While it may surprise many, the Torah calls for the death penalty in certain limited circumstances.
The Torah provides for a justice system that includes capital punishment. There are four different methods of execution according to Torah law, which we will enumerate below. The harshness of the manner of death – each of the four being “worse” than the other – indicated the seriousness of the crime. Some commentators suggest that the point of capital punishment was to serve as a reminder of the severe nature of certain acts. This is why, in Jewish law, the death penalty is more of a principle than a practice. Indeed, as we will see, the death penalty was rarely implemented.
The standards of proof required for application of the death penalty has always been extremely stringent. Because the standards of proof were so high, it was nearly impossible to inflict the death penalty. In the words of the Talmud: “A court that puts a man to death once in seven years is called ‘destructive.’ Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says that this extends to a court that puts a man to death even once in 70 years. Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon say: Had we been in the Sanhedrin, none would ever have been put to death! Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel says: they would have multiplied shedders of blood in Israel.”
We see from here that most schools of thought were against the death penalty, or at least against implementing it. The sages made heroic efforts to avoid having to implement the death penalty. On the other hand, it is clear that Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel was very in favor of the death penalty and believed that it helped deter future crimes, an issue that continues to be debated to this very day.
In order for capital punishment to be enforced, it required two witnesses who actually observed the crime. Circumstantial evidence was inadmissible, no matter how obvious it was that the crime was committed. For witnesses testimony to be admitted, the following requirements and prerequisites were required, among others:
– They must be adult Jewish men who were known to observe the Torah, were knowledgeable on both the Torah and Talmud, and hold legitimate professions
– The witnesses had to see each other at the time of the crime/sin
– The witnesses had to be able to speak clearly, without any speech impediment or hearing deficit
– The witnesses could not be related to each other, or to the accused
– The witnesses had to give a warning (hatra’ah) to the person that the sin they were about to commit was a capital offense
– The crime/sin had to be committed within seconds of hearing the warning
As one can see, it was very difficult for all these variables to come together at once. So too, the sinner had to respond that s/he was familiar with the punishment, but they were going to sin anyway.
– The court had to examine each witness separately; and if even one point of their evidence was contradictory – their entire testimony was dismissed.
– The court had to consist of minimally 23 judges.
– The majority sentencing the sinner to death could not be a simple majority, there had to be at least 13 to 11 in favor of conviction.
– If the court arrived at a unanimous verdict of guilty, the person was let go – the idea being that if no judge could find anything to say in favor of the accused, there was something wrong with the court.
As a result, convictions for capital offenses were rare in Judaism and Jewish history.
Before any capital sentence was carried out, the condemned person was given a drug to render them senseless. The four types of capital punishment, in decreasing severity, were:
Sekila – stoning
This was performed by pushing a person off a height of at least 2 stories. If the person didn’t die, then the executioners (the witnesses) brought an extremely large and heavy rock that was dropped on the condemned person.
Sereifa – burning
This was done by pouring hot lead down the throat of the condemned person.
Hereg – decapitation
Done with a sword (beheading).
Chenek – strangulation
A rope was wound around the condemned person’s neck, and the executioners (the witnesses) pulled from either side to strangle the condemned person.
Finally, here are some sins for which the Torah gives the death penalty
– Severe sexual improprieties
– Idol worship
– Violating the Sabbath
– Cursing one’s own parent
– Premeditated murder
By: Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
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