So, according to wikipedia (I know... but still it was the best source I could find)

Leading rabbis in Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and Orthodox Judaism tend to hold that the death penalty is a correct and just punishment in theory, but they hold that it should not generally be used (or not used at all) in practice. In practice the application of such a punishment can only be carried out by humans whose system of justice is nearly perfect, a situation which has not existed for some time or never existed at all.

Why then did G-d instruct Jews in this manner? Do I have to interpret this as meaning that the old Jewish society is considered nearly perfect (which I have a hard time believing in the light of the mistakes that were made as described in the Torah)?

  • 2
    And as with all my questions, please note that I am not a Jew. I try my best to apply the correct terminology and ask the right questions, but feel free to edit and instruct me if I seem to make incorrect assumptions or mistakes. Commented Sep 21, 2014 at 15:31

3 Answers 3


I'd like to answer along two dimensions, one about capital punishment and one more broad.

First, it is possible for the conditions to be met under which capital punishment can apply. Tractate Sanhedrin in the talmud discusses in great detail the relevant laws. We know that sentences of capital punishment were carried out in the past. They were rare, with Rabbi Eleazar famously saying in the talmud (Makkot 1:10) that a court that executes once in 70 years is bloodthirsty (others say once in seven years).

Because these laws can be applied -- not today, but in the past and maybe in the future -- the torah needs to give them and we need to learn them.

Second, the broader point: the torah sometimes gives us laws that we cannot carry out. According to tractate Sanhedrin (h/t user6591, DoubleAA), the laws of the stubborn and rebellious son and of the idolatrous city were never carried out. (However, some disagree.) So why were these laws given? I was taught that, according to those who say it never happened, it's so that we will have the merit of torah study in learning it. Even if we do not apply a law, God had some reason for wanting us to learn it -- some principle we can derive from it, perhaps. God, being perfect, gave us a perfect torah, even if we imperfect people cannot understand why in some cases.


I am sorry that I don't remember who I heard this from, but I recall learning that the idea behind the death penalties was to show how serious the matter under discussion is. Violating Shabbos, for example, has a death penalty, even though it is almost never carried out, in order to teach that observance of Shabbos is more valuable than one's life.

The penalties are assigned in order to show how significant these ideas are.

  • If observance of Shabbat is more valuable than one's life, why is it not only permissible, but required, to break Shabbat laws when doing so is necessary to save a life? Commented Sep 21, 2014 at 19:18
  • @PeterOlson as the Talmud says, in order that they will keep a future Sabbath. Commented Sep 21, 2014 at 19:20
  • @PeterOlson The Talmud says that since Leviticus states that the Mitzvot were given to live by, we don't need to die to keep a Mitzva. Thus there is no obligation to keep Shabbat in those instances where lives are at stake. What happens if someone breaks Shabbat when they were obligated to keep it is a different story.
    – Double AA
    Commented Mar 25, 2015 at 18:14

It is possible for someone to be mistakenly executed for a crime he was innocent of. The system is reconciled by the belief that God knows that the person executed was guilty anyway of some other sin or otherwise deserved to die.

For example: see the story of "Vinegar son of Wine" in Bava Metzia 83b. (This story, however, did not involve a beit din, but a Rabbi who had been appointed sheriff by the Roman Government. It still works, nonetheless)


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