of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel


Bet Midrash Virtuali
Today's shiur is dedicated by Robert Kaiser in honor of the 33rd wedding anniversary of his parents, George Emil (Yaakov) and Cyma Jane Kaiser (Cyma-Sheyna), which is celebrated today.


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When the trial is over he is taken forth for stoning. The place of execution was outside the court house, as it is said [Leviticus 24:14]: "Remove the blasphemer". One person stands at the entrance of the court house holding a flag, and there is another waiting on horseback distant from him but within sight. Should anyone say that they have a point in favour [of the condemned man] the one waves his flag, and the horse dashes forward to stay [the execution]. Even if the condemned man himself says that he has a point to make in his own favour - he is brought back into court, even four or five times, provided there is substance in what he says. If they accept his innocence he is released; if not, he is taken out to be stoned. A herald goes before him [announcing]: "So-and-So son of So-and-So is being taken to be stoned to death for having committed such-and-such an offence, and that So-and-So are his witnesses: anyone who knows of his innocence must come forward".

EXPLANATIONS (continued):

After too long a hiatus we resume our study of this mishnah. You will recall that we have noted that the descriptions given in this and the following mishnayot teach next to nothing about the historical realities of executions in ancient Israel. The prescriptions contained here clash jarringly with the few documented historical examples which have reached us, and seem to be the result of imaginative hermeneutics - which, in turn, seem to derive from a desire to limit the application of the Torah laws in this regard, almost to vanishing point.

Two assumptions are made by our mishnah for the sake of the convenience of brevity: the punishment being inflicted is stoning and the person being punished is male. As we shall learn in detail in the next chapter of our tractate, there were four modes of execution and stoning was but one of them; women too were executed, as is stated clearly in the fourth mishnah of our present chapter. The great commentator, Rashi [Rabbi Shelomo ben-Yitzĥak, Western Europe, 11th century CE], brings a concrete example that must contain more than just a modicum of historicity. A couple of preparatory explanations may be helpful:

  1. Tax-farmers cruelly extorted taxes from the people on behalf of the authorities, adding many a percentage which ended in their own pocket.
  2. Shim'on ben-Shataĥ was President of the Sanhedrin during the first half of the first century BCE.
  3. The Torah explicitly demands the judicial death of witches [Exodus 22:17].

Here is the story as told by Rashi:

It once happened that an unscrupulous Jewish tax-farmer and a great scholar died on the same day and in the same place. All the people assembled to attend the burial of the great scholar; at the same time the relatives of the tax-farmer brought his bier for burial. However, enemies [underworld rivals - SR] attacked the cortège, so they all dropped the biers and ran for their lives. One student however stayed there guarding the body of his rabbi. Some time later the town dignitaries returned to resume the burial of the great scholar, but the biers of the rabbi and the tax-farmer somehow got exchanged despite the vociferous protests of the student. Thus it came about that the relatives of the tax-farmer buried the great rabbi, which greatly distressed the rabbi's student; nor could he explain to himself what great sin had caused the one to be buried in such a shameful way and what great merit in the other had brought about his interment with such honour. His rabbi appeared to him in a dream and told him not to be distressed. "Come and let me show you how greatly I am honoured in paradise and let me also show you that man in hell with the hinges of the gates of hell turning through his ears. Once I heard people calumniating the sages and did not protest (and that is why I was punished); he once prepared a banquet in honour of a city dignitary who did not show up, and he distributed the food to the poor (and that is why he was rewarded)." The student asked how long the poor man was doomed to suffer this grievous torment. "Until Shim'on ben-Shataĥ dies," was the reply, "who will then replace him!" "Why?" asked the student; "Because there are Jewish women in Ashkelon who practice witchcraft and he does not subject them to the rigours of the law." The following day the student related his dream to Shim'on ben-Shataĥ. The latter assembled eighty tall young men and distributed to each of them a jar with a cloak wrapped up inside (it was a rainy day). He also told them to make sure that they were always eighty in number. "When you come inside," he said, "one of you must raise his jar from the ground; from that moment the witches will have no further hold over you; if that does not work then we can never beat them." Shim'on ben-Shataĥ went into the witches' coven and left the young men outside. When the witches asked him who he was he replied that he was a wizard who had come to test them with his wizardry. "What tricks can you do?" they asked. "Despite the fact that it is raining today I can produce eighty young men with dry cloaks!" "Show us!" He went outside and beckoned the young men inside. They removed the cloaks from the jars, put them on, and came into the coven. Thus they bettered the witches, took them outside and strung them all up. They relatives of the witches were incensed. Two of them came forward and perjured themselves by testifying that Shim'on ben-Shataĥ's son had committed some crime that was punishable by death. He was condemned to death. As he was being taken out to be stoned he said, "If I am guilty of this crime may my death bring me atonement, and if I am innocent may it atone for all my other sins and the responsibility for my death will be on the shoulders of the witnesses." When the perjurers heard this they recanted their testimony and explained that they had only acted because of their animosity at the fate of their women-folk. [Rashi on Sanhedrin 44b.]

Our mishnah states that the place of execution was set at some distance from the court-house. The Gemara [Sanhedrin 42b] suggests two reasons for this. Firstly, so that the judges should not appear to be bloodthirsty murderers; secondly, the distance to be traversed would afford an opportunity for a request for a stay of execution in order to consider new arguments, as is described in our mishnah in detail. The biblical "hook" on which this hangs is the story of the blasphemer that is recounted in Leviticus 24:10-14:

A person whose mother was an Israelite and whose father was an Egyptian went among the Israelites and quarreled with an Israelite man. [During the quarrel] he blasphemed, explicitly using the Divine Name... They left him under guard until the Divine will could be explained to them. God told Moses: "Take the blasphemer outside the camp; those who heard him [blaspheme] shall place their hands on his head and then the whole community shall stone him to death.

The blasphemer is to be removed outside the camp. The term "camp" as it appears in the Torah is applied to Jerusalem in later sources. A baraita quoted in the Gemara [Sanhedrin 42b] states that the place of execution was "outside the three camps". The first camp were the innermost precincts of the Bet Mikdash; the second camp were the more secular precincts that surrounded it; and the whole city of Jerusalem was the third camp. It thus follows that if "the place of execution was outside the three camps" that it must have been outside the city walls, and thus at some considerable distance from the court-house.

To be continued.

In our shiur of 11th January last I commented that "Rabbi Yonatan ... was an arch-opponent of the hermeneutic system propagated by Rabbi Akiva and espoused the system of his teacher and mentor Rabbi Yishma'el.

Michael Simon writes:

If the School of Rabbi Yishma'el believes that this is not merely for the purpose of academic study but has a practical application, what would that application be and does his hermeneutic system offer a different explanation?

I respond:

Midrash ha-Torah [hermeneutics] cannot be left as a free-for-all, permitting anyone to read into the text of the Torah whatever they imagine to be there - even if it has no discernible basis in the received text. Two great schools of thought developed in this matter. The school started by Rabbi Akiva insisted that in "reading out of the Torah" new teachings we must bear in mind that it is a Divine document. As such, there can be nothing in it that is superfluous or mere literary decoration: every single word is pregnant with meaning - even the accusative particle et!

Rabbi Yishma'el, on the other hand, espoused the view that "the Torah speaks in human terms". For example, the grammatical requirements of the Hebrew language require the use of the particle et to indicate the direct object. Rabbi Yishma'el would read no further meaning into such a word; Rabbi Akiva insisted that it indicated "something else as well as" the object defined.

The hermeneutic system of Rabbi Akiva won through from the historical perspective.