by R. Gil Student
The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 32a) states that when a court adjudicates a capital case, a junior member of the court must begin the discussion. He must offer his opinion first because if the most senior member gives his opinion first, there is a danger that those more junior will automatically defer to him without fully discussing the various sides of the case. In a civil or ritual case, however, we are not as concerned and allow the senior member to begin the discussion.
The Gemara (Gittin 59a, Sanhedrin 36a) says that every time R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi would institute an enactment, even regarding civil matters, he would insist that a junior member begin the discussion. Rashi (Gittin 36a sv. de-kulhu) explains that R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi disagreed with the Mishnah’s distinction and held that discussion of all cases must begin with a junior member. Tosafos (Gittin 36a sv. de-kulhu) suggest that there was no dispute of the law and R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi had an idiosyncratic practice due to his extreme humility.
Click here to read moreR. Reuven Margoliyos (Margoliyos Ha-Yam 36a:2) suggests an explanation with wider application. Even though civil and ritual cases are normally less severe than capital cases, that is when dealing with specific cases. When the halakhah is being established for generations to come, the issue is much more serious and has such broad impact that it reaches the level of a capital case and requires the stricter treatment.
This is an important principle to consider. True, we no longer have such rabbinical courts. But we still have to recognize that wide-reaching changes to practice affect the entire nation for generations to come. These are not matters to be taken lightly. While less established scholars are certainly allowed to voice their opinions and make their arguments known, the final decisions must be reached by the leading scholars of the generation. A local rabbi is allowed to rule on local matters but global issues with long-range impact fall on broader shoulders.
Whose shoulders? Reasonable people can disagree on who is the right choice but there can still be widespread agreement on who is unqualified for that role.
(Reposted from November ’09)