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    Jewish community government – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. What are the origins of the Jewish community council?

    A. No-one can be certain where it began, but the theoretical underpinnings are already there in the Torah.

    Moses and Aaron, whom the commentators call the parnasim (leaders) of the generation, were supported by a council of elders who represented the members of all the Israelite tribes.

    The 31st chapter of Proverbs speaks of the elders “sitting in the gate”, which sounds like a leadership council that was in regular or constant session to dispense justice and handle queries from the public.

    In Talmudic times there was a sophisticated social structure. A community was worthy of the name only if it had a series of institutions ranging from parks to medical facilities and courts of justice (Sanh. 17b).

    Householders were regarded as citizens after 12 months’ residence. The citizens elected a seven-man council (shivah tuvei ha’ir, literally “the seven good men of the town”), who regulated every aspect of the life of the community, even weights and measures and meat prices, though everything had to confirm to the laws of the Torah, and the g’dolei ha-dor, “the great sages of the generation”, had power to veto any measures which contravened religious requirements.

    Executive responsibility rested with three parnasim whose appointment had to be seen to be fair and above board: hence two brothers could not sit on the executive at the same time (Yerushalmi Pe’ah 8:7). If Jews and non-Jews both lived in a town, each group had their own communal government (Yerushalmi Gittin 8:9).

    Post-Talmudic communities developed various other structures which generally reflected the degree of autonomy which the host society allowed to the Jewish community.

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