Capital Punishment: Courting Death
There was an obligation for the court to kill the one whose iniquity was
punishable by death (Shemos 21:12; ibid 21:20). In the times of the Temple
and in the presence of the Sanhedrin, Grand Jewish Court, the four death
penalties prescribed by the Torah for various crimes were death by the
sword, death by strangulation, death by fire and death by stoning (See
The Beth Din, Jewish court of law was the arbiter of justice. In all
matters, it could not shirk from its obligations. That meant, even to use
Still, this was hardly an ideal situation. Rigorous investigations and
testimony were in place beforehand. And the death penalty was certainly
never glorified. In fact, the Talmud concedes that a Jewish court that
executed once in 7 years, and according to another opinion, once in 70
years, was labeled a "murderous court" (Mishnah, Makkos 1:10).
Typically, the court sentence in other societies serves a number of
functions. It acts as a deterrent against the crime; it is society's
revenge against the criminal for the offence; it is punishment for the
offender's infraction; and finally it can be construed as reparations for,
or reformation of, the said perpetuator.
It comes as somewhat of a surprise to discover that the Jewish Beth Din
does not set out to achieve any of these aforementioned objectives.
A Jew humbly realizes how justice lies outside his grasp. It is up to
Master of the Universe to administer justice and to sort out the reward or
punishment for his creatures. Thus, not only is man's input not necessary
but it is also unhelpful. Here, man is way out of his league. Is it at all
possible for a human court to fathom the mind of the criminal? Are they
privy to the thoughts of his heart? Do they know his background and frame
of mind? What about an absolute clarity of all the circumstances to the
The charter of a Jewish court is primarily instituted to take action
where humanly possible to remedy the situation when what is holy becomes
desecrated, where what is pure becomes sullied. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler
explains how its intervention comes to redress the balance. Think of it as
the necessary steps at "damage-control".
The Jewish court is entrusted with the mission "to get rid of the evil
within your midst".
The impact of witnessing a wrong for the very first time provokes a
reaction of shock and abject horror. The second occasion, however, is less
dramatic. The third time, the onlooker begins to adopt an attitude of
resignation. And thereafter, it becomes tolerated and even the development
of spiritually numbness to the gravity of the crimes.
Originally, the violation of a divine decree was an exceptionally rare
occurrence. Witness the isolated instances in the desert - the wood-
gatherer on Shabbos and the blasphemer. On such occasions, the Beth Din
stepped in to minimize the impact of this grave infraction which, if not
addressed, would lead to a public desecration of G-d's Name. Their
execution of the perpetrator was the definite communal signal of the grave
consequences for one who dared defy the Torah.
Consequently, the two witnesses at the scene testifying to the crime were
the most "at risk" from their exposure to this defiance; the ones most
likely to be desensitized to the violation of G-d's Name. Accordingly,
they had to play an active hand as the first ones to implement the Beth
Din's death penalty, to expel the "evil" that may lurk within them; the
evil which if not ejected might take root within their midst and that of
their community. Never an ideal resolution, the lamentable nature of
capital punishment was nevertheless a necessary step in the bid to
recapture the sacred nature of every mitzvah that dare not be debased.
Where sin is rampant within every rank, where society has become so
clueless of the far-reaching negative influence of sin, Beth Din cannot
achieve this goal. Thus, where the loss of sanctity cannot be meaningfully
reinstated, capital punishment would obviously prove an ineffective
solution. In such circumstances were a Beth Din to kill once in 7 or 70
years without a direct consequence of this having a positive, beneficial
influence of the Jewish people, such an institution was termed
a "murderous court".
In contemporary times, it is important to boost our immunization towards
the negative impact of sin. Our attitude upon hearing of evil and moral
depravity in the prevalent culture should shock us to our Jewish core as
we strive to develop sensitivities towards the sanctity of doing
exclusively that what G-d wants of us.
The course material is presented by Osher Chaim Levene, author of "Set in Stone: The Meaning of Mitzvah Observance" (Targum/Feldheim), a writer and educator in London whose website www.mitzva.org explores the wisdom of the commandments.