21

The laws of capital crimes elucidated in Sanhedrin and elsewhere make conviction very unlikely. Makkot 1:10 famously tells us that a court that executes once in seven years is considered "destructive", R. Eliezer b. Azariah ups this to once in seventy years, and R. Tarfon and R. Akiva said, "If we were on the Sanhedrin, nobody would have ever been executed".

My question: how many times did rabbinic courts carry out executions?

  • 2
    Note that these metrics apply to a single court. When counting executions across all of Israel, you could get one or two every year, even if all courts held to the 1/70 standard. And this doesn't account for judge turnover. – Barry May 24 '11 at 16:35
  • Eruvin 54a Rebi Eliezer was liable to be burned – Dr. Shmuel Mar 31 at 8:14
33

In Tanach I find the following cases (there may be others I've missed):

  • Moshe's court executing the blasphemer (Lev. 24:23)
  • ...and the Shabbos violator (Num. 15:36)
  • Yehoshua's court executing Achan for taking from the spoils of Jericho (Josh. 7:25)
  • Navos being executed by the court of Jezreel on charges of blasphemy and cursing the king (I Kings 21:13). The charges were trumped up at Jezebel's orders, and the court itself was corrupt, but they did follow the technical protocols for his trial.

In the Talmud we have the following cases that I know of. Three of them are in the era of Yehudah ben Tabbai and Shimon ben Shatach (early 1st century BCE).

  • Yehudah ben Tabbai and his court executing a false witness whose testimony was impeached (huzam) (Chagigah 16b and Makkos 5b)

  • Shimon ben Shatach and his court executing eighty women for practicing witchcraft (Sanhedrin 45b, and more details in Rashi ibid. 45b, from Yerushalmi Chagigah 2:2 and Sanhedrin 6:6)

  • ...and then having his own son convicted (based on false testimony) and executed (Rashi ibid. 44b, from Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 6:3)

  • Someone being executed "in the days of the Greeks" for riding a horse on Shabbos (Yevamos 90b, Sanhedrin 46a)

  • Yeshu Hanotzri, also known as Ben Stada and Ben Pandira, who was executed on Erev Pesach (Sanhedrin 43a and 67b, uncensored editions). A lot of ink has been spilled on the question of whether this person is identical with the founder of Christianity.

None of these are really typical cases, though - each of them is mentioned because of some unusual feature. There may have been many other cases where people were executed judicially, which are not recorded because nothing out of the ordinary happened.

  • The first three were at Hashem's direct command.
  • The case of Navos was instigated by Jezebel (and she and Ahab were duly punished for it).
  • Yehudah ben Tabbai was trying to make a point against the Sadduccees (to demonstrate the halachah that false witnesses are punished only if their intended victim had not yet received his punishment), but it turned out to be a mistake on his part (false witnesses are not supposed to be killed unless both of them are impeached, and here only one was).
  • Shimon ben Shatach executed eighty women on the same day, where normally a court is not supposed to carry out more than one death penalty at a time.
  • The witnesses who testified against his son eventually recanted their testimony, but it was too late.
  • Riding a horse on Shabbos is not normally punishable by death, because it is prohibited only by Rabbinic law. In this case he was executed "because the times required it" (Rashi: it was a time of Greek persecution and people were being careless with mitzvos).
  • Announcements of Yeshu's impending execution were made forty days in advance, to give people a chance to come forward in his defense, "because he was close to the government."
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    Thank you for all of these. (I had meant to omit cases in torah which, as you said, were directly commanded, and had wondered if there were cases where a court so ruled.) – Monica Cellio May 24 '11 at 2:12
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    I miss your bekiyus :( – Shmuel Brin Sep 12 '13 at 6:22
  • Christian account of Jesus execution is that the trial was very swift. Also Christians' Jesus has little government connection. He did have some Pharises' friend, like Nicodemus, though often argue against Pharisees in general. Paul, a pharisee then pretty much make pharisee duked it out the Sadducee by pointing out that differences between those 2 sects are bigger than differences between him and jews. Also christians' Yeshu/Jesus/Yehoshua/Yeshua/etc. was crucified rather than stoned. – user4951 Oct 11 '13 at 6:30
7

Rabbi Yonatan claims (Sanhedrin 71a) to have seen a ben sorer u'moreh and sat on his grave. There are difficulties taking this at face value (this is part of a machloket about whether ben sorer u'moreh ever happened. Also, Rabbi Yonatan was a cohen), but if we do take it at face value, it implies that the sanhedren at one point executed a ben sorer u'moreh.

In the same sugya, Rabbi Yonatan also claims to have seen an idolatrous city, and sat on its ruins (ibid).

  • Interesting -- I thought the rabbis had agreed that a ben sorer u'moreh was never executed, but I guess not. – Monica Cellio May 24 '11 at 2:08
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    In theory, Rabbi Yonatan may be saying that it was a close relative of his who was executed as ben sorer u'moreh (son or brother presumably). It could also be that there were multiple Rabbi Yonatans. – Ze'ev Felsen Sep 22 '11 at 22:53
  • @Ze'evFelsen: Interesting point. – Chanoch Sep 23 '11 at 0:16
  • @Ze'evFelsen No. A kohein can't sit on a relatives grave. He buries them and leaves right away. – Double AA Mar 25 '15 at 18:53
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    @DoubleAA, whether a kohen may make himself tamei on the same day that he was tamei to a close relative is a machloket Rambam & Raavad. I can look for citation. – Ze'ev Felsen Mar 26 '15 at 20:18
5

There were two cases explicitly mentioned in the Chumash:

1) The mekallel at the end of Parshat Emor (see: Vayikra 24:10-16, and 23)
2) The mekosheish etzim in Parshat Shelach (see: Bamidbar 15:32-36)

4

On Gittin 57a a father and son are put to death for sleeping with a betrothed young woman on yom kippur. The words 'a father and son... Yom kippur' are used again in Bava Metzia 83b

(I asked a question on this site about whether or not this set of words is a saying or a literal statement.)

1

TL;DR: For certain types of scenarios (ie a murderer) Rabbinic courts would be able to carry out executions whenever the situation would arise... but they wouldn't kill via one of 4 methods of capital punihments, rather they'd kill via an "indirect" manner.


While the mishnah in Makkos (1:10) that you cited does state that "a court that executes one person in seven years/ seventy years is called 'destructive'"- this raises a potentially huge problem.

(some quick background)

In order for a person to get the death penalty, they need:

  • 1) Two witnesses to explicitly warn the person the act in question violates the Torah and the punishment it carries (Rambam Hilchos Sanhedrin 12:2)
  • 2) The action has to be committed "toch k'dai dibbor"/ ie a few seconds (ibid)
  • 3) Two witnesses have to see the crime being committed (Rambam Hilchos Eidus 4:1)

... and all of this is BEFORE the extensive drisha v'chakira the witnesses will undergo in Beis Din.

Due to all these technicalities and logistics, it makes it absurdly complicated to satify all these conditions and administer the death penalty.

However- this can cause MAJOR problems

We've established that due to legalities/technicalities it's incredibly difficult to be administer the death penalty, but what about a person who's a serial killer-- who's shrewd, makes sure there are no witnesses for his killings etc; would the Sanhedrin really allow a person like that to freely roam around??

A: Of course not!

The Talmud in Sanhedrin 81b tells us about the concept of a "kippah"- a small chamber where they would bring such a person.

מתני׳ ההורג נפש שלא בעדים מכניסין אותו לכיפה ומאכילין אותו (ישעיהו ל, כ) לחם צר ומים לחץ:

MISHNA: one who kills a person not in the presence of witnesses [and it is impossible to judge him in court], the court places him into a vaulted (ie tiny) chamber and feeds him sparing bread and scant water (see Isaiah 30:20).

The Rambam (Hilchos Rotzeach 4:8) codifies what would happen:

הַהוֹרֵג נְפָשׁוֹת וְלֹא הָיוּ עֵדִים רוֹאִין אוֹתוֹ כְּאַחַת אֶלָּא רָאָהוּ הָאֶחָד אַחַר הָאֶחָד אוֹ שֶׁהָרַג בִּפְנֵי שְׁנֵי עֵדִים בְּלֹא הַתְרָאָה אוֹ שֶׁהֻכְחֲשׁוּ הָעֵדִים בִּבְדִיקוֹת וְלֹא הֻכְחֲשׁוּ בַּחֲקִירוֹת. כָּל אֵלּוּ הָרַצְחָנִים כּוֹנְסִין אוֹתָן לְכִפָּה וּמַאֲכִילִין אוֹתָן לֶחֶם צַר וּמַיִם לַחַץ עַד שֶׁיָּצֵרוּ מֵעֵיהֶן וְאַחַר כָּךְ מַאֲכִילִין אוֹתָן שְׂעוֹרִים עַד שֶׁתִּבָּקַע כְּרֵסָם מִכֹּבֶד הַחלִי:

Someone who commits a murder and the witnesses didn't the see the testimony as one, or if he killed in front of two witnesses but he wasn't warned, or the witnesses were "weakened" via the examining questions but not the investigation. All of these murderers they would bring to a kippah and feed him a small amount bread and scant water until his intestines contract and then the court feeds him barley that expands in his innards until his stomach explodes.

Bottom Line: Beis Din would still technically kill such a person, but they would do so "indirectly".

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