Obviously, mitzvot that are broken publicly, or that are found out carried with them enforceable punishments -- such as execution for murder or adultery, or retribution for theft or usury. However, my question is this: was there any mechanism in Ancient Israel by which the laws related to one's own private life, such as taharat hamishpachah, or failure to abide by kosher laws, etc, were enforced? In many Islamic countries, we see "religious police" which police people's observance, often intruding into people's private lives to find where they fall short. Was there ever this kind of intrusion, or did the Sanhedrin/elders simply leave these sorts of things alone, knowing G-d would mete out justice Himself?

I know G-d sees the secret sins, that is not my question - it is whether or not there was some sort of state-sanctioned enforcement (or attempt at enforcement) of more "private" laxity in observance.

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    Murder and kosher are both only punishable with witnesses. I guess I'm not sure how to define your "public/private" distinction. I'm at least unfamiliar with such a distinction in Halakha regarding this.
    – Double AA
    Sep 23, 2016 at 4:13
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    Fair enough, but I'm not making any claim of halachic distinction, rather, a practical one. Day to day life, people doing things that others don't see. Perhaps a couple are in the habit of disregarding taharat hamishpachah and nobody knows, or perhaps it is a sin such as those listed in our parashah (Ki Tavo) that Ibn Ezra said share the trait of all being "private sins" (dishonoring parents, misleading the blind, secret idol worship, etc.). My question is not about a halachic distinction, it is about whether or not there was proactive enforcement or more of an "honor system" in place.
    – Kovesh
    Sep 23, 2016 at 13:38
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    In those days, apparently, the "honor system" really meant something to MOST people, as a perusal of ancient texts SEEMS to indicate---of course, a lot of the time, they were writing extremely idealistically..how the average Joe really acted might have been quite a bit different from the way the "classic" Greek, Egyptian, and Roman writers portrayed their respective societies. The Hebrew prophets, on the other hand, seemed to have no problems writing the truth about what was going on in their times..for better or worse. But, as compared to now, a person's word was their honest Word.
    – Gary
    Sep 25, 2016 at 14:58
  • ..hence all the literary activity regarding oaths, whereas nowadays, unfortunately, people have no problem looking into your eyes and lying straight in your face, in a lot of instances...in those days, there was a lot more Fear of G-d/whatever deities they believed in, preventing false swearing and general deception.
    – Gary
    Sep 25, 2016 at 15:07
  • Thanks Gary, that does help. So in an honor/shame society there was much more concern for integrity than nowadays. I'm sure someone's life back then would be much more "destroyed" if their secret sins were ever revealed, than nowadays when some "scandal" happens, people talk about it and then it just makes them famous/rich.
    – Kovesh
    Sep 26, 2016 at 17:51

2 Answers 2


The Gemara does talk about Hezekiah sending guards into people's houses to look for idols, but that seems to have been a strong counter-reaction to what had become pervasive idolatry. Broadly, as you'd said, corporeal punishment requires witnesses and a warning.

(Though keep in mind that someone's tahor/not-tahor status was generally public information, as everyone needed to know that if they could touch them or their stuff; so a lot less was "private.")

The operative principle is Deut 29:28

Hidden things may pertain to God our Lord, but that which has been revealed applies to us and our children forever. [We must therefore] keep all the words of this Torah.

As you'd referenced, when the Jews all go to Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival and accept that God will curse someone who sins in private (Deut. 27), what they are saying is: "we leave it to God to punish any sin of which we are unaware, leaving us responsible to do something about any sins for which we are aware."

Just as a contemporary case: Rabbi Dr. Moshe Dovid Tendler shlit"a tells that as a young rabbi in Monsey, a group of mikvah ladies approached him saying that they'd never ever seen Mrs. Smith at the mikvah, even during times when the weather made attending a different mikvah impossible. Mr. Smith, meanwhile, frequently received all sorts of honors in synagogue; the women wanted the rabbi to challenge Mr. Smith. Rabbi Tendler recalls: looking back with more experience, the immediate answer should have been for me to just stay out of this one and mind my own business!


In the time of Hizkiyahu Hamelech, there were several actions taken to "clean-up" the degradation of the previous generation in certain areas of Torah observance, which invaded into people's public and private lives.

What did Hezekiah do to ensure Torah study? He inserted a sword at the entrance of the study hall and said: Anyone who does not engage in Torah study shall be stabbed with this sword. As a result, they searched from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south, and did not find an ignoramus. They searched from Gevat to Antipatris and did not find a male child, or a female child, or a man, or a woman who was not expert even in the complex halakhot of ritual purity and impurity. San.94b

To rid of idolatry, I believe also at the time of Hizkiyahu, people would go to everyone's house to ensure to avodah zarah was not there. (unfortunately the people were still successful in hiding them)

Another example are the waters of Sotah, where the wife was put through "testing of bitter waters" only on the premise of suspicion of her husband.

In general, the Sanhedrin can enact extrajudicial decrees/punishments if they either see that the nation or an individual are lax in observance(s).

  • Sotah is a very poor example. It's not purely on the premise of suspicion; it's that he told her "stay away from Joe", and then two witnesses saw her and Joe walk into an empty hotel room for an hour. Even then, the default would be to just have a divorce with her forfeiting alimony; the bitter waters are only if she insists she's innocent and wants to stay married.
    – Shalom
    Aug 10, 2017 at 7:35
  • Furthermore, in Second Temple times, so many marriages were unfaithful (from either side) that the process stopped working, and Raban Yochanan ben Zakai ended it altogether. It was only intended if a woman spending private time with a strange man, after being warned, was a rare and shocking event! Plus the waters didn't work if the husband was unfaithful ...
    – Shalom
    Aug 10, 2017 at 7:41
  • Isn't that the definition of suspicion, suspect until proven otherwise?
    – AZav_nov
    Aug 10, 2017 at 16:03
  • If two witnesses watched her go into a hotel room after having been warned not to, that's no longer "private life."
    – Shalom
    Aug 10, 2017 at 23:35
  • My understanding of the questions' term "private life" or "intruding into private life" doesn't solely mean lack of two witness. But even if that is your interpretation, there are many types of sotah. Also see Sotah 2b: R' Hanina of Sura says "Nowadays ... A man should not tell his wife..." where Rashi explains this as "even privately" not to seclude herself. Can you cite your source for 2 witnesses watching her seclude herself being a criteria for the testing of the bitter waters.
    – AZav_nov
    Aug 11, 2017 at 17:39

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