Capital and corporal punishment in Judaism

The Jewish tradition describes certain forms of corporal punishment and capital punishment for certain crimes, while cautioning against the use of such punishments.

Capital punishment in classical sources

Illustration in 1883 encyclopaedia of the ancient Jewish Sanhedrin council

The harshness of the death penalty indicated the seriousness of the crime. Jewish philosophers argue that the whole point of corporal punishment was to serve as a reminder to the community of the severe nature of certain acts. This is why, in Jewish law, the death penalty is more of a principle than a practice. The numerous references to a death penalty in the Torah underscore the severity of the sin rather than the expectation of death. This is bolstered by the standards of proof required for application of the death penalty, which has always been extremely stringent (Babylonian Talmud Makkoth 7b). Because the standards of proof were so high, it was well-nigh impossible to inflict the death penalty. The Mishnah (tractate Makkoth 1:10) outlines the views of several prominent first-century CE Rabbis on the subject:[1]

A Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called a murderous one. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says 'Or even once in 70 years.' Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba said, 'If we had been in the Sanhedrin no death sentence would ever have been passed'; Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel said: 'If so, they would have multiplied murderers in Israel.'

The Sanhedrin stopped issuing capital punishment either after the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE or alternatively, according to passages in the Talmud and New Testament, in 30 CE when the Sanhedrin were moved out of the Hall of Hewn Stones. Other sources such as Josephus and other passages in the New Testament disagree. The issue is highly debated because of the relevancy to the New Testament trial of Jesus.[2][3] Ancient rabbis did not like the idea of capital punishment, and interpreted the texts in a way that made the death penalty virtually non-existent. The idea of killing someone for a crime they commit is frowned upon in the Jewish tradition.

The 12th-century Jewish legal scholar Maimonides stated that "It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death." Maimonides argued that executing a defendant on anything less than absolute certainty would lead to a slippery slope of decreasing burdens of proof, until we would be convicting merely "according to the judge's caprice." Maimonides was concerned about the need for the law to guard itself in public perceptions, to preserve its majesty and retain the people's respect.[4]

Stringencies of evidence in capital cases

As a result, convictions for capital offense were rare in Judaism.[6][7]

The four types of capital punishment

Before any capital sentence was carried out, the condemned person was given a drug to render them senseless. There were four types of capital punishment, known as mitath beth din (execution by the rabbinic court). These four types of capital punishment, in decreasing severity, were:

Capital sins separated by the four types of capital punishment

The following is a list by Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah (Hilchoth Sanhedrin Chapter 15) of which crimes carry a capital punishment.

Punishment by Sekila (stoning)

Punishment by Serefah (burning)

Punishment by Hereg (beheading)

Punishment by Chenek (strangulation)

Contemporary attitudes towards capital punishment

Leading rabbis in Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and Reform Judaism tend to hold that the death penalty is a correct and just punishment in theory, but they hold that it should not generally be used (or not used at all) in practice. In practice the application of such a punishment can only be carried out by humans whose system of justice is nearly perfect, a situation which has not existed for some time or never existed at all.

Rabbinical courts have given up the ability to inflict any kind of physical punishment, and such punishments are left to the civil court system to administer. But the modern institution of the death penalty is opposed by the major rabbinical organizations of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism.

Orthodox Judaism

Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Edelstein writes:

So, at least theoretically, the Torah can be said to be pro-capital punishment. It is not morally wrong, in absolute terms, to put a murderer to death… However, things look rather different when we turn our attention to the practical realization of this seemingly harsh legislation. You may be aware that it was exceedingly difficult, in practice, to carry out the death penalty in Jewish society... I think it's clear that with regard to Jewish jurisprudence, the capital punishment outlined by the Written and Oral Torah, and as carried out by the greatest Sages from among our people (who were paragons of humility and humanity and not just scholarship, needless to say), did not remotely resemble the death penalty in modern America (or Texas). In theory, capital punishment is kosher; it's morally right, in the Torah's eyes. But we have seen that there was great concernexpressed both in the legislation of the Torah, and in the sentiments of some of our great Sages — regarding its practical implementation. It was carried out in ancient Israel, but only with great difficulty. Once in seventy years; not 135 in five and a half.
Rabbi Yosef Edelstein, Director of the Savannah Kollel

Orthodox Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan writes:

In practice, however, these punishments were almost never invoked, and existed mainly as a deterrent and to indicate the seriousness of the sins for which they were prescribed. The rules of evidence and other safeguards that the Torah provides to protect the accused made it all but impossible to actually invoke these penalties… the system of judicial punishments could become brutal and barbaric unless administered in an atmosphere of the highest morality and piety. When these standards declined among the Jewish people, the Sanhedrin… voluntarily abolished this system of penalties.
(Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Handbook of Jewish Thought, Volume II, pp. 170-71

On the other hand, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in a letter to then New York Governor Hugh Carey[8] states: "One who murders because the prohibition to kill is meaningless to him and he is especially cruel, and so too when murderers and evil people proliferate they [the courts] would [should?] judge [capital punishment] to repair the issue [and] to prevent murder – for this [action of the court] saves the state."

Conservative Judaism

In Conservative Judaism the death penalty was the subject of a responsum by its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which has gone on record as opposing the modern institution of the death penalty:

The Talmud ruled out the admissibility of circumstantial evidence in cases which involved a capital crime. Two witnesses were required to testify that they saw the action with their own eyes. A man could not be found guilty of a capital crime through his own confession or through the testimony of immediate members of his family. The rabbis demanded a condition of cool premeditation in the act of crime before they would sanction the death penalty; the specific test on which they insisted was that the criminal be warned prior to the crime, and that the criminal indicate by responding to the warning, that he is fully aware of his deed, but that he is determined to go through with it. In effect this did away with the application of the death penalty. The rabbis were aware of this, and they declared openly that they found capital punishment repugnant to them… There is another reason which argues for the abolition of capital punishment. It is the fact of human fallibility. Too often we learn of people who were convicted of crimes and only later are new facts uncovered by which their innocence is established. The doors of the jail can be opened, in such cases we can partially undo the injustice. But the dead cannot be brought back to life again. We regard all forms of capital punishment as barbaric and obsolete.
Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, Statement on capital punishment, 1960. Proceedings of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards 1927-1970, Volume III, pp. 1537-1538

Reform Judaism

Since 1959, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) have formally opposed the death penalty. The CCAR resolved in 1979 that "both in concept and in practice, Jewish tradition found capital punishment repugnant" and there is no persuasive evidence "that capital punishment serves as a deterrent to crime."[9]

In the Pentateuch

Warrants for the infliction of capital punishment, as opposed to private retribution or vengeance, are found in the Pentateuchal codes for the commission of any one of the following crimes: adultery (Lev. xx. 10; Deut. xxii. 22); bestiality (Ex. xxii. 18 [A. V. 19]; Lev. xx. 15); blasphemy (Lev. xxiv. 16); false evidence in capital cases (Deut. xix. 16-19); false prophecy (Deut. xiii. 6, xviii. 20); idolatry, actual or virtual (Lev. xx. 2; Deut. xiii. 7-19, xvii. 2-7); incestuous or unnatural connections (Lev. xviii. 22, xx. 11-14); insubordination to supreme authority (Deut. xvii. 12); kidnapping (Ex. xxi. 16; Deut. xxiv. 7); licentiousness of a priest's daughter (Lev. xxi. 9); murder (Ex. xxi. 12; Lev. xxiv. 17; Num. xxxv. 16 et seq.); rape committed on a betrothed woman (Deut. xxii. 25); striking or cursing a parent, or otherwise rebelling against parental authority (Ex. xxi. 15, 17; Lev. xx. 9; Deut. xxi. 18-21); Sabbath-breaking (Ex. xxxi. 14, xxxv. 2; Num. xv. 32-36); witchcraft and augury (Ex. xxii. 17; Lev. xx. 27).

Modes of punishment

Only in comparatively few instances is the particular mode of death incurred by the commission of a crime prescribed. Blasphemy, idolatry, Sabbath-breaking, witchcraft, prostitution by a betrothed virgin, or deceiving her husband at marriage as to her chastity (Deut. xxii. 21), and the rebellious son are, according to the Pentateuchal laws, to be punished with death by stoning; bigamous marriage with a wife's mother and the prostitution of a priest's daughter are punished by burning; communal apostasy is punished by the sword. With reference to all other capital offenses, the law ordains that the perpetrator shall die a violent death, occasionally adding the expression, "His (their) blood shall be upon him (them)." This expression, as we shall see presently, post-Biblical legislation applies to death by stoning. The Bible speaks also of hanging (Deut. xxi. 22), but, according to the rabbinical interpretation, not as a mode of execution, but rather of exposure after death (Sanh. vi. 4, 75b).

Rabbinic Developments

In Rabbinic Law

An old-established rule of rabbinic jurisprudence forbids the infliction of punishment where there is no Biblical authority for such punishment (Sanh. 82b; compare Sifre, Deut. 154). That authority, however, may be established by Gezerah Shawah (); i.e., by comparing similar or analogous expressions in two or more passages, in one of which the meaning and import of the expression are unmistakable (Ker. 5a). Similarly in cases where the Pentateuch imposes the death penalty, without specifying the mode of death, Talmudic jurisprudence discovers the particular mode intended by means of the principle of Gezerah shawah. Thus: In reference to the man or the woman who makes use of "a familiar spirit"—i.e., "a wizard"—the law says (Lev. xx. 27), "They shall stone them with stones; their blood shall be upon them" (). Here the expression "Demehem bam" is plainly used in connection with death by stoning; hence it is argued that, wherever the same expression occurs in the Pentateuch in connection with the death penalty, it means death by stoning, and consequently the punishment of the crimes mentioned in Lev. xx. 9, 11, 12, 13, 16, is the same: death by stoning (Mek., Mishpaṭim, 17; Sifra, Ḳedoshim, ix.; Sanh. 53b, 66a). Again, with reference to the perpetrator of bestiality the law reads (Lev. xx. 15), "He shall surely be put to death; and ye shall slay the beast." Here the particular mode of death is not stated, but rabbinic law again infers it by means of a Gezerah shawah. Since, with reference to the enticer to idolatry, the Bible (Deut. xiii 10 [A. V. 9]) employs the term Harag = "to slay" ("Thou shalt surely slay him"), and this is immediately explained by the addition (ib. 11 [A. V. 10]), "Thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die," it follows that the term "harag" used in reference to the beast likewise means to slay by stoning. And as for the criminal himself, his sentence is the same as that of the beast in connection with which he is mentioned (Sifra, l.c. x.; Sanh. 54b). In the case of the instigator to communal apostasy ("maddiaḥ") the law reads (Deut. xiii. 6 [A. V. 5]), "He hath spoken . . . to thrust thee out of the way of the Lord," and in that of the enticer of individuals ("mesit") the identical expression is used: "He hath sought to thrust thee away from the Lord" (ib. 11 [A. V. 10]); hence as in the latter case stoning is the penalty, so it is in the former (Sifre, Deut. 86; Sanh. 89b). Finally, concerning the witch, it is said (Ex. xii. 17 [A. V. 18]), "Thou shalt not suffer her to live," and elsewhere (ib. xix. 13) the expression, "Shall not live," is used in connection with "He shall surely be stoned"; therefore in the first case the particular penalty is to be the same as in the second (Mek., l.c.; Sanh. 67a).

According to these conclusions, rabbinic law based on Pentateuchal authority, expressed or inferred, affixes death by stoning to each of the following eighteen crimes: 1. Bestiality committed by man (Lev. xx. 15; Sanh. vii. 4, 54b; Sifra, Ḳedoshim, x. 1; Mek., Mishpaṭim, 17). 2. Bestiality committed by woman (Lev. xx. 16: Sanh. vii. 4, 54b; Sifra, Ḳedoshim, x. 3; Mek., Mishpaṭim, 17). 3. Blasphemy (Lev. xxiv. 16; Sanh. vii. 4, 43a; Sifra, Emor, xix.). 4. Criminal conversation with a betrothed virgin (Deut. xxii. 23, 24; Sanh. vii. 4, 66b; Sifre, Deut. 242). 5. Criminal conversation with one's own daughter-in-law (Lev. xx. 12; Sanh. vii. 4, 53a; Sifra, Ḳedoshim, ix. 13). 6. Criminal conversation with one's own mother (Lev. xviii. 7, xx. 11; Sanh. vii. 4, 53a; Sifra, Ḳedoshim, ix. 12). 7. Criminal conversation with one's own stepmother (Lev. xviii. 8, xx. 11; Sanh. vii. 4, 53a; Sifra, Ḳedoshim, ix. 12). 8. Cursing a parent (Lev. xx. 9; Sanh. vii. 4, 66a; Mek., Mishpaṭim, 17; Sifra, Ḳedoshim, ix. 7). 9. Enticing individuals to idolatry: "Mesit" (Deut. xiii. 7-12 [A. V. 6-11]; Sanh. vii. 4, 67a; Sifre, Deut. 90). 10. Idolatry (Deut. xvii. 2-7; Sanh. vii. 4, 60b; Sifre, Deut. 149). 11. Instigating communities to idolatry: "Maddiaḥ" (Deut. xiii. 2-6 [A. V. 1-5]; Sanh. vii. 4, 67a; Sifre, Deut. 86). 12. Necromancy (Lev. xx. 27; Sanh. vii. 4, 65a; Sifra, Ḳedoshim, xi., end). 13. Offering one's own children to Molech (Lev. xx. 2; Sanh. vii. 4, 64a; Sifra, Ḳedoshim, viii., parashah 10, beginning). 14. Pederasty (Lev. xx. 13; Sanh. vii. 4, 54a; Sifra, Ḳedoshim, ix. 14). 15. Pythonism (Lev. xx. 27; Sanh. vii. 4, 65a; Sifra, Ḳedoshim, xi., end). 16. Rebelling against parents (Deut. xxi. 18-21; Sanh. vii. 4, 68b; Sifre, Deut. 220). 17. Sabbath-breaking (Num. xv. 32-36; Sanh. vii. 4; Sifre, Num. 114). 18. Witchcraft (Ex. xxii. 17 [A. V. 18]; Sanh. vii. 4, 67a; Mek., Mishpaṭim, 17).

As in the several classes included in the above category (1, 2, 5, 7, 8, 14) rabbinic jurisprudence establishes the particular punishment of the criminal on the basis of Gezerah shawah, so in most cases of the following category the particular punishment is deduced from Gezerah shawah. Thus, with reference to bigamy with mother and daughter the law reads (Lev. xx. 14): "It is wickedness" ("Zimmah hi"), and because elsewhere (ib. xviii. 17) the identical expression is used with reference to criminal conversation of man with female relatives of other degrees, rabbinic law affixes the penalty which the Pentateuch attaches to the former also to the latter (Sanh. ix. 1, 75a; Sifra, Ḳedoshim, ix. 17). On the same principle the Rabbis establish the penalty for such conversation with relatives within certain ascending degrees, comparing them with the descending degrees of like removes, explicitly mentioned in the Bible (Yeb. 21a et seq.; Yer. Sanh. ix. 26d; Yer. Yeb. ii. 3d).

The crimes punished in rabbinic law with death by burning are accordingly the following ten: 1. Sex ( to be referred to as "criminal conversation") by a priest's daughter (Lev. xxi. 9; Sanh. ix. 1, 76a; Sifra, Emor, i. 14 et seq.). 2. Criminal conversation with one's own daughter (Yeb. 3a; Sanh. ix. 1, 75a). 3. Criminal conversation with one's own daughter's daughter (Lev. xviii. 10; Sanh. ix. 1, 75a). 4. Criminal conversation with one's own son's daughter (Lev. xviii. 10; Sanh. ix. 1, 75a). 5. Criminal conversation with one's own stepdaughter (Lev. xviii. 17; Sanh. ix. 1, 75a; Sifra, Ḳedoshim, ix. 16). 6. Criminal conversation with one's own stepdaughter's daughter (Lev. xviii. 17; Sanh. ix. 1, 75a; Sifra, Ḳedoshim, ix. 16). 7. Criminal conversation with one's own stepson's daughter (Lev. xviii. 17; Sanh. ix. 1, 75a; Sifra, Ḳedoshim, ix. 16). 8. Criminal conversation with one's own mother-in-law (Lev. xx. 14; Sanh. ix. 1, 75a; Sifra, Ḳedoshim, ix. 15). 9. Criminal conversation with one's own mother-in-law's mother (Sanh. ix. 1, 75a; Sifra. Ḳedoshim, ix. 17; Yeb. 21a et seq.). 10. Criminal conversation with one's own father-in-law's mother (Sanh. ix. 1, 75a; Sifra, Ḳedoshim, ix. 17; Yeb. 21a).

The nine cases of incest here enumerated (2-10) subject the perpetrator to the penalty of burning only when the crime is committed during the life of his legal wife (Yeb. 95a; Sanh. 76b; see Maimonides, "Yad," Issure Bi'ah, i. 5).

Two crimes only are punished by slaying: 1. Communal apostasy (converting Jews from Judaism to another religion en masse for example "Jews for Jesus,") (Deut. xiii. 13-16 [A. V. 12-15]; Sanh. ix. 1, 52b; Sifre, Deut. 94.). 2. Murder (Ex. xxi. 12; Lev. xxiv. 17; Sanh. ix. 1, 52b; Mek., Mishpaṭim, 4; Sifre, Num. 160; see Homicide).

The penalty for the first is explicitly declared (Deut xiii. 16 [A. V. 15]): "Thou shalt surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword"; but that of the latter is again based on the principle of the Gezerah shawah. As with reference to a murderer the law is (Ex. xxi. 20), "He shall surely be punished" ("naḳom yinnaḳem"; literally, "It shall surely be avenged"), and elsewhere (Lev. xxvi. 25) an "avenging sword" ("ḥereb noḳemet") is spoken of, the Rabbis argue that the term "naḳom" applied to homicide has the significance given to it by its connection with sword (Sanh. vii. 3, 52b; Mek., Mishpaṭim, 4).

To the three modes of capital punishment explicitly mentioned in the Pentateuchal laws, rabbinic law adds a fourth; viz., strangulation. In post-Biblical jurisprudence this is the penalty incurred by the perpetrator of any one of the crimes to which the Pentateuch affixes death, without specifying the mode of death and where no conclusions from Gezerah shawah can be deduced. The Rabbis argue thus: No death-sentence pronounced in the Bible indefinitely may be construed with severity; on the contrary, it must be interpreted leniently. And since the Rabbis viewed strangulation as the easiest of deaths, they decided that the undefined death-sentence of the Pentateuchal code means strangulation. Moreover, the Bible frequently speaks of death sent "by Heaven" for certain sins (for example: Gen. xxxviii. 7, 10; Lev. x. 7, 9); and as the death visited by Heaven leaves no outward mark, so must the death inflicted by a human tribunal leave no outward marks, and that is possible only in an execution by strangulation (Mek., Mishpaṭim, 5; Sifra, Ḳedoshim, ix. 11; Sanh. 52b).

By strangulation the following six crimes are punished: 1. Adultery (Lev. xx. 10; Deut. xxii. 22; Sanh. xi. 1, 52b; Sifra, Ḳedoshim, ix. 11; Sifre, Deut. 241; see Adultery). 2. Bruising a parent (Ex. xxi. 15; Sanh. xi. 1, 84b; Mek., Mishpaṭim, 5). 3. False prophecy (Deut. xviii. 20; Sanh. xi. 1, 5, 89a; Sifre, Deut. 178). 4. Insubordination to supreme authority; "Zaḳen mamre," (Deut. xvii. 12; Sanh. xi. 1, 87a; Sifre, Deut. 155). 5. Kidnaping (Ex. xxi. 16; Deut. xxiv. 7; Sanh. xi. 1, 85b; Mek., Mishpaṭim, 5; Sifre, Deut. 273; see Abduction). 6. Prophesying in the name of heathen deities (Deut. xviii. 20; Sanh. xi. 1, 5, 89a; Sifre, Deut. 178).

Of the four modes of capital punishment—stoning, burning, slaying, and strangulation—the first is considered by the majority of Rabbis the severest; the last, the mildest (Sanh. vii. 1, 49b et seq.). Hence when convicts condemned to different modes of capital punishment become intermixed beyond the possibility of identification and classification, all of them suffer the sentence carrying with it the death named lowest in the order cited above (Sanh. ix. 3, 80b). On the other hand, when one is found guilty of several crimes of different grades of punishment, he will suffer the severest death to which he is liable (Sanh. ix. 4, 81a; compare Tos. Yom-Ṭob to Mishnah).

Mode of judgment

Capital punishment in rabbinic law, or indeed any other punishment, must not be inflicted, except by the verdict of a regularly constituted court (Lesser Sanh.) of three-and-twenty qualified members (Sanh. i. 1; Sifre, Num. 160), and except on the most trustworthy and convincing testimony of at least two qualified eyewitnesses to the crime (Deut. xvii. 6, xix. 15; Soṭah vi. 3; Sifre, Num. 161; ib. Deut. 150, 188; Sanh. 30a) who must also depose that the culprit had been forewarned as to the criminality and the consequences of his project (Sanh. v. 1, 40b et seq.; see Hatraah). The culprit must be a person of legal age and of sound mind, and the crime must be proved to have been committed of the culprit's free will and without the aid of others (see Abetment); and if any one wilfully kills him before conviction, a charge of murder will lie against such perpetrator (Tosef., B. Ḳ. ix. 15; Sifre, Num. 161; compare 'Ar. i. 3, 6b). Nor may an execution be deferred, except in the case of the "Zaḳen mamre" (Sanh. xi. 4), or of a woman about to be delivered of a child ('Ar. i. 4), nor may it be carried out on a day sacred to religion (Mek., Mishpaṭim, 4; ib. Wayyaḳhel; Yeb. 6b; Sanh. 35b). On the day that the verdict is pronounced, the convict is led forth to execution (Sanh. 34a). Looking upon the sinner as upon the victim of folly (Soṭah 3a), and considering death an expiation for misdeeds (Ber. 60a; Sanh. vi. 2; see Atonement), the Rabbis would not permit the protraction of the interval between sentence and execution, which they considered as the most terrible period in the convict's existence. These considerations prompted them to afford the convict every possible alleviation of the pains and sufferings concomitant with the execution, and to direct the execution itself so as to prevent the mutilation of the body, or to reduce such mutilation, where it is unavoidable—as in stoning or slaying—to a minimum. The Pentateuchal law (Lev. xix. 18) prescribes, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thy-self"; and the Rabbis maintain that this love must be extended beyond the limits of social intercourse in life, and applied even to the convicted criminal who, "though a sinner, is still thy brother" (Mak. iii. 15; Sanh. 44a): "The spirit of love must be manifested by according him a decent death" (Sanh. 45a, 52a).

Execution of sentence

As the convict is led forth to the place of execution, which is located outside of the city limits and at some distance from the court-house (Sanh. vi. 1, 42b), a flag-bearer is stationed at the entrance to the court, and farther on a rider is placed, while a herald marches in front of the procession, proclaiming the name of the convict, his crime, when and where committed, and the names of the witnesses on whose evidence he was convicted, at the same time inviting any and every one in possession of evidence favorable to the convict to come forward and declare it—the judges remaining in session throughout the process of the execution and fasting all that day (M. Ḳ. 14b; Sanh. 63a). If favorable evidence comes to light, the flag-bearer gives the signal, and the rider turns the procession back to the court where the new evidence is duly considered. Indeed, the convict's own declaration that he can prove his innocence, or mitigating circumstances, cause a stay until he is heard. And even where he fails to effect a reversal of sentence by his first attempt, there is still hope left for him. He may repeat the attempt several times, two scholars accompanying him for the purpose of hearing him and judging whether further delay should be permitted. On arriving in the neighborhood of the scaffold, he is exhorted to make confession of his sins, though not specifically of the crime for which he is to suffer death (see Confession of Sin). Thereupon he is given to drink a mixture of wine and olibanum, that he may become stupefied and not realize the painful close of his earthly career (Sem. ii. 9; Sanh. 43a; compare Mark xv. 23; contrast Matt. xxvii. 34). When he is brought still nearer to the fatal place, he is divested of his clothes and covered in front, and, if a woman, in front and behind (according to the adopted opinion, a woman was not divested at all). In this state the convict was led on to the spot (Sanh. vi. 1-3, 42b-45b; Tosef., Sanh. ix. 6; Sifra, Emor, xix. 3; Sifre, Deut. 221). Then the prosecuting witnesses, who are the only legal executioners known to Biblical and rabbinic laws (Deut. xvii. 7; Sifra, Emor, xix. 3; Sifre, Deut. 89, 151; Sanh. 45b), proceed to carry out the sentence which their evidence has brought about. That is done in the following manner:

The "Four Deaths"

Stoning (Skilah)

With reference to two offenders subject to this penalty, the Pentateuch says, "Thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people" (Deut. xiii. 10 [A. V. 9]), and again (ib. xvii. 7), "The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people." Rabbinic law follows this injunction literally, but confines its consummation within narrow limits. The convict having been placed on a platform twice his height, one of the witnesses throws him to the ground. If the concussion does not produce instant death, the second witness hurls a heavy stone at his chest; and only when this also proves insufficient to end his misery, the bystanders throw stones at the prostrate body until death ensues (Sanh. vi. 4; 45a et seq.; Sifra, Emor, xix.; Sifre, Num. 114; ib. Deut. 89, 90, 149, 151).

Burning (Sreifah)

The Pentateuch simply ordains that the criminal "shall be burnt with fire" (Lev. xx. 14, xxi. 9), and a case is reported from the last days of the Second Temple, where a guilty daughter of a priest was actually burned on a pyre. However, the reporter of the case stated that he had witnessed it during his minority; and as the testimony of a minor is not valid, no rule of procedure could be based thereon. Indeed, the Rabbis declared that a court ordering such an execution was ignorant of traditional law, and a later teacher was of opinion that the court referred to consisted of dissenting Sadducees. According to rabbinic law, an execution by burning means this: The witnesses secure the convict, then force his mouth open by means of a stout cord (wrapped in soft cloth, to prevent the discoloration of the convict's neck) being tightly drawn around his neck, when molten lead or, according to another opinion, a mixture of lead and tin, is poured down his throat and burns his vitals. (Sanh. vii. 2, 52b; Tosef., Sanh. ix. 11; Yer. Sanh. vii. 24b).

Slaying (S'eifah)

The convict having been fastened to a post, his head is severed from the body by a blow with a sword. Splitting the body or piercing it is not permitted; neither is it allowed to perform decapitation on a block (Sanh. vii. 3, 52b; Mek., Mishpaṭim, 4; Sifre, Deut. 94). See Beheading.

Strangulation (Cheneq)

is effected by slinging around the convict's neck a stout cord, wrapped in soft cloth, which the executioners draw in opposite directions, until all breath leaves his body and he dies (Sanh. vii. 3, 52b; Mek., Mishpaṭim, 5; Sifra, Ḳedoshim, ix. 11).

No execution is attended with posthumous indignities, except that the usual mourning ceremonies are not observed (Sifra, Shemini, Introduction, 28; Sem. ii. 7; Sanh. vi. 6), and in the case of the idolater and of the blasphemer hanging is superadded, provided the criminal is not a woman. The exposure of the body, however, must not be protracted. The dead convict's hands are joined above his head, and by them he is suspended; but while one of the executioners is still engaged in fastening the cords, the other must begin to untie them. As to the gibbet, it must not be a natural or permanent one, like a tree, but an artificial arrangement, easily removable; and when once used, must be buried out of sight (Sanh. vi. 4, 46b; Sifre, Deut. 221).

For the burial of convicts two special cemeteries are provided: one in which those are buried who have been executed either by stoning or by burning, and another for those slain or strangled. The dry bones are eventually disinterred, and placed in the general burial-grounds (Sanh. vi. 5, 6, 47b; Tosef., Sanh. ix. 8, 9; Yer. Sanh. vi. 23d).

No sentence carries with it any change in the civil status of the convict's family. The Pentateuchal law provides (Deut. xxiv. 16), "The parents shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the parents; every man shall be put to death for his own sins," and rabbinic jurisprudence follows this principle both to the letter and in spirit. Nor is a sentence attended by confiscation of the convict's goods. All his possessions descend to his legal heirs (Tosef., Sanh. iv. 6; Sanh. 27b, 48b; see Confiscation).

Critical note

Rabbinic jurisprudence is developed on the basis of the letter and the spirit of the Bible, particularly of the Pentateuchal codes (Josh. i. 8, viii. 31; Josephus, "Contra Ap." i. 8; Ḥag. 10b, 14a; Ned. 22b; Mak. 23b; compare Darmesteter, "The Talmud," translation by H. Szold, pp. 62 et seq.); but that development naturally partook of the spirit of the ages during which it took place—from Ezra's times to the final redaction of the Gemara (559 B.C. to 550 C.E.). This was especially the case with the development of the civil and ritualistic laws, which governed Jewish life long after the Roman conquest of Palestine. But also in criminal law, involving capital punishment, the right to administer which had been taken from the Sanhedrin decades before the fall of Jerusalem (Sanh. 41a; Yer. Sanh. i. 18a,vii. 24b), the Rabbis delved deeply, elaborating the details thereof with a view to their application in the hoped-for Messianic days (, Sanh. 51b; Yeb. 45a) or for the satisfaction accruing from study (, ib.). In this department there are therefore some laws which are mere legal opinions or theoretic ratiocinations which were never applied in practise. Such, for example, are the laws relating to the "rebellious son" and to "communal apostasy" (Tosef., Sanh. xi. 6, xiv. 1; Sanh. 71a). However, the bulk of rabbinic rules, even those concerning capital punishment, bear the stamp of great antiquity, inasmuch as they are based on actual precedent or on old traditional interpretation. Josephus, whose main authority for the first half of his "Antiquities" doubtless was the Bible itself, supplements his outlines of "the polity settled by Moses" ("Ant." iv. 8, §§ 1-45) with traditions current in his day. Some of these traditions agree with the corresponding Halakot embodied in the Talmudim and halakic Midrashim at a much later date. A few examples must suffice. In the true spirit of traditional law, Josephus ("Ant." xii. 9, § 1) says, "The purposing of a thing, but not actually doing it, is not deserving of punishment" (compare Tosef., Mak. v. [iv.] 10; Sanh. 63b; Mak. 16a); nevertheless he construes the Pentateuchal law regarding the confuted witness (Deut. xix. 16-19) as decreeing punishment where the sentence brought about by the confuted testimony has not been executed. He says ("Ant." iv. 8, § 15), "If any one be believed to have borne false witness, let him, when he is convicted, suffer all the very same punishments which he against whom he bore witness was to have suffered." This coincides with the rabbinic Halakah (Mak. i. 6; Sifre, Deut. 190; see Alibi), as opposed to the Sadducean ruling that the confuted witness is punishable only after the execution of the sentence which his falsehood has brought about (ib.; compare S. Mendelsohn, "Criminal Jurisprudence of the Ancient Hebrews," p. 136). Also the Pentateuchal law (Ex. xxi. 21, 22) regarding an assault on a woman with child, Josephus (l.c. § 23) interprets in the spirit of the Halakah (Mek., Mishpaṭim, 8; B. Ḳ. 42a; Sanh. 74a; compare Geiger, "Urschrift," pp. 436 et seq.; Pineles, "Darkah shel Torah," § 160). Likewise his esteeming guiltless the slayer of the thief, "although he were only breaking in at the wall" (l.c. § 27), is in consonance with the traditional interpretation of the Halakah (Mek., Mishpaṭim, 13; Sanh. 72a; Yer. Sanh. viii. 26c); and so is his reduction of the number of stripes (Deut. xxv. 1-3) from forty to "forty save one" (l.c. §§ 21, 23) in accord with the Halakah (Mak. iii. 10, 22b; Sifre, Deut. 186; compare II Cor. xi. 24).

As to the spirit of later rabbinic legislation, it clearly appears that there was a tendency to reduce capital punishment to a minimum, if not to abolish it altogether. That capital punishment was a rare occurrence in the latter days of the Jewish commonwealth is patent from the statement in the Mishnah that a court was stigmatized as "murderous" if it condemned to death more than one human being in the course of seven years. Indeed, Eleazar ben Azariah applied the same epithet to a court that executed more than one man in every seventy years; and his famous colleagues, Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva, similarly said, "Had we belonged to the Sanhedrin [during Judea's independence], no man would ever have been executed," as they would always have found some Halakhic points by which to make a sentence of death impossible (Mak. i. 7a).


Benny, Crim. Code of the Jews, pp. 84–95; Fassel, Strafg. Gerichtsverfahren, §§ 72-78; Hamburger, R. B. T. i. 992-995; Hetzel, Die Todesstrafe, 40-48; Mayer, Rechte d. Israeliten, etc., iii. §§ 59-70; Maimonides, Hil. Sanhedrin, xiv., xv.; S. Mendelsohn, Crim. Jurisprudence of the Ancient Hebrews, §§ 25-32, 116-133; Michaelis, Mosaische Recht, §§ 229-236; Saalschütz, Das Mosaische Recht, ch. lviii.; Salvador, Histoire des Institutions de Moïse, Bk. iv.; Semag, Ordinances, pp. 99–104.

See also


  1. Encyclopaedia Judaica. "Capital Punishment". The Gale Group. Retrieved 9 August 2016.
  3. Watson E. Mills, Roger Aubrey Bullard, eds. (1990). Mercer Dictionary of the Bible. Mercer University Press. p. 795.
  4. Moses Maimonides, The Commandments, Neg. Comm. 290, at 269-271 (Charles B. Chavel trans., 1967).
  5. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, page 17a. Also Maimonidies, Mishneh Torah, Sanhedrin, Chapter 9.
  6. Mishnah Maccot, 1:10
  7. "讚讬谞讬 谞驻砖讜转".
  8. Responsa Iggerot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat v. 2 responsum 68
  9. "Position of the Reform Movement on the Death Penalty". Religious Action Center.

Further reading

This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 12/1/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.