The Mishna Sanhedrin 81B brings a form of execution where the convicted person is placed in a tight chamber, fed minimal amounts of food to shrink the stomach, and then fed a lot to cause the stomach to burst, causing death (see jlaw article for details about this form of execution).

How was this torture allowed?

How is this a humane way to execute someone (i.e. it is tzar baalei chayim, the Torah does not explicitly allow putting a person through more pain than the halacha mandates, and what right do we have being God's tool of retribution if not to give a swift execution when necessary)? Although the person deserved lashes for the kareit sin he/she did, this form of execution seems to be excessively harsh. Did death happen instantaneously so that the individual did not have to suffer that much when it happened or were they drugged (although the minimal feeding was presumably still painful)?

Why didn't loving your fellow apply in this case? If you want to say that breaking that was better than directly killing someone who is not technically guilty of death in Torah law, that's not correct, because beth din has a right to put someone to death if they deem it fitting (see Sanhedrin 46a, and Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 2; there are also numerous cases even during the Middle Ages of alternative forms of execution); so why not choose swift death over torture? Also, if they wanted to kill indirectly (grama), why didn't they find some other way to do it?

  • To answer the loving your fellow question: It could be that since this person is a repeat offender who shows a blatant disdain for the mitzvoth even after being punished a few times, he/she is not considered our "friend" anymore and that mitzvah would not apply. Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 1:43
  • What other Grama can you find? Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 1:57
  • Actually, perhaps if the Grama switch was around back then :) Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 1:58
  • It seems that the most technical, and thus specific and thus directly answerable part of the question, is in the last paragraph. That is: the relationship between unilateral judicial execution, and the method described in Sanhedrin 81a. Editing down to these components clarifies and improves the question IMHO.
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 2:00
  • 2
    @ShmuelBrin: Off the top of my head: hanging and removing the chair underneath, a pulley system to lower an axe or shoot arrows, making him eat poison. Thank God I am no expert in the art of killing (nor do I have any interest), but I am sure there are various ways to make it happen. Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 22:47

3 Answers 3


The עיקר תוי"ט on Mishna 9:5 in Sanhedrin (the one you quoted) brings a verse to explain why he deserves to be put to death; because he doesn't care about his life.

דגברא בר קטלא הוא בידי שמים, וקרובי הוא דלא מקרב קטלי'. וכיון דקא מוותר ליה לנפשיה לעבירות של כרת, מקרבים ליה לקטלה עלויה. ורמיזא בקרא דכתיב תְּמוֹתֵת רָשָׁע רָעָה (תהילים ל"ד:כ"ב). פרש''י מי שהוחזק רשע תמיתתו רעתו, אלמא מוחזק רשע בר מיתה הוא. ורמיזה הוא דהוהי.‏

But he ends off by saying that the punishment is הלכה למשה מסיני - one of the many things we have by oral tradition from Moshe Rabbeinu.

ועיקרא דמלתה דכיפה הלכה למשה מסיני היא

In other words, the punishments may seem cruel, but that's what Hashem decided, and we can't change it.

  • 2
    Saying something is halacha l'Moshe misinai is the easy way to explain something that doesn't make sense. That kind of answer does not satisfy me, unless chazal explicitly said it was misinai. Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 20:38

I have a theory of why this method of execution is described.

My theory is that the point of this Gemara is to provide an extreme example of the extent of the Sanhedrin's authority. The Gemara does not say that "this is what must be done to these people" but rather says that "this is what may be done"

Below is an article detailing a gruesome method of execution, similar in some respects to what is described in the Gemara, that was actually used by the Persians during the Second Temple Era.


I think that the writers of the Gemara used this example as an extreme punishment that was actually carried out by the secular authorities and they reference it to say that the Sanhedrin has that same authority and that they may even order this execution as if they were a regular secular authority (without the special religious rules of witnesses). The Gemara does not comment here on whether the secular authority should be doing these kinds of executions, particularly not when many Talmudists lived in Persia and to do so would involve rebuking the Persian dynasty who occasionally ordered it.

Eg. Imagine a girl goes into the girl's bathroom and start murdering girls. There are no kosher witnesses. The Sanhedrin can know the girl is guilty through non-kosher witnesses and evidence but using the regular "religous" system of witnesses, they would be unable to do anything. This small Gemara that is not talked about elsewhere is necessary to say that the Sanhedrin can act in the role of a secular court, outside their more obvious role, when public order demands it.

Accordingly, the Sanhedrin has the authority to execute people who downvote without a comment.

  • 2
    Thanks for the interesting theory. Haha about the down votes. I've got quite a few of those and deleted comments. The world is not ready yet for my chiddushim I guess. Or maybe I'm just crazy :-) Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 1:20
  • 1
    Ask a crazy question, expect crazy answers! Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 1:26
  • According to this article (in the para. about strangling, based on Tshuvot) --jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/… -- there were drownings, bleedings, and starvation, so it seems that early Rabbis understood that other forms of execution, including torture, were allowed. Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 1:35
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    I actually like your pshat in a theoretical sense, BUT, the gemara implies neither must or may, it simply states what is done. I also do take slight offence at the comparison between the attempt to kill by inaction of the gemara to the psychotic Persians and their desire to prolong the sufferers misery for weeks on end.
    – user6591
    Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 19:17
  • I think that this is all theoretical and was never actually carried out. Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 2:49

My understanding is that they do not force feed him, just we help him kill himself indirectly, he deserves to die but not to get killed , so we can not kill him, he will not (is not allowed to) kill himself, we can put him in prison and help him indirectly kill himself, it is not a form of torture it is a way to indirectly kill someone maybe the most humane one possible

Law regarding this punishment.
Rambam. Sefer Nezikim » Rotzeach uShmirat Nefesh- Chapter Four

Halacha 8

The following laws apply when a person kills people, but the witnesses did not observe his act together - instead one saw him after the other did: a person killed in the presence of witnesses, but a warning was not given; or the witnesses to a murder contradicted each other with regard to the fine points of the testimony, but not with regard to the fundamental questions.

All those murderers should be forced to enter a kipah.There they are fed parched bread and small amounts of water until their digestive tract contracts. Then they are fed barley until their bellies burst because of the extent of the sickness and they die.

Halacha 9

This measure is not taken with regard to other crimes punishable by execution by the court. If a defendant is liable for execution, he should be executed. If he is not liable for execution, he should be released.

Although there are other sins that are more serious than murder, they do not present as serious a danger to society as murder does. Even idol worship - and needless to say, incest or the violation of the Sabbath - are not considered as severe as murder. For these sins involve man's relationship with God, while murder also involves man's relationship with his fellow man.

Whoever commits this sin is an utterly wicked person. All the mitzvot that he performs throughout his lifetime cannot outweigh this sin and save him from judgment. Thus, Proverbs 28:17 states: "A man weighed down with life's blood will flee to the pit."

Come and learn from the example of Ach'avKing of Israel. He was an idolater so debased in his paganism that I Kings 21:25 says: "There was none like Ach'av who gave himself over to the performance of wickedness in the eyes of God." And yet when his merits and sins were weighed in the presence of the Lord of spirits, there was no sin that warranted his destruction and was not counterbalanced by a positive quality, except the blood of Navot.

Thus, it is written Ibid. 22:21, in the description of the prophecy of Ach'av's death in battle: "And the spirit came and stood before God." Our Sages commented:: "This is the spirit of Navot." And God told the spirit (Ibid.:2): "You will persuade him and prevail."

Now this wicked man Ach'av did not actually kill his victim with his own hands; he merely brought about his death. How much more so this condemnation should apply when a person kills another with his own hands.

  • How does the stomach burst? How is that not immensely painful? Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 23:50
  • @Emetv'Shalom the 4 ways of death penalty are also painful, do you have an other way (less painful) of indirectly helping someone to die?
    – hazoriz
    Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 23:53
  • @Emetv'Shalom Now I see this was discussed in comments above, the examples you give seem to be directly killing him, and not just causing him to dye
    – hazoriz
    Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 23:56
  • A soita dies in a similar way
    – hazoriz
    Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 23:58
  • @Emetv'Shalom I added a source were it seems that this is an unusual punishment for only a sposific (bad) crime
    – hazoriz
    Commented Jan 4, 2016 at 0:31

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