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A beth din (בית דין, Hebrew: "house of judgment", plural battei din) is a rabbinical court of Judaism. In ancient times, it was the building block of the legal system in the Land of Israel. Nowadays, it is still invested with legal powers in a number of religious matters.
Torah commentators point out that Jethro was the first to suggest to Moses that he divest his legal powers and delegate his power of judgment to lower courts. This situation was formalised later when God gave the explicit command (Deuteronomy 16:18) to "establish judges and officers in your gates".
There were three types of courts (Mishnah, tractate Sanhedrin 1:1-4 and 1:6):
- The Sanhedrin, the grand central court on the Temple Mount, numbering 71
- Smaller courts of 23, called a Sanhedrin Ketanaa, a "small Sanhedrin". These courts could pass the death verdict. These existed on two levels, the one higher in standing than the other:
- Capitals of the tribes had a court of 23
- All towns of a minimum size (either 120 or 230 people) had to have a court of 23, which was under the jurisdiction of the tribal court
- The smallest court of three; any smaller court could not pass binding verdicts and only dealt with monetary matters.
Even though normally, an Orthodox beit din requires a minimum of three Orthodox Jews, in new communities and exigencies, providing a thorough search has proved unfruitful, Halakhah requires that even one Orthodox Jew can establish a beit din since every community in Orthodox Judaism is required to establish its own beit din of Orthodox Jews.
Participation in these courts required the classical semicha, the transmission of judicial authority in a straight line down from Moses. Since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, the transmission of semicha has been suspended. Attempts in the 16th century to reinstate the semicha were unsuccessful; Rabbi Yosef Karo was one of the recipients of this semicha.
Courts ruled in both ritual and monetary matters (issurim and mamonoth). Any question that could not be resolved by a smaller court was passed up to a higher court. If the Sanhedrin was still uncertain, Divine opinion was sought through the Urim ve-Tumim (the parchment in the High Priest's breastplate, which was inscribed with the Name of God and could give metaphysical clues).
The Mishnah and Talmud distinguish between criminal (issurim) and civil (mamonoth) cases, and impose different regulations for each, with criminal cases generally having much more stringent limitations.
Presently, a beth din needs to be made up of three adult males, one of whom needs to be widely knowledgeable in halakha (Jewish law). In practice, permanent battei din consist of three rabbis, while battei din for an occasional matter (e.g. handling religious vows) do not need to consist of rabbis. For courts that handle complex monetary cases or large community organisations, dayanim (singular: dayan) are required. A dayan has an additional semicha (yadin yadin) which enables him to participate in such a court.
Battei din are required or preferred for the following matters:
- Validation of religious bills of divorce (get, pl. gittim);
- Hechsher: kosher certification of restaurants and food manufacturers;
- Monetary cases: Jews are exhorted (Shulkhan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 26) to have their civil cases judged by religious courts instead of taking their cases to secular judges (arka'oth);
- Religious conversion: a ger tzedek (proselyte) requires a beth din to be accepted into Judaism;
- Supervising the building and maintenance of a mikvah;
- Determination of "personal status" (i.e. whether someone is Jewish according to halakha) - some battei din hold local records of marriages and deaths within the community.
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