In Leviticus 20:14, it states that a man who has relations with a woman and also with her mother is a despicable lech, whose punishment is to be burned to death. This is one of two transgressions which are to be punished by burning to death, the other one is Leviticus 21:9, where the victim is a priest's daughter who chooses to prostitute herself.

Are these laws obsolete? Do any Jews think they should be revived? I ask this because I find it difficult to think of Leviticus law as divinely inspired because of barbarous passages such as this. All of Leviticus 27, for example.

I am aware that Judaism no longer takes these things seriously, nor does it follow these laws, but I have never seen anyone condemn these practices. Does anyone?

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    These laws are not obsolete and Judaism DO takes these things seriously. The punishment couldn't be applied nowadays because of reasons described in Will's answer.
    – jutky
    Feb 18, 2012 at 21:38
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    Somewhat related (not specifically about burning): judaism.stackexchange.com/q/7739/472 Feb 19, 2012 at 1:17
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    Ron, I can appreciate your feelings about some of the Torah's laws, but remember that your perspective is comimg from a different culture. For example, most people in today's societies have no problem slaughtering, grilling and eating another living creature, so long as those creatures cannot organize an equal rights movement. A goal of the Torah is to create a holy nation. The Torah uses a punitive system to indicate actions which are antithetical to that holiness. In short, you have not been raised in a society with the same values.
    – YDK
    Feb 19, 2012 at 5:33
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    @Ron So you're saying that G-d can determine ethics as long as they don't conflict with the ones you've already decided on. Essentially, you're saying that you'll believe in a particular G-d (or a particular understanding of Him) if His ethics agree with yours. Okay.
    – HodofHod
    Mar 8, 2012 at 1:46
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    I feel the need to point out that burned to death, was not actually burned to death.
    – avi
    Dec 19, 2013 at 9:43

3 Answers 3


The death penalty can only be carried out:

-with a specific kind of rabbinic court (which we don't have today)

-after the sinner has been caught in the act, warned by two people eligible to testify in a rabbinic court, and then IMMEDIATELY commits the same act again, in front of the same witnesses.

There are several other limiting factors to the death penalty in Jewish law, so much so that the Talmud, tractate Makkos declares that a court (the kind that we don't have today) which executes one man in SEVENTY YEARS is a murderous court!

Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon go even further, and explain that they would make the questioning of witnesses so exacting, that no one would stand up to it, thus precluding any "accurate testimony" from any such witnesses (who witnessed a capital crime, warned the perpetrator, and then witnessed him immediately commit the same act again) - and effectively preempting the death penalty entirely.

This question also brings up a general problem in drawing practical conclusions from the Tanach. Judaism has never believed that the Tanach is LITERALLY TRUE. Judaism has always believed that the Tanach is MASORETICALLY TRUE. The actual meaning of any given verse is whatever our mesorah (handed-down tradition) says it is.

I recommend this article for further clarification.

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    @RonMaimon no condemnation at all. Look again at all of the requirements to sentence a sinner to death. Jews who sinned privately could never face any earthly penalty. Think about it: someone who commits a death-penalty sin publicly, is warned about it by two qualified witnesses, and then immediately commits the sin again - what is that person's motive? Desire, or publicly protesting against G-d's Law? Obviously it's the latter; and only that kind of defiance warranted a death-penalty trial.
    – user1095
    Feb 19, 2012 at 9:35
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    @Ron It's got nothing to with courage. They won't denounce because they don't believe it's wrong. We believe that right and wrong are concepts that only have meaning because G-d gave them meaning. Otherwise you have "relative morality" which is always subject to change. If G-d says "Thou shalt do <x>", then <x> is morally right. Always. Period.
    – HodofHod
    Feb 26, 2012 at 2:20
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    @Ron, Yes, it is. We believe in a top-down religion. We believe that Leviticus is the word of G-d, and therefore, by definition, it is moral.
    – HodofHod
    Mar 8, 2012 at 1:49
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    @RonMaimon I agree with HodofHod, but again, it must be stressed that our masoretic understanding of the Torah is the word of G-d - not what anyone picking up a Bible today understands it to be. Actual Jewish practice follows G-d's laws. Asking us to reject the death penalty when we have no practical use for it in our times is a straw man argument, similar to the antisemites who asked us to denounce baking matzah with Christian children's blood - neither that nor this have any basis in Jewish law, and therefore, there is nothing to denounce.
    – user1095
    Mar 8, 2012 at 3:39
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    @RonMaimon Re: "neither crime seems to me to be particularly egregious", exactly! To you. To G-d on the other hand... Re: "but it is not enough to stop doing it, one must honestly confront the cause of this law, and excise this evil influence from one's culture. ", what you say would be true - if Jews didn't believe that the Torah is G-d's word. Since we do, we will not condemn it, since it, and its Oral Tradition, are morally and ethically perfect.
    – HodofHod
    May 9, 2012 at 16:29

As stated above, the death penalty was exceedingly rare.

Just regarding the burning part, fascinatingly the Talmud says that to burn someone at the stake is a violation of "love your fellow like yourself." Instead, a death sentence of "burning" is carried out by pouring molten lead down their throat. Still not fun, but it's seen as I believe less painful (anyone sentenced to death was first given drugged wine), and more honorable as it leaves the human body intact.

  • Seems more like a comment on Will's answer.
    – Double AA
    Feb 19, 2012 at 1:59
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    @DoubleAA it answers the question's claim burning's barbaric.
    – msh210
    Feb 19, 2012 at 4:16
  • @msh210 The question didn't ask about barbarity. So this is a comment not an answer.
    – Double AA
    Feb 19, 2012 at 4:31
  • @DoubleAA, the issue of barbarity may not have been put in the form of the question, but it was included in the question. I think we can take for granted that all information included in the question is to illuminate what is being asked. Plus the question asked if anyone "condemns" such acts, and wh
    – Yirmeyahu
    Feb 19, 2012 at 8:08
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    "Jewish tradition doesn't find it easy": or desirable.
    – msh210
    Feb 19, 2012 at 14:54

The laws are not entirely obsolete. The talmud says they continued to be carried out through divine providence (Sanhedrin 37b)

  1. (Rav Yosef): After the Mikdash was destroyed, even though the Sanhedrin does not sit (in its place, to judge capital cases), the four death penalties did not cease.
  2. Objection: Indeed, they ceased!
  3. Correction: Rather, death according to the four death penalties did not cease:

    i. Someone deserving of stoning (Beis Din throws him down from a height; if he survives, they drop a boulder on him, if necessary, he is stoned) falls from a roof, or a beast tramples him; ii. Someone deserving of burning falls into a fire, or a snake bites him (the venom burns him); iii. Someone deserving of the sword, the kingdom kills him (e.g. by a guillotine) or robbers stab him; iv. Someone deserving of choking drowns in a river or dies of quinsy (a throat sickness).

They may seem barbaric, but the consequences of the modern "live and let live" philosophy is gradual deterioration of the moral fabric of society. Sometimes, you have to be harsh to someone to save the society.

Note that it was extremely rare that such things ever happened because the study and observance of torah shielded people from committing such things. Today it is not even viewed as something so morally bad.

UPDATE: to clarify a bit more. God considers sins of sexual immorality to be very severe. This can be seen from many places such as (1) the plague at the end of parsha Balak, (2) Yosef's tribe would not have been in the Choshen had he sinned with Potifar's wife (Sotah 36b) and of course, the plague of the flood in the days of Noach, whose primary sin was sexual immorality as explained here. (This is your problem - you do not see what is the big deal in sexual immorality.)

It's important to also realize that as the Chovos Halevavos writes (Shaar Bitachon gate 4): "The punishment in both worlds, however, is through truth and justice, and it is a debt a man must pay." The purpose of suffering in this world or in Gehinom (hell) is as the Ramchal writes (Kalach Pitchei Chachma, petach #2):

the Divine will coordinates the matters so that in the end, all will be meritorious (see Derech H-shem part 2 ch.2-4). This demonstrates that the Divine will is truly and solely to bestow good, only that it is necessary to go with each person according to his way. For the wicked it is necessary to punish them in order to pardon them afterwards. If the intent [in punishing the wicked] was to expel them, they should have been completely banished - not that they be punished in order to make them meritorious afterwards. This is a clear proof, because behold the end of a matter reveals the intended purpose of all the parts of that matter. And the end of the matter for every human being, whether the righteous or the wicked [after they are rectified] is to bestow on them good. If so, the intended purpose is to bestow good on all. Hence, the Divine will is solely good. Therefore, nothing will endure except His good.

Hence, the death penalty is actually a great kindness, because through it and repentance the offender will be pardoned of his sin, so that he will be able to enter Gan Eden scott free and will be spared of the much harsher purification process in Gehinom.

It only appears barbaric to us, because we do not see the big picture.

All punishments in the torah must be seen in context of God's benevolence and kindness as the Chovos Halevavos writes (ibid ch.3) "God is absolutely generous and kind" (Tov Halevanon commentary: i.e. the greatest possible extreme of generosity and kindness)

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    @RonMaimon that's what i meant - providentially, as the talmud there says. BTW, what is unjust about the death penalty? God granted life without you deserving it, He can take it away as He pleases. if you think it is barbaric to kill someone with fire, God thinks not. Apparently He thinks it is imperative that such behavior must be eliminated since it is incompatible with a torah society. You disagree but wait a few decades and you'll see where american society winds up. I have seen torah communities in israel where there are no police stations and people leave their doors open, and kids play
    – ray
    Dec 12, 2013 at 7:01
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    I am saying that burning a fellow for sleeping with such and so is morally contemptible, and is the behavior of animals. Not even. Worse than animals. The question is whether one is capable of denouncing this barbarity, not just sidestepping it with legalisms, denouncing it, while keeping the good moral fabric intact.
    – Ron Maimon
    Dec 18, 2013 at 15:02
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    @RonMaimon the torah, i.e. God disagrees with you. is it possible that you are ignorant of something? apparently He deems it equal to murder and idolatry. both of which lead society to barbarism. this is what you cannot see IMHO
    – ray
    Dec 18, 2013 at 18:31
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    @RonMaimon they are not "minor" sexual transgressions. that is the whole point. only appear minor because you live in a promiscuous society, which BTW is rotting away due to this. America used to be a decent place. now it's rotting away. divorce rates have skyrocketed, violence is approaching roman gladiator, (UFC people pay to watch fighters inclict severe pain on each other. Drugs, falsehood is growing,etc.,etc.,
    – ray
    Dec 20, 2013 at 7:01
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    @RonMaimon you must not realize that what you are saying here is the very definition of apikorsus. It is prohibited even for a goy to speak this way about G-d.
    – yoel
    Dec 20, 2013 at 15:13

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