There is an interesting t'shuva in Igros Moshe Choshen Mishpat vol.2 #68 (pt. 1 pt. 2) in which he explains the extreme rarity of capital punishment in Jewish law, especially in modern times. It is addressed to a "sar ham'dina" (government official?) and opens and closes with very nice praises for the same. The t'shuva is dated Purim 1981.

Who was the questioner? How did he understand Rav Moshe's answer?


1 Answer 1


In 1981, Hugh Carey was governor of New York.

According to Wikipedia:

He is also remembered for preventing conservative legislators from reinstating the death penalty

So the subject of the death penalty would certainly have been on his mind.

My understanding of the responsum is Rav Moshe is not weighing in pro or con per se regarding what the State of New York's stance should be; he is simply explaining and defending the theoretical use of the death penalty in the Torah. I don't know who translated the letter to English, whether Governor Carey read it, or if it affected his decision process in any way. (Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik, in contrast, was quite vociferously opposed to any modern-day death penalty.)

There are several indicators that the letter was addressed to the governor:

  • The language Sar HaMedina. See for instance the prayer for the US found in the Tikun Meir siddur, which blesses "president so-and-so", "vice-president so-and-so", the country's legislators and justices; and then sar hamedina and his/her second-in-command; followed finally by "the head of this city" (rosh ha'ir hazot). By context, then, sar hamedina v'mishnehu must refer to the governor of the state (and his/her lieutenant governor).
  • I am not aware of any other executive who would have been reconsidering the death penalty in 1981. I don't believe the mayor of NYC, nor the president of the US, was doing so; and the language sounds as it it's addressed to an executive, not a legislator or justice.
  • The letter concludes with blessings to sar hamedina for his continued successful leadership "within this wonderful country of the United States of America", implying that sar hamedina is not himself the president of the US.
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    My upvote for, AFAICT, sound reasoning. However: In 1981, there were forty-nine other governors in the U.S. (Not to mention presidents and prime ministers elsewhere.) I think that the wording of the t'shuva makes it sound like Rav Moshe was a constituent of the recipient's, but this answer might mention that.
    – msh210
    May 6, 2011 at 2:16
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    "Presidents and prime ministers elsewhere" -- couldn't be; he concludes about the addressee's great work "within the US." But fair enough, theoretically it could have been a different governor who was mulling over the death penalty in 1981; but I don't think so. I doubt it's so much a constituency thing as many states with smaller Jewish populations wouldn't care much about the Jewish view, or wouldn't value Rav Moshe's voice as that of Judaism.
    – Shalom
    May 6, 2011 at 2:26
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    Right about presidents and prime ministers: my mistake. Also possibly, even likely, right about other governors' not caring as much. But I think there is indication Rav Moshe was a constituent, in the opening words v'hachaviv alenu. Who are "us" in that phrase if not the recipients' constituents? (Elsewhere in the t'shuva, in fact in the next sentence, Rav Moshe refers to himself in the singular, so I doubt v'hachaviv alenu refers to himself alone.)
    – msh210
    May 6, 2011 at 3:12
  • "(Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik, in contrast, was quite vociferously opposed to any modern-day death penalty.)" Source?
    – Seth J
    Dec 1, 2014 at 16:53
  • @SethJ it's well-known. The Gemara says they stopped the death penalty when the Sanhedrin was exiled from the Temple office; R' Aaron felt that meant no government could use capital punishment from that point on. I've heard this from his talmidim, and I believe also on a yutorah shiur ... but sorry I can't pinpoint a written source at the moment.
    – Shalom
    Dec 1, 2014 at 18:34

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