When an individual performs a forbidden act based on the erroneous ruling of the High Court, who is to blame?
According to the first Mishna in Massekhet Horayot, when an individual follows the ruling of the court, leading to a transgression, the individual will not be held liable to bring a sin offering, since he acted appropriately, relying on the court’s ruling. The sacrifice will be brought by the court on behalf of everyone who followed their mistaken ruling. The Mishna does teach that if the individual who sinned was a scholar who realized that the High Court had erred, and if he nevertheless followed their ruling, then he cannot lay the blame on the court and he will have to bring his own sacrifice.
The Gemara explains that the mistake made by the scholar in this case must have been a misunderstanding of the law of mitzva lishmo’ah divrei ḥakhamim – that an individual is obligated to accept the words of the Sages. As Rashi explains, this scholar thought that this requires him to follow the High Court’s ruling even if he is certain that they are mistaken.
Many of the commentaries point out that there is a serious difficulty with this approach, given the Rabbinic interpretation of the Biblical passage lo tasur min ha-davar asher yagidu lekha yamin u’semol – “You shall not turn away from their words to the right or to the left” (Devarim 17:11) – as meaning that the High Court must be accepted under all circumstances. In his Ḥefetz HaShem, Rabbi Ḥayyim ibn Attar explains that although the scholar cannot publicly offer a ruling that contradicts the agreed-upon decision of the High Court, nevertheless on a personal level he cannot follow their ruling if he is convinced that it is incorrect. Someone who does so is responsible for his own actions and must bring his own sin offering.
Later in the Gemara, the Mishna’s teaching is limited to the opinion of a single tanna, explaining that the Ḥakhamim disagree and only free the transgressor from a sacrifice if the erroneous ruling led the majority of the Jewish community to transgress. If a single individual – or a minority of the community – sinned because of the court’s ruling, then they would still need to bring a sin offering.