the community but can also be omitted from it. Can the teaching of the Torah ever cease to be the sole purview of the priests and Levites? Who decided that it could be? Even when this became the unfortunate reality that does not make it right? Is any institution ever established under Torah empowered to make such a decision?

The plain meaning (p’shat) of Devarim 17:9 and the following passages, clearly commands the Israelites to respect the authority of the priests and Levites. One can narrow the meaning of that to a jurisdiction over ritual and religious matters only if one desires, but these must be the purview of these two institutions/groups. Unless Devarim 17 can be removed from the Torah, this can never change! There will NEVER be a time when the teaching of the Torah will fall out of the hands of the priests and the Levites. Even if this should become an unfortunate reality, no other group or institution can hold the authority of the priesthood. It is no accident that in establishing courts and jurisdictions in his time, King Yehoshafat chose to grant religious authority to the Zadokite priests. His administrative and legal authority was exercised by the leading men of the tribe of Yehudah and also by the Levites. This is in keeping with what is written in Devarim 17.

Why? The question must be begged as to why Hashem would command that the Torah be taught by an hereditary priesthood and by a hereditary tribe? One reason might be that those raised within these hereditary groups will naturally learn and observe the traditions, practices, and ideas of their fathers and will convey these accurately from one generation to the next. In this way, a more purist version of the faith could be maintained. Combine this with a fixed, written Torah and one can see a clear path to the transmission of a pure tradition from hereditary teachers based upon a written law. King Yeravam (Jerobaom) was condemned for admitting laymen to the priesthood of the northern Kingdom of Israel. This admission led immediately to idolatry and the inclusion of foreign beliefs and practices. It seems clear, to me at least, that the pollution of our nation and its traditions with foreign beliefs and practices was precisely what Hashem was trying to avoid when He commanded Moshe to write a fixed law and establish an hereditary priesthood.

Devarim 4:2 states very succinctly that commandments may never be added to nor subtracted from the Torah. Anyone dedicated to the Torah’s proper enactment must therefore accept the authority of the Cohanim and the Leviim as the teachers and authorities under the Torah, forever. Note the episode of Korach described in Bemidbar (Numbers) 16 wherein a Levite seeks to become the priest instead of Aharon.. Korach, his conspirators  and their entire families are swallowed up and their followers were burned. How can anyone justify transferring power permanently from the priests to lay leaders? In the absence of the priesthood we have to rely upon lay leadership temporarily and to the limited extent that they may teach the written law or act under its authority. The Rabbis have gone far beyond this in an effort to establish permanent and lasting authority over all subjects and jurisdictions of the Torah.

Let us return to the comparison with the US Constitution for a moment, and apply the same logic to that document that the Rabbis apply to the Torah:

When in the course of time the lawmaking power ceased to be the exclusive function of the Congress, it was decided that while it was proper for the members of the Senate and House of Representatives to be members of the Proletarian Council, their absence would not diminish the competence of that body.


What? Who decided? What the heck is the Proletarian Council? When was it established? By whom? Where is this written in the Constitution? There is no authority under the United States Constitution for Congress to share lawmaking power with a “Proletarian Council.” How is the Torah so different? Why should be accept this notion that authority has somehow transferred from the Torah institutions of the priesthood and the civil administration to today’s Rabbis?

The Rabbinical Narrative

The Rabbinical narrative holds that a court like that of the council of elders (Bemidbar 16) that sat with Moshe has existed throughout Jewish history. They claim that a direct line of jurisprudence and tradition was passed from that court to the Sanhedrin of the late Second Temple Period. Their argument includes that a Knesset Hagedolah (Great Assembly) was convened following the return from the Babylonian Exile. This Great Assembly purportedly set forth a number of practices inherent to modern Judaism. Unfortunately, we have only the word of Rabbis and their Talmud to assure us of this narrative. All of the records and history of these institutions are to be derived from Rabbinical sources. There is no independent verification, from the scriptures or any other non-Rabbinical source, of any court or Beit Din at any time in Jewish history prior to the reign of Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BCE).

Coin minted during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus

Imagine if a group of attorneys told you that there was a legal tradition handed down by the Framers of the American Constitution of which only they (this particular club of attorneys) have knowledge and that conveniently agrees with these attorneys’ political and legal opinions. More conveniently still, this tradition grants them the power to govern the country! Only these attorneys can rule as to what the Constitution actually means. Anyone who disagrees with them is to be regarded as a traitor. Suppose they claim that there was a Second Constitutional Convention held in 1868, that set forth a more centralized political system for the United States and granted Congress unlimited power; or anyone acting claiming to act loosely under the Constitution. What proof have we? Well this group of attorneys will gladly produce all of the evidence you want, written by their own hands. There is no independent corroborating evidence in any history book, the Constitution itself makes no reference to them, only to the institutions established legitimately under its provisions; yet these attorneys say we must accept their legal opinions. Would you accept this? Certainly not. Yet, when it comes to the Jewish nation, far too many Jews accept virtually the same narrative without ever venturing the slightest question as to why.

In the narrative, it is claimed that this power came down from the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin, was a Greek-style court, that existed in Judea during the Roman era. The Roman Jewish historian Josephus tells us that this court was founded by the Romans to help lead the Jewish people in that time. The Pharisee party, the predecessors of Rabbinical Judaism, gained prominence in that body and used it to establish their claims to authority over Judaism. If what Josephus tells us is true, then the Sanhedrin was of foreign origin had no legitimate authority in Judaism. It is possible to establish civil/criminal courts under the Torah, to be certain, but these courts like those established by King Yehoshafat, have limited jurisdiction.

Artist’s rendition of a meeting of the Sanhedrin

If the Rabbinical narrative is to be believed, the Rabbis of the Mishna and later Talmuds had the power to make any ruling whatsoever on any subject. They hold that these rulings are binding an all Jews. They can issue new commandments, such as those to wash one’s hands before eating bread and for the lighting of Shabbat candles. From where does this authority come? An honest reading of Devarim 4:2 would seem to condemn such practices. In truth, the only authority the Rabbis have is derived from the fact that Jews have allowed these men to lead the Jewish nation. Jews can choose at any time to abandon them without consequence and seek more legitimate authorities derived from the written scriptures. When one looks on the mess that is modern Judaism one must ask whether the Rabbis collectively, excepting those whom an individual might hold in high regard, are competent leaders of the Jewish nation. The Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) in Israel seek to impose a theocracy on Israelis and upon all Jews. There is daily news of poorly rendered decisions from Rabbinical courts that do not even reflect the rulings and principals of Talmudic Judaism. Yet, we Jews continue to hold that our only alternative to these oppressive Rabbis is one degree or another of secularism. Is there an alternative which maintains our beliefs and the practice of our faith in a more original and legitimate form without the burden of poorly conceived manmade rulings? Yes, we are called Karaite Jews.


Mosaic in Huqoq, Israel is believed to depict the Priests meeting with Alexander the Great

By the time the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the priesthood had already been sidelined by Roman institutions like the Sanhedrin and by the Pharisee party. Upon the Temple’s destruction these institutions of the priesthood and the Levites ceased to exist. If these leaders are no longer available to lead the people, who can? Obviously, we have no choice but to substitute other leaders. The Torah refers to Hakhamim (wisemen) and elders who were respected by the people and were their natural leaders. Rabbis could be argued to be Hakhamim, and this is another term used to refer to a Rabbi. In Karaite Judaism, Hakhamim lead our communities attaining their authority, so far as it extends, through the study of the scriptures and the respect they earn from community members. Naturally, the Hakhamim are careful about applying the law knowing that the most respected council of Hakhamim can only exercise limited authority under Torah held in trust for a time when legitimate Torah institutions can be restored. Ultimately, the priesthood must be reestablished and the Levites drawn back together to enact the Torah properly. At that time, the most respected Hakham or Rabbi will be only subordinate to the priests and Levites.

Can a permanent substitution be made? No. For much the same reason that a permanent substitution cannot be made for the lawmaking power of the United States Congress. The Constitution can be amended, so if Americans decided to replace Congress with another institution altogether, this could theoretically be done through legal means. The Torah, however, cannot be amended, it cannot be changed, it cannot be subverted. We cannot substitute one extra-scriptural institution for those empowered in the Torah. No such authority can ever exist for such a thing.


The written scriptures entirely omit entirely any mention of a Beit Din, council of elders, or of any court that might confirm the claims of Rabbinical authority. While it is certainly plausible that such institutions could simply have escaped notice or gone without mention, there are several instances where it would have been proper for a biblical character to seek out, mention, or acknowledge this court if it had, in fact, existed.

One of several examples is the episode of Amnon, Tamar, and Avshalom. Second Shmuel (2nd Samuel) Chapter 13 relates that Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar. Avshalom, also a son of David, later had Amnon killed in revenge. As a result, a crisis eruped that cost David his throne for a time. Avshalom was trying to prove that David lacked proper judgment, that he was too lenient upon his own son. If this was the case, why not bring the case before the council of elders or Beit Din? What institution would better serve to embarrass and weaken the King? There are a number of possible explanations as to why Avshalom did not seek them out, one of which is that no such institution existed. If this were the only instance, we might forgive the omission and assume that this was simply an isolated incident.

Biblical Jerusalem

In Second D’vrei Hayomim (2 Chronicles) chapter 19 King Yehoshafat establishes a centralized and uniform judiciary throughout the Kingdom of Yehudah. In this chapter, he calls upon local courts throughout the land to send extraordinary or difficult cases to his court in Jerusalem. Why would King Yehoshafat establish a court of his own making in Jerusalem under his own authority if a Beit Din or council of elders existed at the time? Would such an institution not be a better and more legitimate place for appeals from local courts? Again, the omission has many possible explanations, one of which is that no such institution existed at the time.

In one more example, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah likewise omit mention of this court. With the return from the exile Jewish institutions were being reasserted in the Holy Land. There is frequent mention made of this or that person descended from a great scribe, priest, or king of the former kingdom of Yehudah. Still, there is no mention of the reestablishment of any council of elders or Beit Din. Nor is there any mention of the Knesset Hagedolah (or great Assembly) of 120 scholars which was purported to have existed in that time. There are 85 names given for the leading men of the time, again, they are not described as sitting in any kind of council or as a body, and the number is quite a bit shy of 120.

Any one of these instances in isolation does not prove that there was no council or Beit Din, but taken together, they paint a picture. These and other instances in which the council of elders or Beit Din should have been mentioned or consulted but where they make no appearance lend themselves to only three explanations: 1) The writers of the scriptures were negligent in their duty to record the history and institutions of the Jewish people; 2) The court existed but somehow managed to avoid mention in each of these episodes in the scriptures; and/or 3) There never was such an institution. The first option I will dismiss as an assault upon the very tenets of Judaism. If the scriptures are flawed and erroneous then Judaism as a whole is a farce and none of it is to be believed. The second option is possible but implausible: There is no history of the United States, no matter how generally it seeks to touch upon historical issues, which can omit mention of the Supreme Court. Any one of a dozen critical cases must be discussed in order to that history justice. That leaves the final option as the most likely and the most plausible. Rabbinical Judaism in a zeal to promote its own self-interested agenda has misled many Jews about our history and from where they derive their authority.

The Power to Legislate

In a debate with a Rabbi, I dropped the “K” bomb and mentioned that the differences in our halakhic approaches was the fact that I am a Karaite Jew. His first response was that the Karaites “have no power to legislate.” Perhaps we have no power to render judgements or decide law for Rabbinical Jews, but Karaites have been governing for ourselves for 1200 years. That said, I must address the concept of “legislation.” In the written Torah, where is the power to legislate? Moshe gave new laws and rendered judgements on existing laws. Devarim 4:2, however, states no new commandments can be added to the Torah. Therefore, the legislation of commandments (mitsvot) is concluded. Who will address disputes in the law? Moshe played just such a role and later with the assistance of the Council of Seventy Elders. After his death who was to address such disputes?

Devarim 17:9 directs the Israelites to seek our the Kohanim (priests), the Levites, and the Shofet (civil administrator) in that time. Disputes are differences of opinion regarding the law. In such disputes some new rules appear to be set by deciding that a given law applies one way but not another, or to one set of circumstances but not another. Nevertheless, this not legislating. The civil administration, must, make laws that regard the regulation of trade, the conduct of citizens in their daily lives, and other rules necessary to the function of a society. Thus, the Shoftim, later the Kings, and the government of the return from the Chaldean (Babylonian) Exile led by the Zadokite priests held the power to render such legislation. Priests and their subordinates the Levites have a clear jurisdiction over religious law and the civil administration over the dailt lives of the people; what we might call secular law today.

When Pompeii Magnus conquered Judea in 63 BCE (690 AUC), the institutions of Jewish governance were destroyed. The Zadokites were divided between two camps, the brothers Antigonus II and Hyrcanus II. A third group (probably the Pharisees) also sought out the Romans to argue against both camps. The Roman regional governor Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, decided to place Hyrcanus II as high priest (unseating Antigonus II). Hyrcanus was stripped of his power and held office only as the titular leader of Judea. Several Sanhedrion (Macedonian governing councils) were established in Judea and a Grand Sanhedrion to lead the entire nation. Soon, Antipater would become the real power in Judea and his son Herod the Great after him. Then Sanhedrin was this Grand Snahedrion. It held power over the civil affairs of the Jewish people.

It could be argued that the Sanhedrin (Great Sanhedrion of Judea) was the last unified civil government of the Jewish people. Let us certainly not forget that this court was formed by the Romans as part of their occupation and governance of the region. This body is certainly NOT a basis for permanent law making for the Jewish people thereafter. This body was primarily a court. It was to decide cases brought before it to clarify the law. No power of “legislation” exists. If any such power did exist it was exclusive to the civil administration of the people. While secular law is uniquely intertwined with religious law in Judaism, the Sanhedrin still had strict limits on its jurisdiction. The Rabbinical argument that the Mishnaic Rabbis had been members of the Sanhedrin (an institution that no longer existed even then) and this grants absolute legal authority to Rabbinical institutions is fallacious. For more information about the Sanhedrin click here.

According to Rabbinical tradition the direct link to the Sanhedrin was severed some time ago, nevertheless, only Rabbinical institutions that follow the Mishna and Talmud are considered legitimate. Still, there is no power for any institution to “legislate.” In the absence of the priesthood and other legitimate Jewish/Israelite institutions, it must be up to each community to decide how they wish to be governed. That a majority of Jews have chosen to be misled by the Rabbis into believing they must respect the authority of Rabbinical Institutions does not make the Rabbis supreme. No, they have no legitimate power to legislate and may only offer opinions as to how they think the law should be observed. Those who dissent from these ideas are free to chose other scholars to follow.


The authority of the Rabbis, in truth, extend no father than that which we as Jews grant them voluntarily. Learned students of Rabbinical Judaism will acknowledge that most Rabbinical laws are technically not laws at all. They warn, though, that those who turn away from the wisdom of the Rabbis do so at their own peril. The poor leadership of Rabbinical Judaism in general and modern Rabbis in particular has driven a vast majority of Jews away from Judaism. Many Jews have chosen the pseudo-Jewish practice of Hasidism, low practicing Judaism, or outright secularism because Rabbinical Judaism offers little substance.

The most legitimate argument in favour of Rabbinical power is that the Rabbis reflect the Hakhamim and Elders of the times of Torah. They are holding a minimum of authority over the community such as it is granted voluntarily by the Jewish people until legitimate Torah institutions can be restored and authority returned to the proper jurisdictions. This is very much how Karaite Judaism looks upon the role of the Hakhamim.

The claim of absolute authority over the Torah in perpetuity on the part of modern Rabbinical Judaism carries no weight. Jews can decide who leads them. Will we one day see our priests and Levites returned to their proper station? Will the words of Yekhezkel ring true once again, as they did in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, that the Zadokite priests will lead the Israelites because of their faith in and dutifulness to Hashem? We shall see.

4 thoughts on “The Source of Rabbinical Authority

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