The False Witnesses, continued
Recently, we mentioned Ramban's explanation regarding the witnesses who
go unpunished: If the judges acted within their boundaries, as they
understood at the time, they did not err. It is as if Hashem Himself,
through the medium of the Torah, joined in their decision.
What is the meaning of these words?
In modern society, many who argue against the death penalty use the
following argument: "One person has already died. What is
accomplished by adding another death?" The Torah doesn't seem to use
this argument, for Noach was told: "One who spills the blood of man, by
man his blood will be spilled."
However, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfun said that they would have seen to
it that the death penalty would never have been carried out. The laws
of testimony are so stingent, that the Rabbis could have questioned
witnesses until they became confused, and contradicted themselves.
We find many areas, where the Rabbis were reluctant to pursue
prosecution. The objection naturally follows: "You too, are spilling
blood!" In fact, Rabban Gamliel said this to the arguments of Rabbi
Akiva and Rabbi Tarfun, above. If punishment averts crime, doesn't the
lack of punishment increase crime?
Judaism is predicated on the belief in Hashem's ultimate justice. In
fact, we could never have survived without confidence in Hashem's ways.
Our history is fraught with pogroms, crusades and holocausts. During
the same time that China has grown into a country of approximately a
billion people, Yisrael has retained a static amount. The mere
survival of our people is miraculous, defying all odds. What kept the
people alive during the centuries of abuse, indignity and subjugation,
if not the faith that Hashem has hidden reasons for all His actions.
The pursued will be vindicated some day.
With such reasoning, the Rabbis would refrain from punishment, feeling
certain that Hashem alone will implement an appropriate resolution.
The Torah relates how Avimelech kidnapped the Matriarch Sarah, thinking
she was unmarried. In a dream, Hashem informed Avimelech that he would
die if he did not return Sarah, because she was a married woman. From
these verses, the Talmud derives the law that a non-Jew does not have
to be warned, in order to be culpable for a crime. Avimelech was
guilty, even though he claimed that he was unaware of what he was
doing. The reason? When it comes to basic morality, ignorance is not
The Kli Chemdah asked an important question: How do we see from these
verses that a non-Jew does not have to be warned? After all, Hashem
came to Avimelech specifically to warn him!
Rather, we have to say that a dream does not have legal significance.
Since the contents of a dream would not hold up in court, the "warning"
which Avimelech received would have no legal significance. If so, why
would Avimelech be deserving of the death penalty, since he had reason
to assume she was unmarried? It must be, that he did not require prior
warning -- in such circumstance where he could have sought adequate
Nonetheless, note that Hashem did, after all, give some kind of
warning. Although, legally speaking, it would not have held up in
court -- it was sufficient warning to enable Avimelech to save himself.
>From the Kli Chemdah, it is clear that the dream came, not to seal
Avimelech's guilt, but to give him reasonable grounds to suspect the
significance of his own actions.
This is consistent with Ramban's opinion, that, although the non-Jew
does not have to receive the warning, he nonetheless cannot be held
culpable if he had no opportunity to know. For this reason, Hashem
gave Avimelech sufficient grounds to suspect that he needed to be
concerned about his actions.