The fourth perek of Massekhet Sanhedrin begins on today’s daf. Entitled Eḥad dinei mamonot…, the first Mishna continues …ve-eḥad dinei nefashot b’derisha u-vaḥakira – teaching that according to halakha, judgment of both monetary claims and capital crimes require inquiry and interrogation of witnesses.
Thus the fourth perek moves beyond the teachings of the third perek that focused on general laws regarding the Jewish court system. This perek begins the examination of the laws regarding capital crimes, which is the main topic of Massekhet Sanhedrin.
There are some basic differences between the way monetary laws and capital cases are treated in court. When dealing with capital cases, we are facing questions about the most valuable commodity of all – human life – which makes clear why so much care must be taken when making a judgment in such a case. The Torah, in fact, requires that the judges themselves must attempt to discover and explore every possible factor that would favor the accused (see Bamidbar 35:24-25). Moreover, when dealing with monetary matters, if a mistake is made the ruling can be overturned and the money returned to its rightful owner, while in the case of a capital crime, a death sentence cannot be undone.
Another important difference that we find between these two types of cases is the fact that the judge cannot be “strict” or “lenient” when dealing with a monetary case, for any concession to one party will come at the expense of the other party. This obligates the court to remain totally neutral in such cases, even if one party is poor or downtrodden and we would ordinarily seek to favor him.
Because of these differences, the Mishna in our perek enumerates ten differences in the way cases are handled by the court in dinei nefashot as opposed to dinei mamonot. These are aside from the basic rule taught in the first perek that monetary matters are presented before a simple court of three judges, while capital cases require a Sanhedrin of twenty-three.