Horayot (Hebrew: הוֹרָיוֹת‎; "Decisions") is a tractate in Seder Nezikin in the Talmud. In the Mishnah, this is the tenth and last tractate in Nezikin; in the Babylonian Talmud the ninth tractate; in the Jerusalem Talmud the eighth. It consists of three chapters in the Mishnah and two in the Tosefta. The tractate mainly discusses laws pertaining to erroneous rulings by a Jewish court, as well as unwitting actions performed by leading authorities of the Jewish people, and the sacrificial offering, or korban, that might be brought as a consequence of these actions.[1]

Holman National Sin Offering



The Mishnah of Horayot is the final work of Nezikin. Horayot contains three chapters. There are twenty paragraphs of Mishna, or twenty mishnayot, within the three chapters. These chapters deal with the verses in the Torah (Leviticus 4) that specify different procedures for the sin offering brought by a private individual, an anointed priest, a nasi, and an entire community. The "community's" offering (Leviticus 4:13–21) is understood to be that brought when the community has followed an erroneous ruling by the higher court. In addition to the discussion in Leviticus 4, the Torah also mentions community offerings in (Numbers 15:22–29). The sages understand the second passage in Numbers to be referencing the specific sin of unintentional idolatry committed by the congregation.[2]

Chapter 1 - Sacrifice for unintentional sinsEdit

Maimonides sums up the conditions necessary for the bringing of such a sacrifice, found in the first and second chapters, as follows:[3] (1) the head of the Sanhedrin and all its members must have been present when the decision was rendered; (2) every one of them must have been fully qualified to serve as a member of that body; (3) the decision must have been passed by a unanimous vote; (4) the error must concern a Biblical law; (5) at least a majority of the people must have followed the decision in practice; (6) those who followed the decision in practice must have been unaware of the mistake, and must have supposed that they were acting in accordance with law; (7) the error must have been due merely to ignorance of a matter of detail, and not to ignorance of the existence of the whole Biblical law in question. Unless these conditions are present, every one of those who has acted in accordance with the erroneous enactment must bring an individual offering.

Chapter 2 - The unintentional sins of the High Priest and KingEdit

The anointed priest who had interpreted some Biblical law erroneously, and acted accordingly, was required to bring a special sacrifice. The same conditions that governed the case of an erroneous ruling of the court with regard to the practice of the community governed also the erroneous decision of the anointed priest with regard to his own practice. The laws regarding the special sacrifice of the nasi are also discussed in this chapter.

Chapter 3 - PrecedenceEdit

In the cases of the anointed priest and the nasi, whose tenure of office is temporary, a question might arise as to the kind of sacrifice they must bring for sins committed before entering their offices, or after leaving them. If the sin was committed before they assumed office, they were both regarded as private individuals. If the sin was committed after they left their offices, the nasi was regarded as an individual, while the status of the anointed priest was unchanged.

After the Mishnah has defined the term "anointed priest" and determined his position in the Temple, it enters upon a discussion of matters of priority — as between man and woman in cases of charity, or as regards the return of a lost object. It then enumerates the various castes among the Jews and their order of priority with regard to the calling up to read the Law, etc. — priests, Levites, Israelites, illegitimates, Nethinim (the alleged descendants of the Gibeonites), proselytes, and freed slaves. However, this priority is overridden by one's level of scholarship or piety: "This is only when all other things are equal, but in the case of an ignorant priest and a scholar who is an illegitimate, the latter must precede the priest in all honors."


Tractate Horayot in the Babylonian Talmud consists of only fourteen pages. It is the shortest tractate of gemara in the Babylonian Talmud, from among all the tractates of gemara that comprehensively cover the Mishnah in their respective tractates. In many editions it is printed together with tractate Avodah Zarah. The gemara is mainly devoted to the interpretation of the laws of the Mishnah dealing with sacrifices for unintentional sin, with a few aggadic digressions in the third chapter. The commentary attributed to Rashi is more profuse here than in other parts of the Talmud. There is reason to believe[4] that this commentary attributed to Rashi on Horayot was actually composed by the school of Rabbeinu Gershom.[5] The Tosafot published in the Vilna Edition Shas extend only to the first two chapters, the style and method, mainly of an interpretative nature, being very different from those of the tosafot to other books. In the Vilna edition, besides the commentary of Rabbeinu Hananel, there is a commentary called Tosafot HaRosh, attributed to Asher ben Jehiel.

Chapter 1 of Babylonian Talmud HorayotEdit

The first chapter of the Babylonian Talmud tractate Horayot deals with controversies regarding mistaken rulings of the court. The first Mishnah in Horayot discusses the authority of the sages and the responsibility to act autonomously and not follow a misguided ruling. A sage who is expert in halakha and knows that the court was mistaken in its ruling, should not follow a misguided ruling of the court and perform a forbidden action. This applies to an individual who has great understanding of halakha. However, an individual who is not an expert and does not know that the court's ruling is indeed misguided would be exempt from punishment, were he to transgress a commandment through following the court's incorrect ruling.[6]

From this first Mishnah and talmudic discussion that follows the conclusion is drawn that individuals who are expert in halakha are obligated to weigh their internal truth and autonomous decision before acting on halakhic matters. As one modern writer notes, the "inner truth" of halakha takes precedence over a court's instructions, especially when the court's instructions require one to transgress halakha. The Mishna calls for experts on halakha to be independent in reaching halakhic conclusions. [7]

The Gemara rules that each tribe in Israel is considered as a congregation, after the verse "And Jehoshaphat stood in the congregation." II Chronicles 20:5[8] However, the bull that atones for the communal transgression is only brought when the majority of tribes or majority of Israel population err and follow a mistaken ruling. Twelve bulls are offered at the Temple for a sin of the entire people, but if it is a sin of idol worship then twelve bulls and twelve goats are sacrificed.[9]

The Gemara proceeds to further limit the cases in which a court would bring a bull that atones for communal transgression. The only times when the bull is offered to atone for communal transgression is when the entire congregation sinned based on court ruling on a detail of mitzvah prohibited in the Torah; i.e., no bull would be brought if the court annulled an entire negative prohibition and the congregation blindly followed them. Likewise, no bull atoning for communal transgression would be brought if the court ruled on a matter that is so obvious that even the most straightforward reading of the Hebrew Bible would lead one to realize that the court is mistaken. In the language of the Talmud, if the matter is such that even the Sadducees acknowledge it is a prohibited mitzvah in the Torah, no bull would be brought in such a case of communal transgression following a court's unwitting ruling.[10]

Placement in the Order NezikinEdit

The topics of Horayot, relating largely to sacrificial offerings, may seemingly have fit well within the Order of Kodashim (holies). In fact, Maimonides codifies the laws of Horayot in his Mishneh Torah in Sefer Korbanot, Hilkhot Shegagot or under the laws of Unintentional Sacrificial Offerings. Maimonides explains the reason that the compilers of the Mishnah decided on placing Horayot last in the Order of Nezikin was because after they dealt with torts and the laws of capital punishment, and then with ethics in Pirkei Avot the sages felt it necessary to include a section on mistaken rulings. Maimonides writes that we are all human and have the capacity for sin, and even the greatest of judges may issue mistaken rulings.[11]

Further readingEdit

  • Joshua A. Fogel. Decisions, Decisions, Decisions : Reading Tractate Horayot of the Babylonian Talmud. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9780761861324.


  1. ^ Steinsaltz, Adin. Koren Talmud Bavli: Avoda Zara, Horayot (First Hebrew/ English, 2017 ed.). Koren. p. 413. ISBN 9789653015937.
  2. ^ Steinsaltz. Ibid.
  3. ^ Maimonides, Introduction to commentary on the mishnah of Horayot
  4. ^ Fuderman, Kirsten A. Vernacular Voices: Language and Identity in Medieval French Jewish. University of Pennsylvania. p. 104.
  5. ^ See Y.N. Epstein "The Commentary on Horayot Attributed to Rashi" [in Hebrew] Tabiz 1942 pp. 218-225.
  6. ^ T.B. Horayot 2a
  7. ^ Ben-David, Yitzchak, "Rabbinical Authority vs Personal Responsibility in Religious Zionism" in Etzah Laderech, p.17. (Published by Kibbutz Hadati and Ne'emanei Torah Va'Avodah:2010).
  8. ^ II Chronicles 20:5, The Bible (Jewish Publication Society, 1917)
  9. ^ T.B. Hor. 5b-6a
  10. ^ T.B. Hor. 4a
  11. ^ "Rambam Introduction to the Mishnah 15". www.sefaria.org. Retrieved Jul 15, 2020.

  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSinger, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "Horayot". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.