I have learned that punishments in the Torah often (always?) have a rehabilitative aspect to them as well as providing justice to the victim, e.g. someone who steals and can't pay back the value of what he stole becomes a slave, and through this experience it is hoped he will learn how to live properly. Or, even when a murderer is killed for his crime, this punishment is ultimately the best thing for his neshama.

My question is, is there ever a scenario where the Torah prescribes locking someone away as a punishment - not for the waiting period before the case is heard, but as the punishment itself?

In the world in general, prison is not rehabilitative and there is a high rate of recidivism among the people who go there. However, what other alternative is there for people who are a danger to society, but not liable to the death penalty, e.g someone who is suspected of committing murder but without no witnesses to the crime?


14 Answers 14


R' Samson Raphael Hirsch, when describing your case about a thief's slavery, writes that the Torah's system of punishment is much better than the prevailing system of imprisonment, which basically destroys the perpetrator. This implies that jail is never found as a punishment in Judaism.

That being said, there are times where someone is guilty of a severe crime, but is not subject to the death penalty, that he is locked up and fed a diet which will ultimately kill him. (See Sanhedrin 81b and Tosefta, Tractate Sanhedrin 12:7-8). However, even in this case it seems that the point is his death, not his confinement.

This article provides some information about various types of punishment in Judaism.

  • Very interesting. What's the source for being locked up and fed a diet which will ultimately kill him? Commented Feb 4, 2014 at 17:58
  • @DaagahMinayin it's in the g'mara somewhere; I've seen it but don't remember where off-hand. With luck somebody will add a specific citation. Commented Feb 4, 2014 at 18:01

Rambam Hilchot Rotzeach 4:3:

הַמַּכֶּה אֶת חֲבֵרוֹ בְּאֶבֶן אוֹ בְּאֶגְרוֹף וְכַיּוֹצֵא בָּהֶן אוֹמְדִין אוֹתוֹ. אִם אֲמָדוּהוּ לְחַיִּים נוֹתֵן חֲמִשָּׁה דְּבָרִים וְנִפְטָר. וַאֲפִלּוּ חָלָה הַמֻּכֶּה וְהִכְבִּיד וּמֵת מֵחֲמַת הַמַּכָּה הֲרֵי זֶה פָּטוּר. וְאִם אֲמָדוּהוּ לְמִיתָה אוֹסְרִין אֶת הַמַּכֶּה בְּבֵית הַסֹּהַר מִיָּד וּמַמְתִּינִים לָזֶה. אִם מֵת יֵהָרֵג הַמַּכֶּה וְאִם הֵקֵל וְנִתְרַפֵּא רְפוּאָה שְׁלֵמָה וְהָלַךְ בַּשּׁוּק עַל רַגְלָיו כִּשְׁאָר הַבְּרִיאִים מְשַׁלֵּם הַמַּכֶּה חֲמִשָּׁה דְּבָרִים וְנִפְטָר:‏

If a man struck a person with a stone or fist, or the like, an appraisal should be made. If it is considered likely that he will live, the offender pays compensation on five counts and is released. Even if the victim fell ill, took a turn for the worse and died from the blow, the offender is exempt. If, however, he is considered likely to die, the assailant must immediately be put into prison, while we wait for further developments. If the victim dies, the assailant is executed; but if he has improved and recovered completely, being able to walk along in the street like any other healthy individual, the assailant pays compensation on five counts and is released.

This ruling is based on Ketubot 33b and is ultimately derived from Shemot 21:9:

אם יקום והתהלך בחוץ על משענתו ונקה המכה וכי תעלה על דעתך שזה מהלך בשוק וזה נהרג אלא מלמד שחובשין אותו ואי מית קטלינן ליה ואי לא מית שבתו יתן ורפא ירפא

“If he rises and walks outside with his staff, he who struck him is absolved” (Exodus 21:19). And could it enter your mind that this [victim] is walking in the marketplace and that [aggressor] is executed? Rather, the verse teaches that one imprisons him [the aggressor], and if he [the victim] dies, we kill him [the aggressor]. And if he does not die, “His loss of livelihood he shall give, and he shall cause him to be thoroughly healed” (Exodus 21:19).


The concept of prison does not exist in The Torah. The closest thing that the Torah has to 'imprisonment' are the cities of refuge where someone who kills unintentionally has to go to and where he has to remain until the death of the current Kohen Gadol, and excommunication where the person who is excommunicated is socially isolated until the excommunication is lifted.

  • 1
    Good point. Is he not allowed to leave the city of refuge, or does he leave at his own peril (that is, if the blood-avenger kills him outside the city, it's his own fault)? Commented Feb 4, 2014 at 18:37
  • where do the excommunicated get excommunicated to? what is this a punishment for? How does the Torah address protecting society from dangerous or potentially dangerous people? Commented Feb 4, 2014 at 19:36
  • @DaagahMinayin excommunication is "get out of here", not "go there". The person is being kicked out, not confined elsewhere. Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 15:04
  • There are several cases of "temporary excommunication" such as lepers and those who are ritually impure b/c of touching a dead body. Such people have to live outside the main camp for about 7 days.
    – DanF
    Commented Aug 22, 2018 at 20:50

I. When Eldad and Medad prophesied that Moshe would die and Yehoshua would take over, Yehoshua complains to Moshe:

וַיַּעַן יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן נוּן מְשָׁרֵת מֹשֶׁה מִבְּחֻרָיו וַיֹּאמַר אֲדֹנִי מֹשֶׁה כְּלָאֵם (Bamidbar 11:28)

Here's what Rashi writes:

הטל עליהם צרכי צבור והם כלים מאליהם (ספרי) ד"א תנם אל בית הכלא לפי שהיו מתנבאים משה מת ויהושוע מכניס את ישראל לארץ

However, jail is only the second interpretation, and the Ramban writes the following:

ולכך אמר לו "כלאם" כי אולי רוח שקר בפיהם או רוח רעה מבעתם והנה צריכין לשומם בבית הכלא כאיש משוגע ומתנבא

This is not imprisonment, but institutionalization.

II. After typing the above, I found that Rabbi Meir Blumenfeld (1900-1980. Rabbi of Newark, NJ. Prolific and well respected as a "gaon") dealt with this very question here. His understanding of the above Rashi, is based on the Ramban- that it wasn't imprisonment but commitment. He list several other possible places in תנ"ך that may seem to refer to imprisonment, but rejects them all.

  • Interesting source. Is the term mishmar a form of imprisonment as well? E.g. the blasphemer and the one that gathered sticks on Shabbat?
    – DanF
    Commented Aug 22, 2018 at 20:52

Yes! The Rambam mentions at least twice, cases when people are imprisoned as they are a danger to society.

Since they cannot be killed by Bet Din they are imprisoned on a starvation diet and then overfed, in the hope that they will die of overeating.

The Rambam describes this in משנה תורה - ספר נזקים - הלכות רוצח ושמירת נפש פרק ד

מכניסין אותו לכיפה, והוא מקום צר כפי קומתו ואינו יכול לשכב בו
ומאכילין אותן לחם צר ומים לחץ עד שיצרו מעיהן
ואחר כך מאכילים אותן שעורים, עד שכרסם נבקעת מכובד החולי

The 2 cases I found are:

  • משנה תורה - ספר נזקים - הלכות נזקי ממון פרק יא

    • A murdered who has witnesses, but they do not fully qualify to enable the death penalty, gets imprisoned until he dies of starvation/overeating.
    • ההורג נפשות, ולא היו שני העדים רואין אותו כאחת, אלא ראהו האחד אחר האחד, או שהרג בפני שני עדים בלא התראה, או שהוכחשו העדים בבדיקות ולא הוכחשו בחקירות--כל אלו הרצחנין, כונסין אותן לכיפה ומאכילין אותן לחם צר ומים לחץ עד שיצרו מעיהן; ואחר כך מאכילים אותן שעורים, עד שכרסם נבקעת מכובד החולי
  • משנה תורה - ספר שופטים - הלכות סנהדרין פרק יח

    • Somebody who got lashes for a Karet-type of sin (e.g. eating cheilev-fats, blood or Chametz on Pessach) and repeated his offense and again got lashes, on his 3rd offense he does not get lashes, instead he gets imprisoned until he dies of starvation/overeating.
    • מי שלקה בבית דין על איסור כרת, ולקה פעם שנייה על אותו כרת עצמו--כגון שאכל חלב ולקה עליו, ואכל חלב פעם שנייה ולקה עליו--אם אכל פעם שלישית, אין מלקין אותו: אלא מכניסין אותו לכיפה, והוא מקום צר כפי קומתו ואינו יכול לשכב בו, ונותנין לו לחם צר ומים לחץ, עד שיצרו מעיו ויחלה; ואחר כך מאכילין אותו שעורים, עד שכרסו נבקעת

You ask if the Torah prescribes locking someone away as a punishment. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Moed Katan 3:1) explicitly mentions this in a discussion of those allowed to cut their hair on Hol Hamoed

והיוצא מבית האסורין. הוינן סברין מימר כשהיה חבוש אצל העכו"ם אבל אם היה חבוש אצל ישראל לא

The gemara mentions that those freed from a prison of non-Jews can cut their hair (because they were prevented from doing this before Yom Tov) but one imprisoned by Jews cannot (because Jewish prisons allow haircuts). Subsequently, the gemara also allows prisoners from Jewish prisons to cut their hair since it is unpleasant to do in prison.

In their notes to this gemara, Artscroll notes three cases where a Jew is put in prison by beit din, the first two cases being closest to the punishments you ask about

  • to compel him to divorce a woman prohibited to him
  • to compel him to pay a debt he owes, if he has money but refuses to pay
  • for one who injured another severely enough that he might die, waiting for news of his victim's condition
  • 1
    Thank you - fascinating! Commented Oct 22, 2021 at 12:37

The torah itself never discusses imprisonment. Penalties for transgressions include restitution, financial penalties, lashes, becoming a slave, and capital punishment, but imprisonment as a final outcome isn't discussed. (I don't know how to prove a negative, sorry.)

See Ypnypn's answer for something that looks like imprisonment but isn't. And imprisonment can arise under modern penal codes under which Jews live, but that's different.

  • Rambam writes that if someone commits murder in a way that isn't technically liable to the death penalty (e.g. he calls a hit man), the courts are entitled -- and expected -- to imprison him.
    – Shalom
    Commented Feb 4, 2014 at 18:57

Rambam Hilchot Rotzeach ch.2 halacha 5 regarding a murderer who cannot be executed due to a technicality (such as hiring a hitman or indirectly causing his death). His beating and imprisonment is NOT to kill him.

If the king did not execute them, nor did the court deem the time as such to require strengthening the strictures against murder, it should nevertheless have the murderer beaten with severe blows - so that he is on the verge of death - and imprisoned, deprived and afflicted for many years with all types of discomfort in order to strike fear and awe into the hearts of other wicked men, so that his crime should not be a stumbling block and a snag for them, causing them to say: "Let me arrange to have my enemies killed the way so-and-so did, and I will not suffer the consequences."

ה. הרי שלא הרגם המלך ולא היתה השעה צריכה לכך לחזק הדבר הרי בית דין חייבין מכל מקום להכותם מכה רבה הקרובה למיתה לאסרם במצור ובמצוק שנים רבות ולצערן בכל מיני צער כדי להפחיד ולאיים על שאר הרשעים שלא יהיה הדבר להם לפוקה ולמכשול ויאמר הריני מסבב להרוג אויבי כדרך שעשה פלוני ואפטר:


Source of incarceration in the Torah through Beis Din (Moshe Rabeinu) Vayikra 24,12:

'ויניחהו במשמר לפרש להם על פי ה
And they put the person who cursed in prison inorder to learn from Hashem what should be done

Also Bamidbar 15,34:

וַיַּנִּיחוּ אֹתוֹ בַּמִּשְׁמָר כִּי לֹא פֹרַשׁ מַה יֵּעָשֶׂה לוֹ.

The Sifra says that the Mekoshesh Bamidbar who broke Shabbos was put in Jail separately from the man who cursed because the Mekoshesh was definitely liable to death but the Mekalel was not certain even if he was liable to death at all.

  • Note this is a temporary jail cell rather than prison.
    – LN6595
    Commented Apr 4, 2019 at 15:46
  • @this is specifically excluded by the OP in the question. I'm not downvoting, just pointing out. Commented Aug 12, 2019 at 22:42

THe whole topic is discussed in length here: Incarceration as a Modality of Punishment

Let me recap in my [philosophical] words:

There are two "legal systems" in the Jewish Law: one that is sanctioned by the Torah's laws and the second by the Sages/Rabanan.

You are right, that imprisonment does not exist in the Torah Law but it is very common with Rabanan, according to the well-accepted rule: "עונשים שלא מן הדין". So the Jewish court is free to impose any punishment they feel necessary, including imprisonment or other creative punishments for example, "מכניסים אותו לכיפה" and the likes.

  1. A prison is explicitly mentioned in Ber 39:

"וַיִּקַּח אֲדֹנֵי יוֹסֵף אֹתוֹ וַיִּתְּנֵהוּ אֶל־בֵּית הַסֹּהַר מְקוֹם אֲשֶׁר־אֲסִירֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲסוּרִים וַיְהִי־שָׁם בְּבֵית הַסֹּהַר׃

So Joseph’s master had him put in prison, where the king’s prisoners were confined. But even while he was there in prison."

  1. If you ask about the Jewish Law, the answer is simple - G-d allows a Beis Din to apply any punishment it sees efficient under the rule "עונשים שלא מן הדין", see the other answers bringing Rambam.

  2. A Jewish King is free to apply any punishment for מורד במלכות at his wish.

  • The full question asks for where the Torah suggests this as a punishment, not where it appears. Not downvoting, just letting you know. Commented Aug 12, 2019 at 22:43

There are different Proofs in the ת"נח for the fact that בית דיו isn't limited to the "חייב OR פוטר" in The חמישי חומשי תורה . )
Society can't function like that, (unless the best Majority of people don't sin) .....Because if that were true if you see someone kill and the witnesses were well known Zadikim, but they're brothers, we must let the Murder go free.

This "Middle Ground" is known as "עונשים שלא מין הדין".

For Example, in The Book of Ezra, פרק ז: פסוק כו , we find King Darius' letter to Ezra HaSofor saying that Anyone who doesn't do the will of Hashem (and להבדיל 'Me') ASAP, kill him one of 4 ways. According to anyone who learns the 2nd way as NOT killing his entire family, because that's clearly Not תורה Law, but rather as Excommunication which Does fit in to Torah Law.

We know that Darius the King makes references many times in the letter that he needs Ezra to teach תורה והלכה to all ב"י (outside בבל) That Ezra is a "סופר מהר" (Ezra's title "An outstanding Scholar", "who know all the הלכות from the מיסורה from משה רבינו Etc.

And that's why he wants Ezra to spread the Law of 'ה Etc. And the 4th Punishment is אסורים. It could mean "Torture" but we don't Torture anyone!

Therefore it must mean. "בית" האסורים" AKA jail.
(Also keep in mind that the words of this letter are usually all translated by רשי and other פרשים because this part of Erza is written in Old Aramaic)

So that's one proof directly from נך...

(The proofs from the ח"ח תורה, refer to a "Detention" משמר....Rather than a Long term "Prison", Furthermore, they aren't Punishments, rather a Practical way of confining people "Until 'ה tells us what to do with them" עיין ויקרא כד:יב )


The gemara in Moed Katan 16a learns about prison from a verse in Ezra and applies it to a person who does not obey the court orders

And from where do we derive that we may shackle his hands and feet, chain him, and apply pressure? As it is written: “Whether it be for death, or for banishment [lishroshi], or for confiscation of goods, or for imprisonment” (Ezra 7:26).

The gemara continues

The Gemara asks: What is the meaning of the word “lishroshi,” translated here as banishment? Adda Mari said that Neḥemya bar Baruch said that Rav Ḥiyya bar Avin said that Rav Yehuda said: This is pressure (hardafa).

R Adin Steinsaltz comments on the words "apply pressure" that the geonim have a different version of the text according to which the word hardafa refers to a method of imprisonment similar to solitary confinement.



As mentioned in all answers before mine, imprisonment is not a Torah concept. All of the instances of Halachic jailing (See Bamidbar 15:34 and Vayikra 29:12, as well as the relevant Gimaros in Sanhedrin and Ksubos cited in other answers) serve only to arraign the suspect until his/her trial. A more interesting question is why this is the case. I believe that the answer is that Judaism believes in serving G-d communally (obviously as well as individually), via mitzvah such as Minyan, marriage, rearing children, Tzedaka, assisting one's neighbor with his donkey's load, etc., none of which can be done from jail. The whole purpose of jailing is to remove a person's sense of community, which, as delineated above, as not the Jewish way of doing things.

The one exception to this rule is Kareis, excommunication, and the Ir Miklat, refuge city, for accidental killers (as mentioned by +user4523). These are the most prison-like conditions a Jew can be under, as they cut off a person from general society, but still don't do so entirely.

To answer your final point, the Gimara in Makos on Daf 10 points out that having no witnesses to the crime doesn't mean much; G-d will distribute justice as is fit for him. The example the Gimara brings is of someone who murdered and someone who witnessed a murder but did not report it: G-d will orchestrate it as such that the person who witnessed the murder will be at the top of a ladder and the killer will be at the bottom, and the witness will kill the killer, thus forcing him into an Ir Miklat and killing the killer. Thus, no prison sentence is necessary- G-d will take care of sorting out the messy details of the so-called "danger to society"'s punishment.

Hope that helps... Please comment with any ideas!

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