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Why was the Sanhedrin opposed to using the death penalty most times?

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  • 1
    Do you have a source to back up this assertion?
    – Dov
    Dec 8, 2021 at 17:50
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    אֱמֹר אֲלֵיהֶם חַי־אָנִי נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה אִם־אֶחְפֹּץ בְּמוֹת הָרָשָׁע כִּי אִם־בְּשׁוּב רָשָׁע מִדַּרְכּוֹ וְחָיָה שׁוּבוּ שׁוּבוּ מִדַּרְכֵיכֶם הָרָעִים וְלָמָּה תָמוּתוּ בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל׃ (פ) Say to them: As I live—declares the Lord GOD—it is not My desire that the wicked shall die, but that the wicked turn from his [evil] ways and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways, that you may not die, O House of Israel! sefaria.org.il/…
    – Al Berko
    Dec 8, 2021 at 17:51
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    Because we value human life? Also והצילו העדה?
    – robev
    Dec 8, 2021 at 18:00
  • @AlBerko this pasuk may talk about the wicked dying but it does not have any connection to capital punishment??
    – Dov
    Dec 8, 2021 at 18:03
  • To tell the historical truth, the Jews (and other subordinate nations) had no authority for capital (maybe even corporal) punishment under Greek and Roman rule. So basically Jewish courts were trapped between the Biblical commandment to execute and the political reality.
    – Al Berko
    Dec 8, 2021 at 18:04

2 Answers 2

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In Judaism, the purpose of Capital Punishment is not to punish the sinner, as punishment is by the Hand of Hashem, rather the purpose is to discourage others from sinning by showing them the severity of the sin through the severity of the consequence.

Therefore, if a beis din is using capital punishment often (e.g. more than once in 70 years), it's not so shocking for people and therefore no longer serves its purpose as a deterrent (therefore the death of the person is in vain and it is considered a murderous beis din).

This can be further seen from the fact that when capital punishment is carried out, e.g. stoning, the witnesses must throw the first stones because they were the most affected by the sin. (When one sees someone sinning it makes it less severe in his eyes), and therefore they need to see the severity of the consequence more than anyone else. (Michtav Me'eliyahu)

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  • Interesting. Do you remember further specifics about the reference in Michtav me'Eliyahu ?
    – mbloch
    Dec 20, 2021 at 4:16
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The Mishna, which contains the essence of the Oral Torah going back to Moses at Mt. Sinai, tells us that the Sanhedrin was supposed to sentence people to capital punishment extremely infrequently. See below:

Mishna, Masechet Makkot, 1:10

A Sanhedrin that executes a transgressor once in seven years is characterized as a destructive tribunal. Since the Sanhedrin would subject the testimony to exacting scrutiny, it was extremely rare for a defendant to be executed. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya says: This categorization applies to a Sanhedrin that executes a transgressor once in seventy years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say: If we had been members of the Sanhedrin, we would have conducted trials in a manner whereby no person would have ever been executed.

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    "because the law says so" is only an answer to some "why" questions. I suspect this isn't one of them
    – Double AA
    Dec 8, 2021 at 21:28
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    Yeah, I think the question is somewhat mistaken. They weren't "opposed" to capital punishment, they were required (by the verse והצילו העדה) to give the accused the strong benefit of the doubt. There's a disagreement among the tannaim mentioned, how far that tilt goes.
    – MichoelR
    Dec 9, 2021 at 3:51

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