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When and why did the Rabbis discontinue capital and corporeal punishment?

by Rabbi Naftali Silberberg

  

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1. Capital punishment was only legally allowed as long as the Sanhedrin (the Jewish supreme court, comprised of 71 of the greatest sages of the time) was seated in the courtyard of the Holy Temple. The Sanhedrin ceased to sit in their chambers 40 years before the destruction of the Second Temple, and since then (30 c.e.) there is no capital punishment by Jewish courts.

In Deuteronomy,1 the Torah speaks of the person who rebels against the Sanhedrin (High Court). We are told that "the man who will act with willfulness, not listening to the Kohen (priest) who stands there to serve the Lord, your G-d, or to the judge, that man shall die."

The Talmudic sages asked,2 why does the Torah mention a Kohen in this verse? After all, the Sanhedrin did not have to include any Kohens in its ranks! From these words the rabbis inferred that the Sanhedrin has the right to administer the death penalty only as long as the Kohen is serving G-d in the Holy Temple.

2. Corporeal punishment was only allowed as long as there were rabbis who were ordained by another rabbi with a direct chain of ordination dating back to Moses. When this chain was stopped (by the anti-religious Roman Empire), the Jewish courts do not have the right to impose the Torah's corporeal punishments, nor do they have the right to hand out punitive damage awards. Instead, today's courts only assess monetary loss damages.

The Torah describes a Jewish court as "Elohim",3 which is also G-d's name. The reason for this is because G-d is with the court, and the verdict which is issued by the judges has G-d's seal of approval. However, this only applies when at least one of the judges was ordained by another rabbi with a direct chain of ordination dating back to Moses. For Moses bequeathed from his holiness unto Joshua and the other seventy elders4 who in turn bequeathed this holiness to their successors etc.

When Moses complained to G-d, saying that he needed people to assist him in his duties of administering to the needs of the Jewish people, G-d didn't just tell Moses, "Well, why don't you let your disciples help you!" Instead, G-d responded by saying,5 "Gather to Me seventy men from the elders of Israel . . and I will increase some of the spirit which is upon you and place it upon them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you."

There is no question that those rabbis who were ordained by Moses and imbued with his spirit (and those whom they ordained thereafter) had greater Divine assistance when executing their duties. For this reason they were allowed to order corporeal or capital punishment, knowing that G-d agreed with the verdict. This cannot be said of every other Jewish judge throughout history.

It is important to note that even after there ceased to be authentically ordained rabbis, the Jewish courts still have the right to mete out corporeal punishment as they see fit, but these aren't the lashes which the Torah mandates.

3. This does not G-d forbid represent any "modification" of the Bible. It simply means that present circumstances do not allow us to perform every single commandment - just as we cannot offer sacrifices without a holy temple.

Footnotes

  • 1. Chapter 17:12.
  • 2. Sanhedrin 52b.
  • 3. Exodus 21:6, 22:7, 22:8.
  • 4. See Numbers 11:25 and Deuteronomy 34:9.
  • 5. Numbers 11:16-17.

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COMMENTS

practices of capital and corporeal punishment

Posted by: Stan on Dec 30, 2004

It's about time some explanation on this subject is being given, instead of just saying no Temple no punisment.

RELATED CATEGORIES

Philosophy » Consequences

Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Joshua
1. Assumed the leadership of the Jewish people after Moses died in 1267 BCE. He split the Jordan River and led the Jewish people in their conquest of the Promised Land. 2. One of the 24 books of the Bible, which chronicles Joshua's leadership.
Sanhedrin
The Jewish Supreme Court. The court would convene in a designated chamber in the Holy Temple, and was comprised of 71 of the greatest scholars of the time. Continued after the destruction of the Temples, but was dissolved in the 5th century when due to Roman persecution the seat of Torah scholarship relocated from Israel to Babylon.
Moses
[Hebrew pronunciation: Moshe] Greatest prophet to ever live. Led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage amidst awesome miracles; brought down the Tablets from Mount Sinai; and transmitted to us word-for-word the Torah he heard from G-d's mouth. Died in the year 1272 BCE.
Deuteronomy
The fifth of the Five Books of Moses. This book is a record of the monologue which Moses spoke to the Israelites in the five weeks prior to his passing.
Temple
1. Usually a reference to the Holy Temple which was/will be situated in Jerusalem. 1st Temple was built in 825 BCE and was destroyed in 423 BCE. The 2nd Temple was built in 350 BCE and was destroyed in 70 CE. The 3rd Temple will be built by the Messiah. 2. A synagogue.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.