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Ḥerem bet din


ḤEREM BET DIN (Heb. חֵרֶם בֵּית דִּין,"ban of the court"), the shortened and accepted form of ḥerem bet din ha-gadol. This was the social and legal concept and takkanah originally prevailing in Western and Central Europe that gave to the court of the local community rights and competences which, according to talmudic law, pertained only to the High Court of the *Sanhedrin and later, by right of custom, to the High Courts of the *exilarch and the *geonim. In practice, this extension of the rights of the local court applied to its competence to summon defendants before it even when they came from a different locality. At first this was envisaged in a fairly simple fashion:

If a man passes through a community where there is a ḥerem bet din and he is summoned to court under the ḥerem in the presence of proper witnesses, even if he be in the market place, the ḥerem is upon him until he repairs to the court to plead his case. Even if no witnesses are present, the ḥerem applies, for witnesses are needed only as a protection against deceivers, but a writ of insubordination [for not appearing in court] can be issued only on the testimony of witnesses. After having made his plea, the defendant may proceed on his way. The plaintiff is responsible for seeing that the decree of the court reaches him (takkanah attributed to Gershom b. *Judah).

Though ḥerem here means a takkanah sanctioned by a ḥerem, custom certainly preceded the enactment. Central institutions, such as those envisaged in talmudic law and those which were active in the old centers of Jewish settlement in Mediterranean countries, were never within the scope of communication of Western Europe. Ḥerem bet din was a practical expression of the problems of communication and security which, in increasingly perilous times, faced small communities dispersed over relatively wide areas. On the social and leadership levels ḥerem bet din is one of the earliest Jewish manifestations of the spirit of the commune-city with its insistence on having justice dispensed within the city walls. In the course of time, the authority of each locality and its bet din became so well established that *Samson b. Abraham of Sens (13th century) stated:

The custom of the ḥerem ha-gadol in our town operates in the following manner. If one of our townspeople summons another to court, he is compelled to litigate here. He cannot refuse and say: 'Let us go to the college of scholars or to the Great Court.' He is, however, entitled to have three days before presenting his case. Judges, though, must be chosen immediately; each party chooses one judge [and they elect the third judge]. If a visitor summons a townsman, or two visitors summon each other, they must appoint the judges and plead their cases forthwith.

By this time the need for a specific takkanah or ḥerem to authorize the local court was abandoned. In 1272 it was stated in France that any town that was known to have had a scholar residing in it at one time or another was accorded by this very fact the presumption of full competence for its local court, as if it had an express and documented takkanah of ḥerem bet din.


Finkelstein, Middle Ages; M. Frank, Kehillot Ashkenaz u-Vattei Dineihem (1937); Baron, Community, index; H.H. Ben-Sasson, Perakim be-Toledot ha-Yehudim bi-Ymei ha-Beinayim (1962), index; idem, Toledot Am-Yisrael, 2 (1969), index.

[Isaac Levitats]

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