This paper was published in Management Decision: Focus on Management History, Vol. 41(2), 2003, 199-207. (c)2003



Perspectives on Transformational Leadership in the Sanhedrin of Ancient Judaism


Mitchell Langbert, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Business and Management
Brooklyn College of the City University of New York


 Hershey H. Friedman, Ph.D.
Professor of Business and Marketing
Brooklyn College of the City University of New York
E-mail: x.friedman@att,net



Perspectives on Transformational Leadership in the Sanhedrin of Ancient Judaism



Individuals interested in leadership can learn much from the Nesi’im (Presidents) that headed the Sanhedrin. These leaders faced incredible adversity: Hellenists, Sadducees, Greeks, Romans, the destruction of the Temple, religious persecution, and exile. Yet, they still managed to keep the Jewish people together. What special talents did they possess that enabled them to keep Judaism alive, see it outlast numerous opponents and survive despite the harshest of decrees? Our claim is that these individuals were transformational leaders. This paper examines the literature of transformational leadership, and the various characteristics, philosophies, sayings, and behavior of the leaders of the Sanhedrin. The philosophies and values of Nesi’im such as Hillel and Gamliel, recorded in the Talmud and Midrash, did what large armies could not have accomplished: destroy the pagan values of the Greeks and Romans. This paper describes how these philosophies might serve as a paradigm or touchstone for the successful leader of today.

Keywords: transformational leadership, charismatic leadership, Sanhedrin.


Perspectives on Transformational Leadership in the Sanhedrin of Ancient Judaism


In recent years there has been considerable interest in transformational leadership in formal organizations (Bass, 1985; 1990; Bass and Avolio, 1993; Conger and Kanungo, 1987; 1988; Bryman, 1992; Pawar and Eastman, 1997). But few have heretofore analyzed transformational leadership in antiquity. This paper is about transformational leadership in the Jewish Sanhedrin, which flourished for several hundred years before the destruction of the Temple (70 CE), and then continued thereafter in modified form for nearly another 400 years. The purpose of this paper is to examine what modern managers and leaders can learn from the leaders of the past.

Such application is of interest for theoretical as well as historical reasons. Theory about transformational leadership is rooted in Weber’s (1952; 1978) theory about charisma, and his application of the theory to several historical examples, most importantly his interpretation of the respective roles of the ancient Jewish prophets and priests (Bryson, 1992; Zeitlin, 1984). Weber argues that the prophets were charismatic and disaffiliated from formal institutions, while the priests represented legal, non-charismatic authority. In this paper we argue that the Sanhedrin exhibited a considerable degree of transformational leadership despite the legal, routinized basis for its authority. We also provide specific examples of the Sanhedrin’s leadership tactics and views on leadership.


The recent theoretical interest in transformational leadership and charisma in formal organizations intensified with Burns’s (1978) distinction between transactional and transforming leadership. In transactional leadership the object is not a joint effort but an exchange to aid individual interests. In contrast, transforming leadership shapes, alters and elevates the followers’ motives and values. It unites diverse members in pursuit of higher goals, the realization of which is tested by the achievement of significant change that represents the pooled interests of leaders and followers.

Bass (1985; 1990) develops the concept of transformational leadership to include charisma, inspiration, individualized consideration and intellectual stimulation. Sashkin (1988) emphasizes the importance of vision in transformational leadership. Trice and Beyer (1991) argue that charisma is characteristic of founders of organizations whereas transformational leaders are organizational members who wish to change existing organizations [1].

All of these important insights derive from Weber’s (1978) theory that there are only three routes to legitimate power: rationalization, tradition and charisma. In Weber’s original formulation, the charismatic figure derives power from the perception that s/he has divine inspiration inaccessible to the average person. Prophets, cult leaders and revolutionary guerrilla leaders are key examples. Furthermore, Weber distinguishes a charismatic from a bureaucratic community in that a charismatic community is based on emotional relationships rather than bureaucratic or traditional rules. In a charismatic community there are no careers, hierarchies, salaries or offices. Thus, prophets are unremunerated. The prophet creates new obligations that are recognized by members of the group because they come from an inspired source. Thus, the key problems of charismatic communities revolve around succession to the charismatic leader and the routinization of charisma. If an organization is to survive after the charismatic leader’s death, a transition needs to be made to a bureaucratic organizational form. Weber argued that such rational forms naturally conflict with the charismatic role.

More recent authors, who have been interested in how transformational leadership can infuse values into formal organizations, have questioned Weber’s depiction of the prophets. The reason is in part that Weber’s theoretical distinction between charisma and rationality is too stark for the application of charisma to business and other formal organizations. Thus, Berger (1963) argues that Weber, along with many scholars, incorrectly stereotypes the charismatic prophet as a socially detached individual engaged in a gratuitous practice that opposed the priesthood in focusing on ethics rather than cult. In his view there was considerable overlap between the prophets’ more "bureaucratic" priestly duties and the charismatic role that they played. Thus, Berger concludes, charisma need not be opposed to institutionalization, but rather may be a trait of individuals located at the center of institutional fabric.

There is much information in the Talmud, or Oral Law [2], about the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was the legal-religious Jewish court that evolved away from the priesthood following the overthrow in approximately 164 BCE (or 148 BCE according to some sources) of the Greeks who had occupied ancient Judah. In contrast to the sparse body of evidence about the ancient priesthood, the Talmud’s historical-legal records include substantial evidence about transformational leadership practices in the Sanhedrin.


The Greeks ruled the Jews from about 332 until 164 BCE. During the later part of this occupation there was considerable disagreement among the Jews as to the merits of Greek rule. In about 175 BCE, the Hellenists, admirers of Greek culture, whose ranks included most of the aristocratic priests, set to work transforming the Jewish Temple and the Jewish religion. The upper class priests neglected their priestly duties in the interest of participating in Greek games. The high priest Jason erected a gymnasium near the Temple for sporting events and young men participated naked, in the manner of the Greek Olympics. Hellenization resulted in the growth of immorality and the decline of religious observance. Laws were passed prohibiting the practice of Judaism, especially circumcision and keeping the Sabbath and festivals. The high priest, Menelaus, who succeeded Jason, built an acropolis that overshadowed the Temple and raised taxes to pay for its construction [3]. A statue of Jupiter was erected in the Temple and pigs were brought as sacrifices.

The priest Mattathias Hasmon and his five sons (the most famous of whom was Judah the Maccabee [4]), led a popularly supported revolt against the Jewish Hellenists and the Greeks. Hasmonean rule did not produce peace. New conflicts arose between the Pharisees, believers in the oral law, and the Sadducees, who believed only in the written law (i.e., the Torah). Many of the Hasmonean kings were Sadducees and fought the Pharisees. Jewish independence ended when Pompey took advantage of a civil war between two Hasmonean brothers (Aristobulus and Hyrcan), and conquered Jerusalem (63 BCE).


The name Sanhedrin is derived from a Greek word sunedrion that means council. An early form of the Sanhedrin existed under the Greeks, who allowed the Jews some degree of self-government. In ancient times there was often little distinction between judicial interpretation and legislation. As the Sanhedrin evolved, it was concerned with both as they pertained to religious and political issues. After the Hasmonean revolt, the importance of the Sanhedrin increased, but its power fluctuated depending on its relations with the kings.

The Great Sanhedrin, based in Jerusalem, had 71 members. There is controversy as to how many Sanhedrins there were, how many leaders of the Great Sanhedrin there were, and whether its head was the king, the high priest, the Sadducees or the Pharisees. According to the Gospels, the trial of Jesus took place before the Sanhedrin with the high priest presiding [5]. According to the Talmud and rabbinical tradition, the presiding officer was a Pharisaic scholar, or Nasi (President) (Mantel, 1961; Hoenig, 1953). The position of Nasi was created in about 191 BCE when the Sanhedrin lost confidence in the ability of the high priests to serve as the head of their body. Not surprising, given that the high priest was often opposed to the Oral Law.

In addition to the Nasi (President), the Av Beth Din (literally, father of the court of law, the next in importance after the Nasi) also headed the Sanhedrin. There was also a Chacham (wise man or counselor), who may have been a third leader. Following the leadership of the greatest of the Pharisaic Sanhedrin leaders, Hillel, the office of Nasi became hereditary, passing to Hillel’s descendents. Thus, for much of its history the Nesi’im’s (Nesi’im is the plural of Nasi) authority was traditional. Yet, we argue that there were clearly discernible elements of charismatic and transformational leadership as well.

The Sanhedrin sat in the shape of a semicircle in order to enable every member to see every other member (Sanhedrin 36b). With capital cases, the lesser judges expressed their opinion first and then the more renowned and senior judges stated their decisions. This was done in order that junior members should not be intimidated by the senior members (Sanhedrin 32a).

After the Romans destroyed the Temple in about 70 CE, the Sanhedrin ceased to exist. Yochanan b. Zakkai, a disciple of Hillel, convinced Vespasian to spare Jabneh, a city replete with sages (Gittin 57b). Yochanan quietly created a new Sanhedrin (although it had very little power) under the leadership of Rabbi Gamliel II. This Sanhedrin, which was definitely headed by a Nasi, functioned more like an academy, had no authority to enforce its decisions, and was mostly involved in religious law.


Weber (1978) argues that charismatic leaders create new obligations that their followers recognize as legitimate because they come from an inspired source. Burns (1978) states that transforming leaders unite diverse members in pursuit of higher goals. Bass (1985) theorizes that charisma, inspiration, individualized consideration and intellectual stimulation are characteristic of transformational leaders. Our claim is that each of the Nesi’im exhibited one or more of these characteristics both in their practice of leadership and in their discussions of how leaders should function even though their power had, at least in part, a traditional basis.

Individuals interested in leadership can learn much from the Nesi’im that headed the Sanhedrin. These leaders faced incredible adversity: Hellenists, Sadducees, Greeks, Romans, destruction of the Temple, and exile. Yet, they still managed to keep the Jewish people together. What special talents did they possess that enabled them to keep Judaism alive and see it outlast numerous opponents and survive despite the harshest of decrees? True, some possessed charisma, but many did not. Fortunately, the Talmud records the philosophies of these leaders. Examination of their philosophies is not only of historical interest but may be of great value to us today in understanding the characteristics that can help one develop into a more effective leader.

The characteristics of transformational leaders mentioned by such authors as Yukl (1998), Nahavandi (2000), and Black and Porter (2000) are: ability to communicate; charisma; clear vision; confidence; encourage creativity; high expectations; honesty; individual attention and consideration; inspiration; integrity, morality; intellectual stimulation; interactivity; lead by example; optimism; personal relationship with followers.


Yosi b. Yoezer of Zeredah served as the first Nasi circa 191 BCE. One of Yosi’s ideas was: Let your house be a meeting place for the wise; sit in the dust of their feet; and drink in their words with thirst (Avot 1:4). Much as George Washington surrounded himself with Hamilton and Jefferson, great leaders ought to surround themselves with wise counselors so that they can learn from them.

When the Syrian general Bacchides had Yosi placed on a horse to be hanged (or, probably, crucified), his nephew, an important Hellenist, came to taunt his uncle. His nephew mocked him by saying: "See the horse upon which my master lets me ride and see the horse upon which your Master [God] lets you ride." Yosi’s final words to his nephew were: "If it is thus with those who do His will, all the more so with those who anger Him." Yosi must have been quite convincing since the Midrash relates that Yosi’s words "entered him like the venom of a snake" and he committed suicide in atonement of his sins --- an elaborate suicide that involved all four modes of execution used by the Jewish courts (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 65:22).


After the Hellenists killed Yosi, Yehoshua b. Perachya became the Nasi in the year 140 BCE. Yehoshua’s admonition was: Provide yourself with a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge all people favorably (Avot 1:6). Yehoshua’s philosophy might have been the result of a mistake made when he was returning to Israel from Alexandria (where he settled temporarily to escape persecution). He was too harsh with a student and this resulted in the student founding a new religion and leading Israel astray. The Talmud says (Sotah 47a): "Always let the left hand push away and the right hand draw near. ...Not like Rabbi Yehoshua b. Perachya who pushed one of his disciples away with both hands." Leaders need to be open-minded and to develop relationships with advisors and experts. They ought not jump to conclusions but judge people favorably. Thus, Yehoshua emphasized individual consideration. Yehoshua’s student, Shimon b. Shatach, helped establish the first school system which enabled everyone to have a teacher (Jerusalem Talmud Kethubos 8:11; Bava Bathra 21a).


Shemaiah became the Nasi in the year 65 BCE. Shemaiah’s insight included: Love work; hate lordship; and do not be intimate with the ruling authorities (Avot 1:10). Thus, he was one of the earlier advocates of the work ethic: There is great dignity and inspiration in manual labor. This philosophy had a great impact on many of the sages of the Talmud, and as in the archetypal charismatic community, many followed this advice. Thus most worked at manual occupations including beer brewing, farming, wood-chopping, merchant, grave digging, shoe-making, and blacksmithing.

Also, Shemaiah advocated egalitarianism and validating communication. A good leader should hate lording over others. Individuals who enjoy dominating others tend to become insensitive to the needs of others. Again, his emphasis is on individual consideration.


Hillel was a student of Shemaiah, and his descendents served as Nesi’im for the next 460 years. Hillel became the Nasi about 31 BCE. Johnson (1987) speculates that Jesus of Nazareth may have been one of Hillel’s students. In Hillel’s time, Israel was ruled by Herod I (Herod’s reign was from 37 - 4 BCE). The Talmud states that Herod killed many members of the Sanhedrin because he believed they opposed him.

Hillel was certainly charismatic. He was known for his exceptional patience, great modesty, and love of people. The Talmud tells a story of a man who made a 400 zuz bet that he could make Hillel lose his temper. One Friday afternoon, when Hillel was busy preparing for the Sabbath, the man kept pestering Hillel with inane questions. He asked him, "Why are the heads of the Babylonians round?" (Hillel was originally from Babylonia.) Hillel answered his question. The man kept returning to ask additional irrelevant questions and Hillel continued to answer him with great respect. Finally, when the man realized that there was no way Hillel would ever lose his temper, the man cursed him and said: "may there not be more like you amongst Israel." After learning about the bet, Hillel said: "It is far better that you should lose 400 zuz, and 400 zuz more, than Hillel should lose his temper" (Shabbos 30b-31a).

Hillel’s advice included: Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people… (Avot 1:12). Aaron, brother of Moses, was known as a peacemaker in the Talmud and Midrash. This admonition is consistent with Bass’s focus on inspiring leadership and Burns’s emphasis on uniting diverse members in pursuit of higher goals. The Talmud relates three separate stories of how Shammai (the Av Beth Din under Hillel) refused to teach potential converts who made absurd requests ("Make me a convert on condition that you only teach me the written Torah," "...on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot," "...on condition that you will appoint me High Priest") and threw them out. They subsequently went to Hillel who accepted them and they converted to Judaism. The three converts met and said: "Hillel's gentleness and humility brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence " (Shabbos 31a).

Another of Hillel’s admonitions was: He who seeks greater reputation, destroys his reputation; he who does not increase his knowledge, decreases it (Avot 1:13). This maxim points out the importance of doing things that are ethical rather than profitable. Just as Sashkin (1988) emphasizes vision and Bass (1990) emphasizes intellectual stimulation, Hillel emphasized the importance of knowledge in leadership. Leaders should not be motivated by narrow self interest. Hillel was a leader who did not seek fame, but when he died, they eulogized him thus (Sotah 48b): "Alas, the pious man! Alas, the modest man!"

Hillel also said: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I care only for myself, what am I? If not now, when? (Avot 1:14) 'What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow-human,' that is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary (Shabbos 31a). The above two sayings, early statements of the golden rule, stress the importance of caring for others. What more profound vision or inspiration has ever been identified? What clearer statement of the importance of individual consideration?

Hillel also said: Do not separate yourself from the community (Avot 2:4). Do not judge your fellow human being until you have been in his place (Avot 2:4). Hillel’s [6] statements directed to all people are especially true for leaders. Leaders should not be aloof and distant from their followers. Great leadership implies an ability to consider individuals, to communicate supportively, and to stimulate intellectually. A leader who has no empathy for his followers and who is devoid of charisma cannot be effective. Hillel also stressed the importance of not judging others too harshly. Leaders also have to be careful that statements they make should not be misunderstood.

One of Hillel’s most beautiful statements is: In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man (Avot 2:5). Perhaps no other phrase better summarizes the moral challenge of charismatic or transformational leadership. In a place where no one else has the ability or desire to be a leader, the moral person will win the loyalty of others by taking the important risk of doing what is moral.

The more schooling, the more wisdom; the more counsel, the more understanding; the more righteousness, the more peace (Avot 2:7). In this admonition Hillel again emphasized intellectual stimulation and the development of leadership through education.


After Hillel died in 9 CE, his son Shimon succeeded him. He did not live long, and Rabbi Gamliel I (Gamliel the Elder), Shimon’s son, succeeded him. He was the first to get the title of "Rabban" (our master). Paul of Tarsus states he was one of Rabbi Gamliel’s students [7].

In the year 6 CE, Augustus removed Archelaus as ruler and Judea and Samaria were placed under the direct control of Roman Procurators. Battles were fought over such matters as the Roman desire to place images in Jewish holy places. Forty years before the destruction of the Temple, the Sanhedrin moved out of their special place in the Temple and thus could not judge capital cases (Avodah Zarah 8b).

Rabbi Gamliel’s philosophy was: Provide yourself with a teacher and remove yourself from doubt ...(Avot 1:16). He emphasized education and development as a source of self-efficacy.

Rabbi Gamliel was a leader who advocated tikkun olam (in Hebrew, tikkun means repair and olam means world), the notion that one is obligated to repair and perfect the world by using the legal system to enact laws that help society. For instance, some of his enactments were instituted to make it difficult for men to make trouble for their ex-wives (Gittin 32a, 34b). He also allowed a previously married woman to remarry on the testimony of one witness that the husband is dead, rather than the Biblically required testimony of two (Yevamos 122a).

As another example, in Talmudic times, the people believed that the proper and dignified way of clothing the dead was by dressing the corpse in expensive garments. The cost became so prohibitive, that the expense of burying the deceased was "harder on the relatives than the death itself." Rabbi Gamliel changed this custom by disregarding his own dignity and ordering that he himself would be buried in inexpensive flaxen garments. After the people saw how Rabbi Gamliel, the head of the Sanhedrin, was buried, the custom became that all Jews are buried in shrouds made of flax (Moed Katan 27b). Again we see dissemination of new obligations because they are from a source that was inspired in addition to having hereditary authority.


After Gamliel died, his son Shimon became the Nasi in the year 50 CE. Rabbi Shimon cared for the poor and was known for having watchers look for poor people and bring them to his table. He would eat with the poor and they would bless God together (Avot D’ Rabbi Nathan 38:3).

Rabbi Shimon b. Gamliel’s philosophy: All my days I have grown up among the wise, and I have found nothing better for a person than silence; not learning but doing is the most important thing; and whoever talks too much causes sin (Avot 1:17). Rabbi Shimon believed very strongly in the importance of doing rather than posturing. The following story is an example of how Rabbi Shimon reacted when he heard of a terrible problem.

Rabbi Shimon b. Gamliel was extremely upset when he heard that the price for doves, which were necessary for certain sacrifices, had reached a golden dinar. He swore that he would not sleep until the price went down to a silver dinar, and he revised the laws concerning sacrifices so that demand for doves would decrease. The price sank almost immediately to one-quarter of a silver dinar (Krithoth 8a).

The traditional opinion is that Rabbi Shimon was killed by the Romans and is one of the Ten Martyrs (Avot D’Rabbi Nathan 38:3).


Rabbi Gamliel II (also known as Gamliel of Jabneh) became Nasi approximately ten years after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. By now the Sanhedrin had lost its power and had to move from place to place.

Rabbi Gamliel’s philosophy was: Whoever has mercy on other people, Heaven will have mercy upon him; whoever does not have mercy on other people, Heaven will not have mercy upon him (Shabbos 151b). At his son’s wedding, Rabbi Gamliel stood over his guests and served them wine despite the fact that he was the Nasi (Kiddushin 32b). He was also extremely sensitive to other people’s suffering. A woman in his neighborhood lost her son and wept every night. When Rabbi Gamliel heard her crying he would also cry in sympathy with her. Eventually, his eyelashes fell out from so much crying (Sanhedrin 104b). Once again, the Nesi’im emphasize egalitarian leadership and individualized consideration.

Rabbi Gamliel worked hard to establish one law for all the Jewish people. The disputes between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel were threatening to divide the people into two factions. His own brother-in-law, Eliezer b. Hyrkanos, refused to go along with the majority because he was of the Shammai school, and Rabbi Gamliel and the Sanhedrin excommunicated him (Bava Metzia 59b).

Rabbi Gamliel had several disagreements with Rabbi Yehoshua, a member of the Sanhedrin. They had a dispute regarding when the holy day of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) would fall (in those days the lunar calendar was determined by sightings of the new moon by witnesses). Rabbi Gamliel forced Rabbi Yehoshua to come to him with his staff and money (prohibited acts for Yom Kippur which is also a day of rest) on the day the latter claimed was a holy day. When he arrived, Rabbi Gamliel stood up and kissed him on the head and said to him: "Come in peace my teacher and my student --- my teacher in wisdom and my student because you accepted my judgment" (Rosh Hashonah 25a). Rabbi Gamliel felt that it was very important for the sake of unity to ensure that all members of the Sanhedrin abide by the decision of the majority.


Rabbi Gamliel II was succeeded by his son, Rabbi Shimon b. Gamliel II about the year 118. The Sanhedrin probably did not function during many of these years because of Roman persecutions.

Rabbi Shimon b. Gamliel II was knowledgeable in many areas and the Talmud notes that he was an expert in intercalations, medicine, and Greek philosophy (Sanhedrin 11a, Berachos 25a, Sotah 49). He was also known for his great humility (Bava Metzia 84b-85a). The philosophy he was most known for was (Avot 1:18): The world endures on three principles: truth, justice, and peace.

A man once vowed that he would not live with his wife unless she spat on Rabbi Shimon. Rabbi Shimon did not mind when she spat on him since he felt that peace between man and wife was of extreme importance (Nedarim 66b). Indeed, one of his sayings was (Avot D’Rabbi Nathan 28:3): Whoever makes peace in his house, Scripture considers it as though he made peace in all of Israel, Another one of his sayings was (Jerusalem Talmud Shekalim 2:5): It is not necessary to erect monuments for the righteous; their words are their memorials.

Trajan was succeeded as Emperor by Hadrian in 117 CE. Hadrian visited Israel in 129. He decided to rebuild Jerusalem and make it into a pagan city, with the new name of Aelia Capitolina, dedicated to Jupiter with an altar dedicated to Jupiter at the site of the Holy Temple. The Second Judean Revolt took place between 132 and 135 under the leadership of Bar Kochba and Rabbi Akiva. Bar Kochba was killed in battle along with more than half a million Jews. Hadrian prohibited the practice of Jewish law, expelled the Jews from Jerusalem, and rebuilt it into a pagan city. Rabbi Akiva and many other sages were killed and Judea was almost totally devastated. In the year 148, the Sanhedrin was again reestablished in modified form in the Galil.


In the year 165, Rabbi Yehuda (known as Rebbi, "teacher"), son of Rabbi Shimon b. Gamliel II, became the Nasi. One of his major accomplishments (c. 189) was the compilation and redaction of the mishna, which was an old oral tradition that explained the laws contained in the Pentateuch.

Rabbi Yehuda stated: Which is the proper course that a person should choose for himself? Whatever is an honor to him who does it, and which also brings him esteem from mankind... (Avot 2:1).

Leadership is value-driven, inspired and visionary. Leaders ought to act in an ethical manner and help mankind. Rabbi Yehuda practiced what he preached and was known for his great humility. Even though he redacted the Mishna, he recorded opposing viewpoints as well as his own opinion regarding many laws.

I learned much Torah from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and the most from my students (Maakos 10a). Once again we see an emphasis on individual consideration. One learns the most from teaching others. Rebbi was interested in learning from everyone (Pesachim 94b).

All lies are prohibited, however it is permitted to lie in order to bring peace between people (Derech Eretz Zuta, Perek Hashalom). This statement reflects the moral tradeoffs that are part of many leadership roles. As Barnard (1938) emphasizes, moral leadership often involves resolution of conflict between moral codes or values. All the Nesi’im appreciated the importance of both truth and peace. Rebbi’s father, Rabbi Shimon, noted that Jacob’s sons lied to Joseph (Genesis 50:15-17) in order to maintain peace (Derech Eretz Zuta, Perek Hashalom).

The Talmud tells the following story to explain why Rabbi Yehuda the Nasi suffered for thirteen years with kidney stones and scurvy. Indeed, his pain was so great that his cries of pain when he relieved himself were heard far away.

There was once a calf being taken to slaughter. It went and hid its head under Rebbi’s garment and cried. Rebbi said to it: Go! For this you were created. They said [in Heaven]: Since he has no pity, let us bring suffering upon him. The suffering departed because of another incident. One day, Rebbi’s maidservant was sweeping the house. Some weasels had been cast there and she was about to sweep them away. Rebbi told her: Leave them alone. It is written (Psalms 145:9): ‘and His mercy is over all His works.’ They said [in Heaven]: Since he is so compassionate, let us show compassion to him (Bava Metzia 85a).

The Talmud states that when Rebbi died, the traits of humility and fear of sin ceased (Sotah 49a). Apparently, he was such a paragon of those traits that no one could ever again hope to equal him with regard to those attributes.

The last Nasi was Rabbi Gamliel VI who died in 425. In the year 425, Emperor Theodosius II did not allow the Jews to appoint a successor to Gamliel and thereby ended the Office of Nasi. Hillel and fourteen generations of his descendents had headed the office of Nasi for approximately 460 years.


This paper culls from the Talmudic and Midrashic literature evidence regarding the leadership practices and beliefs of the Nesi’im (Presidents) of the Sanhedrin. Much of the evidence suggests highly emotional, visionary leadership. There was no conflict between the hereditary authority of the Nesi’im and their ability to lead by example, to devise values that addressed crucial social concerns, to reform laws and to address the deepest ideals of their followers, to create new ideals and to inspire commitment. Indeed, many of their ideals would challenge the most transforming or charismatic leaders of the modern world.

Transforming an organization through various crises cannot be more difficult than the task faced by the Sanhedrin, although it may seem so at times. The Nesi’im’s philosophies can serve as a paradigm or touchstone for the successful leader of today and may be summarized as follows:

.Leadership can be developed.

.A leader should not make decisions without consulting with others. One must have a mentor. Leaders must possess humility.

.Consider others favorably. A leader should have empathy for followers.

.Love work. Effort is the source of virtue as well as respect.

.Be egalitarian.

.Great leaders follow the golden rule.

.Be moral and truthful.

.The leader who believes in his or her own cause will be most successful.

.Knowledge is power. Knowledge is a resource that automatically decreases if it is not being increased.

.An organization survives on the basis of moral vision, truth, concern for others, and peace.

.An effective leader takes risks on behalf of a moral cause, thus earning the respect of followers.

Transformational leaders have the ability to motivate followers and enable them to enact momentous accomplishments and revolutionary change. The Sanhedrin and its leaders guided the Jewish people through several serious crises, including attacks on Jewish beliefs by Hellenists and persecution by the Romans. The destruction of the Second Temple and Jerusalem by the Romans was a huge catastrophe for the Jewish people. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed and a large number of Jews were sold into slavery. A revolution headed by Shimon Bar Kochba (132-135) ended in disaster and was followed by severe religious persecution. Things could not look any bleaker for the Jewish people. What enabled the survival of a persecuted and dispersed people without a country or temple to unify them? The Sanhedrin.

After the Temple’s destruction by the Romans, Judaism was transformed by the Sanhedrin from a Temple-based religion centered in the Holy Land to a portable religion focused on halacha (Jewish law), the Beit Midrash (house of study), and the Beit Ha-Knesset (synagogue). This enabled the Jewish people to survive their encounter with Rome. True, the Sanhedrin had virtually no power to enforce its laws. Yet its impact influenced not only Judaism but also Christianity (and probably Islam) as well. The philosophies and values of Nesi’im such as Hillel and Gamliel, recorded in the Talmud and Midrash, did what large armies could not have accomplished: destroy the pagan values of the Greeks and Romans. The world we live in today has been dramatically changed because of such values as monotheism, justice, peace, caring for one’s fellow human being, and tikkun olam (lit. repairing the world), beliefs inculcated into the Jewish people and humankind by the Sanhedrin.


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[1] Bryman provides an excellent review of the literature on charisma and leadership. He argues that charisma is socially constructed. He defines the charismatic leader as:

"Someone who is viewed as extraordinary and special by followers. These followers allow the charismatic leader to have power over them and they submit willingly to his or her commands. The followers view the charismatic leader with a mixture of reverence, unflinching loyalty and awe…by virtue of the extraordinary qualities that followers attribute to their leader and the latter’s mission."

[2] The Talmud is the compilation of ancient Jewish Oral law or case law. It consists of the mishna, compiled and redacted by Rabbi Yehuda the Nasi about the year 189 CE in Israel; and the gemara, commentaries and discussions on the mishna completed about 1,500 years ago. There were two academies, in Israel and Babylon, independently studying the mishna. Thus there are two versions of the Talmud: the Jerusalem Talmud, a product of the academies in Israel, and the Babylonian Talmud, a product of the academies in Babylon. The Babylonian Talmud is considerably larger than that of the Jerusalem Talmud, and it is more authoritative. References to the Talmud without qualification are usually to the Babylonian Talmud. There are 63 tractates including Sanhedrin, Avot, and Gittin.

[3] This and the following two paragraphs rely on Johnson (1987) and Roth (1948).

[4] ‘Maccabee’ is Hebrew for hammer.

[5] Acts 5:17-18 refer to the high priest’s arresting Peter and the apostles, and Acts 5:27 refers to a trial before a Sanhedrin. Matthew 27:1, Mark 15:1, and Luke 22:66 also refer to a council or Sanhedrin as trying Jesus of Nazareth. There has been some historical debate as to whether these are references to the Great Sanhedrin of 71 members discussed herein or one of several small Sanhedrins of 23 members (Zeitlin, 1943).

[6] Some scholars believe that the Hillel referred to in Avot 2 is not Hillel the elder but Hillel the son of Gamliel III.

[7] Acts 22:3