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Since the meraglim sinned after the Torah has already been given, it'd seem that to be punished with death they would have had to transgress a Torah issur which carries the capital punishment (or misa b'dei shamayim). Which issur would that be?

If we say there was no such issur and it was an 'extrajudicial' (in the sense of not being explicitly spelled out in the Torah) punishment from G-d, then is it fair to ask how the meraglim were supposed to know that what they were doing was such a serious offense? Furthermore, this raises a more general question : If a person can be punished for an offense not spelled out in the Torah, does that mean the Torah is not a complete delineation of G-d's will and laws, right and wrong, the forbidden and the allowed?

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  • Rashi says they transgressed the laws of Lashon Hara and they should of been keenly aware of the severity after they saw what happened to Miriam shortly before that.
    – Chatzkel
    Jun 23 at 16:01
  • Lashon Hara doesn't carry the punishment of misa b'dei shamayim. At least that is not spelled out explicitly in the Tanach (unlike other sins which are), nor codified as such in Shulchan Aruch etc. But even going with Rashi here, Miriam was punished with tzaraas and then healed, so it's still not unreasonable to say the meraglim didn't think anything worse (i.e. actual death) would happen to them
    – user9806
    Jun 23 at 16:09
  • A metzorah is considered like a dead person.
    – Chatzkel
    Jun 23 at 16:13
  • Is someone who asks for meat deserving of Misa Bidei Shomayim? What about Korach? Is machlokes punishable by death? Is it codified in the Torah? This question can be asked basically in every instance in the midbar. Obviously they were on a super natural level and were held to higher criterion.
    – Chatzkel
    Jun 26 at 4:05
  • As common in the Torah, the transgression is inferred posteriorly from the punishment, if God killed the spies so vehemently, it must be severe even if the Torah mentions no explicit (Biblical) wrongdoing.
    – Al Berko
    Jun 26 at 9:48

2 Answers 2

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The Torah states (Bamidbar 13:31):

But the men who went up with him said, We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.

On this, our sages comment (Sotah 35a):

Rabbi Ḥanina bar Pappa says: The spies said a serious statement at that moment. When they said: “They are stronger,” do not read the phrase as: Stronger than us [mimmennu], but rather read it as: Stronger than Him [mimmennu], meaning that even the Homeowner, God, is unable to remove His belongings from there, as it were. The spies were speaking heresy and claiming that the Canaanites were stronger than God Himself.

Rav Moshe Feinstein (Darash Moshe al HaTorah, ArtScroll, p. 243) (1) explains that saying that the sin of the meraglim was lashon hara, is puzzling, because:

In fact, they committed a much more serious transgression of disbelief in Hashem by stating, as the Rabbis teach us (Sotah 35a), that the people of Canaan were stronger than Him, G-d forbid. It would seem that the sin of corrupt character traits manifested by speaking evil without any gain - as stated in Koheles (10:11): וְאֵ֣ין יִתְר֔וֹן לְבַ֖עַל הַלָּשֽׁוֹן, and the slanderer has no gain - leads the more grave sin of denial of the power of Hashem.

The Daf Yomi Digest writes (2):

The reason you feel cold about Eretz Yisrael is not that it is the land’s true identity, since nothing could be further than the truth. You feel cold because you are spiritually apathetic! If a Jew who goes to Eretz Yisrael can’t find any good attribute which he can report, this bears a very telling witness about the true state of his spirituality!”

In Tehillim 78:22, it says:

For they did not believe in G-d, and they did not trust in His help.

So, it seems that the sin of the meraglim was not merely lashon hara, but the disbelieve in G-d. Not trusting Hashem, despite the great miracles that G-d did for us, and even saying that "they", e.g. the Canaanites, were "stronger than Him".

In Kovetz Ma'amarim, Rav Elchonon Wasserman cites the verse "and that you seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you go astray" (Bamidbar 15:39) and explains that it is "mans nature" to have faith in G-d, but that it can be affected by our external influences. That's why the Torah warns us explicitly not to "follow our hearts", e.g. our temptations.

According to the Ramban, the sin was that the "spies" added their own conclusion and added to their own "job description". Moshe Rabbeinu said that they needed to observe what the land looks like "and what the land is that they dwell in, whether it is good or bad; and what cities they dwell in, whether in tents, or in strongholds" (v. 20).

I highly recommend reading these articles, here and here.


Reference list

(1) Klugman, E. M., Rohr, P. O., & Rosenberg, A. Y. (1994). Darash Moshe I: A selection of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s choice comments on the Torah (1st ed.). Mesorah Publications Ltd.

(2) Chicago Center for Torah and Chesed; November 30th, 2015; Daf Yomi Digest for Maseches Sotah; Daf 35

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  • Ok, but is "disbelief in G-d" punishable by misa b'dei shamayim? Which one of the 613 commandments is that, and where is the punishment for it codified? And furthermore, what are the parameters for being punished - is it enough to disbelieve just once? does it have to be verbalized (as opposed to just in thought)? I don't recall seeing anything like that codified with parameters, which makes the original questions stand - what issur did they break that was punishable by misa, and if it wasn't specified in the Torah that they already (just) received, why were they punished?
    – user9806
    Jun 24 at 15:56
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To answer your last, more general, question, we must indeed sometimes go “beyond the letter of the law” (לפנים משורת הדין -- lifnim mi-shurat ha-din). This is based on Deut. 6:17-18: (1) Keep the commandments, (2) and do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord. The apparent repetition was understood to mean extra-legal measures. The Talmud says:

Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’akov says: I heard that the court may administer lashes and capital punishment, even when not prescribed by the Torah. It may do so, not with the intention of violating the Torah, but to safeguard it by erecting a fence around it, [so that people will fear sinning]. [Sanhedrin 46a; Yevamot 90b]

He gave two examples. In the first, a man was flogged for having intercourse with his wife in public, which is not forbidden by the Torah. In the second, a man was stoned to death for riding a horse on Shabbat, which is only prohibited by the rabbis, not by the Torah, and so cannot carry the death penalty. The justification given was: “Because the hour required it.” In those days, Greek influence was so strong that it pushed Jewish observance to an all-time low, and extra-harshness was deemed necessary to make sure it did not sink even lower. This practice was later accepted in the Code of Jewish Law [Shulḥan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 2:1].

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