Skip to main content

Thought for the Day: Capital Punishment in the Torah

I heard recently that in Texas one is more likely to be executed than to die in a plane crash.  An obvious ringing endorsement of the safety policies of the FAA.

Regardless of one's personal feelings about capital punishment (and regardless of the RAC's flagrant denial of textual, philosophical,and historical evidence to the contrary; ie, proof by "la la la la la... I can't hear you"), the Torah certainly mandates capital punishment action under appropriate circumstances.  The circumstances?  Let's take murder, for example.  The would be murderer needs to be warned by two kosher witnesses that they see him and his intended victim clearly and that murder is a crime punishable by hereg ("beheading").  Shabbos or publicly serving a false god; same drill, but the penalty is death by s'kila ("stoning").  Then, within three seconds or so (toch k'dei dibur), the would be criminal must reply that he understands and is none the less proceeding, then perform the heinous in sight of the witnesses.

Receiving a warning (hasra'ah) is a necessary condition to the court being about to administer the death penalty.  Moreover, if the warning is inaccurate, the court will also not administer the death sentence.  For example, if the would be Shabbos violator is warned that his offense will incur a punishment of chenek, which considered a gentler form of execution than s'kila, he will also not be executed.  In that case, one could argue that had the m'chalel Shabbos known that he was going to be dropped off a two story platform on his head instead of merely strangled by two people pulling a rope tight around this nick... well, then, he certainly would have thought twice.  Just for reference, the generally accepted order order of severity (from worst to easiest) is: s'kila, s'reifa, hereg, chenek.  (There is some discussion about s'kila vs s'reifa and hereg vs chenek; you may want to investigate further on your own or with a loved one.)

This makes the two executions at the end of parshas Emor difficult to understand. We have two criminals, one a Shabbos violator, the other cursed using HaShem's name.  However, the nation did not yet have clarity on the appropriate punishments.  They had clarity that the Shabbos violator was to be executed, but were not clear on whether he should  he get hereg (the default) or s'kila (since there is a scriptural connection between Shabbos violation and avoda zara).  For the blasphemer, on the other hand, they didn't even know if he was to be executed!  How in the world was appropriate has'ra'ah (warning) given?

The Da'as Z'keinim has a hard time with the execution of the m'chalel shabbos, but basically concludes that hasra'a is not a "miranda rights" incantation; it is simply to ensure that the perpetrator understands the severity of the crime.  Therefore, for example, a talmid chacham does not require has'ra'a; he knows precisely how bad the crime is.  (I can't answer why a nice Jewish boy is letting himself get mixed up in something that bad.  Kasha af a ma'aseh.)  Certainly that generation -- the dor dei'a (the generation who stood at Har Sinai) -- knew the severity of the crimes.

The execution of the blasphemer, on the other hand, is much easier in the view of the Da'as Z'keinim.  The fact that they didn't know whether his was to be executed for his crime or not was not due to a worry that his crime did not warrant the death penalty.  There was no doubt at all that cursing HaShem with the sheim ha'm'forash (the explicit name) deserved the highest level of punishment.  Their doubt was that perhaps his crime was so bad that he didn't deserve the karpara that execution by beis din affords.

This world is a transitory state and nothing but a preparation for our real and permanent life in the world to come.  Trials, tribulations, and even punishments are part of that preparation.


Popular posts from this blog

Thought for the Day: Battling the Evil Inclination on all Fronts

Yom Kippur.  When I was growing up, there were three annual events that marked the Jewish calendar: eating matzos on Passover, lighting candles on Chanuka, and  fasting on Yom Kippur.  Major news organizations around the world report on the "surreal" and "eerie" quiet of the streets in even the most secular neighborhoods of Israel.  Yom Kippur.

As you know, I am observant of Jewish law.  Some have even called me "ultra orthodox" (not in a kind way).  Given that, I have a question.  How likely do you think that I would be tempted to eat on Yom Kippur, that most holy day of the year?  Let's make the scale zero to ten, where zero is "as likely as driving through McDonald's on Shabbos and ordering a Big Mac with extra cheese." and ten is "as likely as breathing regularly".  Take your time.  If you answered "zero"; thank you, but -- sadly and penitently -- no.  The answer is more like nine; I'd like to say lower, but i…

Thought for the Day: Sometimes a Food Loses Its Identity When It Loses Its Bracha; Sometimes It Doesn't

Let's start with a question: Why are We Allowed to Drink Coffee and Whiskey Made by Non-Jews?  Before you ask,"Why would I think that I shouldn't be able to drink whiskey and coffee made by non-Jews?", I'll tell you. Simple, we all know that Chazal made a decree -- known as בישול עכו''ם/bishul akim -- that particular foods cooked by non-Jews are forbidden.  There are basically two criteria that determines if a dish falls into this category:
Is not consumed raw.Fit for a royal banquet. Cooked carrots, therefore, are not a problem since they can be eaten raw (I actually prefer them that way).  Baked beans are find because the are not prestigious enough.  (For great synopsis of the laws, see the article on the Star-K site, FOOD FIT FOR A KING, by Rabbi Moshe Heinemann, shlita.)  There are lots of cool questions and details (baked potatoes are prestigious, does that make even potato chips and issue?) which are for another time.  Clearly, though, both coffee an…

Thought for the Day: Coming Into This World for Torah, Avodah, and Acts of Loving Kindness

This TftD is so self-serving that I should be embarrassed.  But I am not... talking about grandchildren is always off budget.  I have, bli ayin hara, a beautiful new grandson; born at 6:11 PM CDT last Friday night.  The secular (aka -- by me, anyway -- slave) date is October 20, 2017 CE.  The Hebrew (aka Real) date is certainly Rosh Chodesh חשון/Cheshvan and certainly in the year 5778 since Creation.  The date, you ask... good question!

Sundown on Friday night was 6:01 PM CDT, which means he was born either at the end of the last day of תשרי or the beginning of the first day of Cheshvan; a period know as בין השמשות/twilight.  What's the big deal, you ask... I am so glad you asked.  We all deal quite handily with בין השמשות every week and every holiday; we're just stringent.  We start Shabbos and the first day of Yom Tov before בין השמשות; that is, before sundown.  Likewise, we end Shabbos and the first day of Yom Tov after בין השמשות; some 42, 50, 60, or 72 minutes after sundo…