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I am trying to understand the description of stoning given in Sanhedrin 45a (starting here). To summarize: They take the condemned to a place that is twice a man's height, the first witness pushes his hips to cause him to fall on his face, and if that didn't kill him they turn him over and the second witness drops a (prepared, heavy) stone on his chest. If that doesn't kill him either then all assembled stone him (method not specified). This description raises questions for me.

Was the push expected to often be sufficient to kill the condemned? The g'mara a littler farther down says that they aimed for a compassionate death, so if the fall usually wouldn't kill him that seems at odds with this goal. But it seems implausible that a fall from a height of a mere 12 feet or so would usually be fatal, even onto a hard surface like stone, though a direct blow to the head can change things. (Complication: we are not told whether, and if so how, he is restrained.)

Perhaps the fall is not expected to kill him and the heavy stone is usually needed. This involves both witnesses, which complies with "the hand of the witnesses shall be upon him" (D'varim 17:7). On the other hand, they could have had both of them push him if that were the only consideration. (The g'mara discusses the stone being so heavy that it took both of them to move it, so the witnesses already worked together somewhat.)

So my question is: when in this process did the condemned usually die, and if it was sometime after the fall, why do we have at least a two-step process instead of something that would kill him faster and with less pain, such as just placing him on the lower surface and then dropping the boulder on him? (Not raising the platform; the g'mara is concerned about excessive height causing disfigurement.)

  • You think dropping a huge boulder on him would make him less disfigured than dropping him from a higher place? Because I'd think the opposite. – ezra Sep 1 '17 at 22:32
  • @ezra I don't actually know which would be worse. (I don't know how huge the boulder is either.) I'm just trying to understand how this worked in practice and how the various values in play -- compassion, disfigurement, effectiveness -- get weighed against each other. – Monica Cellio Sep 1 '17 at 22:49
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    It should be noted that according to this 2004 article a fall of 3m could snap someone’s spine - and that’s about 3/4 of the height we’re looking at here (half according to the opinion that he fell from three times his height). As for the boulder, again, if it hits him in the right place, his spine is snapped. At this point, if he’s not dead, he’s certainly paralyzed and has severe internal bleeding, and so when they pelt him with rocks he should die fairly quickly. – DonielF Sep 3 '17 at 3:33
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The statement in the gemara is that the height was usually sufficient to kill the person immediately. Note that he was standing when he was pushed so that his head was at three times the height of a person (about 17 - 20 feet). This would usually be enough to break his neck. Note that even a fall of ten tefachim could be enough to kill him. Dropping the stone on him from the height would actually be less certain as he may move and it may hit him wrong.

If a fall of ten handbreadths is sufficient to kill a person, why must the platform from which the condemned man is pushed be twice the height of an ordinary person?

Halachically, this means that if an animal dies from a fall into a pit of this depth, then the person who dug the pit is legally responsible, because it can be a fatal drop. Having the person stand on a platform of a full height of twice the height of a man (6 amos) is used to ensure that it would be fatal in most cases.

This then means.

Therefore, even though the one being executed is likely to die from a fall from a lesser height, a platform is built that is twice the height of an ordinary person in order to ensure a quick and relatively painless death.

The average height of a person is about 3 amos. Thus the head of the person being executed is about 9 amos above the ground. The gemara also indicates that most times the dropping of the second stone was not required. However, if it was required, the fall was enough to ensure that the stone would be immediately fatal.

Wikipedia estimate a tefach as 3.16–3.76 in so that ten tefachim is on the order of 40 inches. It says that an amah is 6 tefachim so that 6 amos is 36 tefachim. The criminal's head at about 9 amos would be 54 tefachim. The wikipedia estimate is 18.96–22.56 in which is close to two feet, making the persons head almost 18 feet above the ground.

And then Art Scroll Sanhedrin 45a4 notes 33 and 39 explains that this is the procedure required based on the pasuk in the Torah.

33 i.e. by being pushed off a precipice.

Up to this point the Baraisa has spoken only of the penalty to be administered to those who touched the mountain during the revelation at Sinai. The Baraisa now teaches that the same procedures are to be followed in every case the Torah mandates the penalty of sekilah

These notes apply to the following gemara.

The mishna teaches that one of the witnesses who had testified against the condemned party pushes him off the platform. Concerning this halakha the Sages taught in a baraita: From where is it derived that the punishment of stoning can be fulfilled by pushing the condemned party from a high place, so that he dies from his fall? The verse states with regard to those who crossed the boundaries that were set up around Mount Sinai and touched the mountain: “Take heed to yourselves, that you not go up into the mountain, or touch the border of it; whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death; no hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shall be thrown down” (Exodus 19:12–13). And from where is it derived that this punishment can be fulfilled with actual stoning? The verse states: “He shall be stoned.”

And from where is it derived that this punishment is sometimes fulfilled both by stoning and by pushing, i.e., if the transgressor did not die from his fall, he is then stoned? The verse states: “He shall be stoned or shall be thrown down.” And from where is it derived that if the condemned man died from the pushing, the obligation to stone him has been fulfilled, and there is no further need to actually stone him? The verse states: “Or shall be thrown down,” with the term “or” indicating that only one of the two options must be fulfilled. And from where is it derived that this is the halakha not only at Mount Sinai, but even with regard to future generations?

  • I saw the part about ten tefachim for the pit (I guess I should have included that), but our own experience should tell us that that small of a fall doesn't kill people without extenuating circumstances (fell on something bad, frail, freak accident, etc). I read that g'mara as saying more "if we say that 10 tefachim is enough for a pit then..." but not as a reality-check on the actual numbers. Am I misunderstanding? – Monica Cellio Sep 1 '17 at 22:58
  • Yes, this is a halachic matter as well as a reality check. Someone falling from that height (so that his head is about three times the height of a average person) will normally die. I will also add a pointer to the citation that pushing off the height is required as the first step. – sabbahillel Sep 3 '17 at 1:21

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