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The Somewhat Litvshe Yid

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Tookie's Dead and that's a good thing.

Ok. So I saw this post and I just couldn’t sit quietly. Tookie Williams was executed and some people in the J-Blogsphere have started discussing the status of capital punishment in Judaism. Everyone knows the gemara about a Sanhedrin that kills someone is called a murderous Beis Din. They therefore translate this into the assumption that Judaism in general is against the death penalty. Such things as two witnesses and warning are bandied about, without a proper understanding of the what the halacha. So, I’m going to lay it out here and hopefully some misconceptions will be cleared up.

There are two separate authorities who have the ability to exact capital punishment in Jewish Law. The first, as mentioned, is the Sanhedrin, of which there are two types. The Sanhedrin HaGadol, with 71 members, which sits in the Mikdash is the first. The second is the Sanhedrin Katana with 23. Every city, including Yerushalayim, must have its own Sanhedrin of 23. Most capital cases are judged by this Beis Din. The cases which only appear before the Sanhedrin HaGadol are cases of False Prophet, A Cohen Gadol, or if an entire Shevet needs to be judged. There are other cases, such as going out to a non-mandatory war (מלחמת רשות) which also need approval by such a forum, but that isn’t within the scope of this discussion. All of this is found in the first perek of Masechta Sanhedrin.

The second authority is the King. I’m not going to distinguish between kings of Israel and kings of Judah, since I don’t believe there is any distinction from a halachic standpoint. In any event, there are several cases where a king is permitted to summarily execute someone. Two halachos from the Rambam come to mind. Both from the third perek of Hilchos Malachim V’Milchamos

ח - כל המורד במלך, יש למלך רשות להורגו. אפילו גזר על אחד משאר העם שילך למקום פלוני ולא הלך, או שלא ייצא מביתו ויצא--חייב מיתה; ואם רצה להורגו--יהרוג, שנאמר "כל איש אשר ימרה את פיך". וכן כל המבזה את המלך, או המחרף אותו--יש למלך רשות להורגו, כשמעי בן גרא. ואין למלך רשות להרוג אלא בסיף בלבד.
י - כל ההורגין נפשות שלא בראיה ברורה, או בלא התראה, אפילו בעד אחד, או שונא שהרג בשגגה--יש למלך רשות להרוג אותם, ולתקן העולם כפי מה שהשעה צריכה. והורג רבים ביום אחד, ותולה ומניחן תלויים ימים רבים, להטיל אימה, ולשבור יד רשעי העולם. .

That is to say , in two specific case does the king have the right to execute people, those being Mored B’Malchus (rebellion) and Horeg Nefes (murder). In both cases, with respect to the king, the general rules of witness and warning are waived. As the Rambam brings down in Halacho 10: Without clear witness, without warning and even with one witness. There is place to discuss if a government is the equivalent of a king, but s’vara certainly leans in that direction. In any event, it should be noted the Rambam’s reasoning for permitting the king to do such things. To fix the world as the hour requires. The language is similar to a related halacha dealing with the Sanhedrin’s right to impose capital punishment outside the general rules of halachic jurisprudence. Sanhedrin 24:4

ד - יש לבית דין להלקות מי שאינו מחוייב מלקות, ולהרוג מי שאינו מחוייב מיתה, לא לעבור על דברי תורה, אלא לעשות סייג לתורה. וכיון שרואין בית דין שפרצו העם בדבר--יש להן לגדור ולחזק הדבר, כפי מה שייראה להם: הכול הוראת שעה, לא שיקבע הלכה לדורות
The Sanhedrin has, at it’s prerogative, the right to impose the death penalty as a Horas Sha’ah when it feels the necessity to do so. The Rambam brings down several cases when this was done, including Shimon Ben Shetach killing the 80 women in Ashkelon without due process, warning, witness etc. As an additional note, the Rambam, in the Guide to the Perplexed at the end of Perek 3:40 mentions that if for whatever reason the Sanhedrin doesn’t execute a murderer it is clear that the king will do so.

The question then arises, what is the difference between the cases where the Sanhedrin must judge according to halacha, in which case if it does it would be considered a Sanhedrin that spills blood, with those which the Sanhedrin or the King judges with the purpose to set the world straight.

In any event, the situation in the world today is more of that of the King passing judgment. Every country has the right to protect its population against the depredations of those who don’t value human life, to create an atmosphere where there is a certain amount of deterrence or as the Rambam describes it: To break the hands of the wicked (ולשבור יד רשעי העולם).


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