The second perek of Massekhet Sanhedrin begins on today’s daf. Entitled Kohen Gadol, this chapter focuses on some of the unique laws affecting the High Priest and the anointed King of Israel.
The general principle in Jewish law is that all are equal before the law, as evidenced by the passage that forbids a judge from recognizing the higher status of any person (see 19:15). The Torah, of course, does recognize differences between different types of people within the community. Is someone a kohen, a levi or a yisra’el? Is he a righteous convert or, perhaps, someone who lives among the Jews having accepted the seven commandments pertaining to the Noachides? Is someone a learned, knowledgeable person or is he a boor? All of these differences will impact on the mutual rights and responsibilities of the individual within the larger community or on the mitzvot that they are obligated to perform. Nevertheless, from a strictly legal perspective, all are equal before the Jewish court of law.
There are only two individuals who stand out as having a unique legal status, based on their position in the community – a King and a High Priest. As head of state, the King represents the government of Israel and stands as a symbol to its political independence and statehood. The High Priest represents the religious, spiritual holiness of the nation. He embodies the sanctity of the Jewish people in a way that no other individual can. Only he can enter the Holy of Holies and perform the sacrificial service of Yom Kippur on behalf of the nation. Both King and High Priest are installed in their respective positions by means of a ceremony in which they are anointed, imbuing them with an element of holiness beyond the office that they hold.
The Torah separates these two individuals from the rest of the nation with regard to certain legal issues. The first Mishna in Massekhet Sanhedrin noted that they will be judged only by the Great Sanhedrin; in fact each of them heads a justice system of their own. Do these factors indicate that the King and the High Priest are “above the law” or are these simply exceptions to the general rule that obligates them, as well?
These questions are the focus of the second perek of Massekhet Sanhedrin.