This article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared as an entry in the Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture, published by ABC-CLIO, 2008.
The institution of a Beth Din (“House of Judgment”) is traced back to Biblical times, when Moses appointed elders to assist in judging and governing the people. Other Biblical figures are also said to have had their Batei (pl.) Din and in the rabbinic period there arose a controlled hierarchy of courts that dealt with both civil and ritual law.
Since the Torah requires that difficult questions be submitted to “the judge that shall be in those days” (Deut. 17:9), it was taken for granted that community decision making should be made by duly authorised experts. Some matters could to be adjudicated by a sole judge, but a rabbi who acted without colleagues was regarded as arrogant. The basic number of judges required for most matters was 3, though larger courts were needed for some purposes.
The range of matters dealt with by Batei Din in the Diaspora depended on the degree of autonomy enjoyed by the community. Rabbinic responsa (she’elot ut’shuvot) indicate that about 70% of rulings made in pre-Emancipation communities dealt with commercial, civil and even criminal cases. These responsa not only indicate the development of Jewish law in these areas but also afford information about the social and economic life of the times.With the coming of the Emancipation, rabbinic jurisdiction shrank. Jews were now able to and did resort to the civil authorities, leaving the rabbis to deal with ecclesiastical matters such as prayers, synagogue procedures, life-cycle events and kosher food. Orthodox Jews still honoured the principle of taking their disputes with other Jews or Jewish institutions to a Beth Din, though others regarded a summons to a Beth Din as religious coercion. In modern legal systems a Beth Din is often an accepted medium of alternative dispute resolution and its arbitrations are binding as a matter of civil law unless there was misconduct such as fraud, corruption, bias, denial of natural justice, etc.
Usually there is only one official Beth Din in a city. Some congregations have established their own internal judicial system but their Batei Din do not claim jurisdiction outside their own group. The procedures followed in all Batei Din are laid down by the volume of the Shulchan Aruch (“Code of Jewish Law”) known as Choshen Mishpat (“The Breastplate of Justice”). Apart from Dinei Torah (“arbitrations”) recognised by the secular legal system, Diaspora Batei Din generally have no power of compulsion or sanctions, though it is assumed that an individual or group who submit of a ritual question to a Beth Din will abide by its decision.
A Beth Din’s agenda usually depends on the time and circumstances. Examples are the cases of agunot (women whose husbands are missing) after World War II, and the effect of recent technological developments on many areas of Jewish law. If Beth Din rulings in different places are not identical it is generally the result of different circumstances.
Batei Din are often engaged in all or many of the following activities:
1. Responding to queries on halachah. On unusual or complex questions there will be consultation with other Batei Din and/or expert pos’kim (“decisors”) and the rulings may be incorporated into written responsa.
2. Advising synagogues and communal institutions, e.g. on matters of liturgy, kashrut, Shabbat observance and burial procedures.
3. Conducting Dinei Torah and issuing rulings in due form.
4. Administering gittin (religious divorces). Ancillary issues which arise include securing the co-operation of a recalcitrant spouse; the relationship of Jewish and secular courts; the status of Israelis living in the Diaspora; financial settlements; and the well-being of children of the marriage.
5. Responding to applications for conversion; some Batei Din never or rarely accept converts whilst others are more active in this field.
6. Advising in family matters such as adoption, circumcision, Pidyon HaBen (“redemption of the first born son”), Bar- and Bat-Mitzvah, marriage, etc.
7. Supervising shechitah (kosher slaughter of animals) and butcheries, and the provision of kosher foods, matzah and Passover commodities, function catering, etc.
8. Supervising religious institutions and facilities such as mikva’ot (“ritual baths”), sha’atnez (“forbidden mixtures of textiles”) laboratories, etc.
9. Examining and certifying candidates for appointment as mohalim (“circumcisers), shochetim (“slaughterers”), mashgichim (“supervisors”), sof’rim (“scribes”), etc.
10. Attesting and issuing documentation of Jewish status. This issue has become topical since the emigration of ex-Russians to many parts of the Jewish world.
Certain Batei Din exercise jurisdiction over a number of countries, e.g. Australian Batei Din which handle halachic queries for many south-east Asian communities. As a matter of courtesy, a visiting dayyan (judge) from elsewhere will be invited to sit in on proceedings in another city or country. The contacts created assist the process of inter-Beth Din consultation and often reinforce the status of the host Beth Din. All Batei Din have contacts with Israeli rabbinical courts, and though there is no requirement for Israel to endorse a dayyan’s qualifications to sit on a Diaspora Beth Din the informal relationship with Israel is highly valued. In British countries the Batei Din were originally appointed and authorised by the chief rabbi in London but local independence is now established.
In contrast to the period following the Emancipation, there is increasing resort to halachic sources and authorities on broader issues of social, economic and political life. Batei Din are called upon to advise and rule in relation to business, professional and bio-ethics, as well as taxation, inheritance and intellectual property, etc.
Queries constantly arise in connection with synagogues and their religious and lay leadership. The interrelationship between institutions and community facilities frequently raises the issue of hassagat g’vul (“encroachment on another’s territory”), for instance how far away should one school of synagogue be from another, or a butchery, bakery or other kosher outlet.
In some communities the Beth Din members are full- or part-time paid officials of the community; in others a congregational rabbi doubles as a dayyan without additional salary.
Elon, Menachem, 1994, Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles, Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society.
Schachter, Jacob, 1952, “Talmudical Introductions Down to the Time of Chajes”, in The Student’s Guide Through the Talmud, edited by ZH Chajes, London, East and West Library.
Weinryb, Bernard D, 1967, “Responsa as a Source for History (Methodological Problems)”, in Essays Presented to Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday, edited by HJ Zimmels, J Rabbinowitz, and I Feinstein, London, Soncino.