Parsha Mitzvot: Pekudei: Communal Authority
The following responsum some deals with a question vital to the Jewry of the Middle Ages, namely, communal authority, its source and extent. Since the Jews did not belong to any of the feudal classes, they often had virtual self-government. The secular government consented to this, since Jewish self-government made it easier to collect taxes from the Jews. The governments simply taxed the community and the community taxed its members.
Since the Jewish community fixed the assessments for the taxes, the question of the right of an individual or a minority to protest against the assessment frequently arose. This and related questions often involves the basic question: What right had the community to impose burdens on an individual?
Thus, the basis of communal powers and authority was a frequent subject of discussion among the early authorities. Some believed that the communities authority stemmed from the fact that the community was organized initially by the unanimous consent of its members. Others held that great scholars living in the community inherited the rights of the old Sanhedrin to exercise authority over the community.
In this responsum, the Maharam merges various past opinions on the authority of the community: first, that it must rest on the complete consent of all its members, not necessarily for every decision, but certainly for the choice of the leaders who make the decisions; he speaks, besides, of the special authority of “a great man.”
The specific question here deals with the community in which a few of the men come to a private agreement to govern the community and to assess the taxes.
The responsum concerns the members of the community, a few of whom banded themselves together and appointed a presiding officer without the consent of the entire community and therefore, not legally, wish to govern the rest of the community, to impose taxes, and manage religious and civil matters, to be lenient or to be strict as they desired.
They are not legally masters in this matter. They are not permitted to make any new enactments without the consent of all. For this statement in the Talmud to the effect that the members of the community can levy fines in support of their decisions, really means after the consent of the entire community has been given. Then they may do so without formal contractual arrangements. They may take possession of property by their words alone. Then it thus they are permitted to impose a fine when all who had accepted their authority, but who subsequently violate their decisions. They are permitted to impose the fines in accordance with which the community has agreed to.
But here, in this case, these men have appointed themselves as rulers. They have no such authority, especially here where there is “a great man” in the city. This we derive from the first chapter of Bava Batra: There is mention of the case of those butchers who agreed that whichever one slaughtered one a day which belongs to his fellow butcher, such a one shall be punished by having the hide of the animal he has slaughtered torn apart.
But here, where “a great man” is to be found among them, it is not for them to make decisions.
Even the terms that they fixed among themselves, since they did not fix them with the knowledge of the great men, they have no validity. All the more do they not have the authority to apply their decision against the great scholar himself in any way. Such action is simply inconceivable. (Responsum 968)