When is the most recent documented occurrence in Jewish history of a beit din carrying out the death penalty? Or if historical documentation is lacking, when is the most recent time in Jewish history that capital punishment could plausibly have occurred? Also, are there perhaps more recent times when a beit din gave a death sentence but did not have the ability to carry it out?

Note: The execution of Adolf Eichmann does not count for this question, as this was not a religious court.


3 Answers 3


Technically, jutky is correct: once the Great Sanhedrin moved out of their office in the Beis Hamikdash, forty years before it was destroyed, capital punishment was no longer carried out. (Shabbos 15a, et al)

That said, we do find sporadic cases where a beis din executed someone judicially in later times. One is in Sanhedrin 52b, where a kohen's daughter who committed adultery was executed by burning (as per Lev. 21:9), though Rav Yosef there points out that this was in fact the wrong thing to do.

The Rosh, in his responsa (17:8), discusses a case where the beis din of Cordova wanted to execute someone for blaspheming G-d, and asked him whether this was the correct thing to do. He writes:

הפלאתם לשאלני בדיני נפשות כי בכל הארצות ששמעתי עליהם אין דנין דיני נפשות לולי פה בארץ ספרד ותמהתי מאד בבאי הלום איך היו דנין דיני נפשות בלא סנהדרין ואמרו לי כי הורמנא דמלכא הוא. וגם העדה שופטים להציל כי כמה דמים היו נשפכים יותר אם היו נדונים ע"י גוים והנחתי להם כמנהג' אבל מעולם לא הסכמתי עמהם על איבוד נפש

"You surprise me by asking about a capital case. In all of the countries that I have heard of they do not judge capital cases, except here in Spain. When I arrived here I was most astonished how they could judge such cases without a Sanhedrin; I was told that this is by permission of the king, and also that the beis din's judgment saves lives, since much more blood would be spilled were they [Jews accused of crimes] to be judged by non-Jews. So I allowed them to continue their custom; but I have never agreed with them about taking life."

Though in this case he tells them that because of the severity of the sin - indeed, the non-Jewish authorities also treated such actions harshly - they could go ahead and do whatever they see fit (his own recommendation was to remove the fellow's tongue).

The testimony mentioned in this responsum is dated "Sunday, 16 Adar, 1358 according to the non-Jewish count" - which I believe refers to the Spanish Era, since the Rosh was no longer living in 1358 CE. This would place the event in 1321. So we see that at least as late as that date, batei din in Spain were carrying out judicial executions.

  • If the Jewish court in Spain was acting by the authority vested in them by the King of Spain rather than by authority vested in them by the King of the Universe, I'd say they're an ethnically Jewish secular court, just like the Israeli penal system.
    – Isaac Moses
    Nov 23, 2010 at 4:31
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    I don't know that I'd agree with that. They were attempting to follow Torah law, after all (hence their question to the Rosh in the first place), and indeed he effusively praises their zeal for G-d's honor. And the fact is that a beis din has a certain latitude in meting out punishments למיגדר מילתא, when they deem it necessary to preserve basic respect for Judaism; indeed, Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 2:1) codifies their right to do so, even to the point of capital punishment.
    – Alex
    Nov 23, 2010 at 5:05
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    Come to think of it, too, I may have mistranslated the Rosh's phrase הורמנא דמלכא הוא. From Bava Metzia 83b-84a it seems clear that this means "a royal command" (which can't easily be evaded), rather than "royal permission." So the Spanish batei din may have simply been compelled to judge such cases and carry out the appropriate sentences.
    – Alex
    Nov 23, 2010 at 5:25
  • how can these executions be according to halacha if there is no smicha
    – ray
    Sep 28, 2016 at 11:36

According to the Hebrew Wiki the capital punishment was canceled 40 years before destruction of the second temple in 70CE.


Eldad the Danite records in his letter to Spain in 883 that there were communities still implementing the death penalty. He describes how after being captured by cannibals and then fire-worshipers he was then sold to someone from the tribe of Yissachar. In describing their community he writes:

They have a Judge, and I asked about him and they said his name was Nachshon, and they practice the four death penalties according to the law, and they speak Hebrew and Persian.

(Adler translation)

He then writes similarly about the tribe of Zevulun:

And the sons of Zebulun are encamped in the hills of Paron and reach to their (i.e. Issachar's) neighborhood and pitch tents made of hairy skins which come to them from the land of Armenia, and they reach up to the Euphrates, and they practice business and they observe the four death penalties inflicted by the court.

(Adler translation)

The reliability of Eldad's accounts has been subject to much debate. See the Wikipedia page for a summary.

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