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Home :: Seven Laws :: Four Ways of the Death Penalty

Four Ways of the Death Penalty

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Execution of the death penalty is the component and integral part of the first of Seven Biblical Laws - about establishment of courts and appointment of judges. However the death penalty itself can be used as punishment for deliberate and conscious infringement upon one of Seven Laws only when Jerusalem Temple exists. As it's explained in Mechilta (Midrash Hagadol, Shemot 21:14): "Even from My altar you shall take him to die; that is if there's Temple - is sentenced to the death penalty, if there's no - is not sentenced." That's why today while there's no Temple, cases which may lead to death sentence are not considered.

It all refers to our world - the world of humans. But Midrash explains though human's court has no right to put to death nowadays - noone cancelled Heavens' court and it judges everyone in accordance with one's actions and deeds, each second. And if somebody deliberately infringes upon one of six prohibitions - he brings death sentence of Heavens upon himself. Such sentence is executed by definite sequence of events or by concatenation of life's circumstances. Read "Death from the hand of Heavens" subsection below for more details.

We live at times that Tora directly calls "birth pangs" before Mashiach's (Messiah - Biblical language translation) coming. Times when evil strengthened curiously. And times when world itself balances at the edge of abyss, hardly and miraculously keeping from breaking away. Righteous Mashiach is just about to come (may it happen soon, in our days) and the reigning will return to house of David. And he will build the Temple and fulfill numerous prophecies which already started coming true. In his days all laws are going to return to functioning, as it was before: all will honour G-d, bring sacrifices and establish courts to guard observing of Seven Laws among the peoples of the world - according to all details described in Tora.

That's why it's so important to say about rules prescribed by Scripture as for malicious breakers of Seven Laws and it's important to say that today already. For tomorrow may come very unexpectedly...

There are four ways of the death penalty in Bible, that court can sentence to. They are:

- Skila (throwing down onto stones - Biblical language translation);

- Srefa (burning - Biblical language translation);

- Hereg (execution with sword - Biblical language translation);

- Henek (strangulation - Biblical language translation).

The punishments are enumerated here in the sequence of their severity's decrease. Throwing down onto stones is considered to be the most severe execution. Judges should no way be afraid to sentence somebody to the death penalty if the convict deserves it. By not obeying G-d when He commands to pass and execute death sentence, man claims he's more compassionate than Omnipotent. However, precisely Hashem is the source of any mercy, G-d's He Who put a tiny spark of His boundless mercy in human soul, as it's written (Tehillim 145:9): "The L-rd is good to all, and His mercies are on all His works". One should always remember about that and not fear to sentence those deserved death, coz with it evil is cut off from people's body:

- a villain harms society with either his active bad influence or his negative example; sinner's punishment prevents the destruction of moral foundation of society the way the amputation of sick extremity saves the entire body;

- each sin causes Tuma (spiritual filth - Biblical language translation); sinner's execution counteracts its influence and restores spirit of holiness, purity and harmony in the world.

Thus, the criminal is as if spiritually dead even before the execution - his atrocities turn him into a villain who cut himself off G-d. Sinner is put to death in the same city where he committed his crime, but not on the same day the sentence was passed, endowing him with an opportunity to think out his behavior and to repent in crimes committed. Those mortified by the court's sentence are buried in the separate graves.

The Execution of Death Sentence

How each of death sentences is executed? Each of death sentences was executed by the least painful way. Man was given drastic drug before the execution. The drug brought him into almost unconscious state.

Throwing down onto stones is done the following way. The convict is led out to the roof of the special building, which is two human heights high and is set up especially for those purposes. Then one of witnesses pushes off him down, with back onto stones. If he survives after he fell then witnesses throw hard stone onto his breast, such stone they can lift with difficulty. But if the convict survives even after that, it testifies he's to get additional sufferings. Then it's commandment for all those present to bespatter him with stones. In the end, the convict's body is hanged and hangs till sunset (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 42b-46a).

Burning is done the following way. The convict is dipped into soft ground till his knees. Then piece of tough linen is wrapped up by soft linen, and obtained rope is wrapped around the convict's neck. One of witnesses draws rope into one side, the other - into opposite side, until the convict opens his mouth. Then special wick with molten lead is set with fire and thrown into the convict's throat. It happens that the molten lead is poured into his throat with thin stream. The lead goes down into intestines and burns entrails (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 52a).

Execution with sword is done the following way. The convict is decapitated by cutting off his head with sword the way the kingdoms did in previous times. He's beheaded standing and his body falls dead under its own weight after the head is cut off (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 52b).

Strangulation is done the following way. The convict is dipped into soft ground till his knees. Then piece of tough linen is wrapped up by soft linen, and obtained rope is wrapped around the convict's neck. One of witnesses draws rope into one side, the other - into opposite side, until the convict's soul leaves his body (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 52b).

Death From the Hand of Heavens

G-d assures the judges: you shouldn't fear guilty person would avoid the justice if sentence was not passed due to lack of reports of witnesses or due to different reasons independent on them. Hashem says: "For I shall not justify the guilty" - I have a lot of messengers who can punish human if he deserves that. That's why if court doesn't succeed passing death sentence to the villain, last one is executed by the court of Heavens.

How does it works? He who deserves being thrown down onto stones - falls down from altitude or becomes beasts' victim. He who deserves being burnt - dies in the fire or from snake's bite. He who deserves being executed with sword - is executed by the government or murdered by bandits. Besides, when the entire people or a few peoples deserve being executed with sword - wars occur, that is mass murders. He who deserves being strangulated - drowns or is strangled.

Penalty's Correspondence To Transgression

One or another way of death penalty can be used strictly for sin corresponding to it. Babylonian Talmud explains the only way of death penalty is used for peoples of the world for infringement upon Seven Laws is that with sword. Where does it come from? Since it's written in Tora (Bereshit 9:6): "One who sheds the blood of man, in man shall his blood be shed." In man - that is by man. It's written regarding No Bloodshed, but, according to Tradition, this is the only way of the death penalty used both for infringement upon all other Six Laws, as far as Scripture doesn't mention any other death regarding Noah Descendants (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 56a).

This is the Sages' opinion and the practical law follows it. However there is different opinion - it's Menashe's school teaching. It agrees the only way of the death penalty is used for peoples of the world but this is strangulation. Where does it get from? From the same Tora's verse (Bereshit 9:6): "One who sheds the blood of man, in man shall his blood be shed." In man - that is in the body of man. What is that bloodshed of man that happens in the body of man? It answers - this is strangulation, coz his blood doesn't leave his body (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 57b).

Why is infringement upon any of Seven Laws punished with the death penalty? The Sages discuss this question (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 57a):

"Rav Yosef said that Rav's school teaches - Noah Descendant is to be sentenced to the death penalty for the infringement upon Three Laws: for No Lechery, for No Bloodshed and for No Blasphemy. Rav Sheshet retorted, and said, it corresponds as for No Bloodshed Law, since it's written (Bereshit 9:6): One who sheds the blood of man, in man shall his blood be shed. But where does it come from as for two other laws? If you learn that from No Bloodshed, then it can be used both for all other laws, but if you learn it from Tora's combination of words "Any man" (Tora uses this combination of words every time it's necessary to include the peoples of the world into some prohibition, to punish them for its infringement with death penalty the same way Israel is punished - RASHI's comment) - then, besides Three above-mentioned Laws, it can be also used for No Idolatry. Coz Tora says "Any man" both for No Idolatry (coz Tora uses this combination of words both when speaking about worship to Molech, as it's written (Vayikra 20:2): Any man of the children of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among Israel, who gives any of his posterity to Molech, shall surely be put to death - RASHI's comment). But rav Sheshet said, that Rav's school teaches - Noah Descendant is to be sentenced to the death penalty for the infringement upon Four Laws, that is including No Idolatry. [...] Rav Huna and rav Yehuda and all of them are Rav's scholars said - Noah Descendant is to be sentenced to the death penalty for the infringement upon Seven Laws. G-d unveiled it in one case (for the infringement upon No Bloodshed Law - RASHI's comment) and the same rule acts for all other cases."

Last sentence means Tora doesn't formulate conditions and rules for each case separately. But the case for which the rule is given once, serves as a template that lets spread the given rule onto the other cases.

All this was said regarding Seven Laws. However there are some exceptions when throwing down onto stones or strangulation can be used for the peoples of the world - for the infringements not included into Seven Laws, but radically undermining Creator's intention about this world's development. Those two exceptions refer to No Lechery. One can read "The Prohibition of Any Sexual Relations between the Peoples of the World and Israel" subsection here for more details.

And last thing. Bible does not allow to mortify the criminal before he appears before the court, even if it's just in front of us that he committed the crime he's to be sentenced to the death penalty for, according to Tora's law. Coz it's written (Bemidbar 35:12): "The murderer shall not die until he stands in judgement before the congregation." The accused must appear before the court, and those who watched the crime, even if they are judges - may be only the witnesses in this case, but may not be judges. And some others will judge him and pass sentence he deserved.

RAMBAM writes (Sefer Hamitzvot, Prohibitive Commandment 293):

"However it is necessary to explain the prohibition for witnesses to kill the criminal before than court passes death sentence. The prohibition refers to those cases only when the criminal already committed the crime he is to be sentenced to the death penalty for. But at the minute when he's only going to commit it and rushes to his victim, he obtains Rodef (chasing - Biblical language translation, read here for more details) status - and witnesses are bound to keep and prevent him from committing the crime, his heart is craving after. But if the chaser persists and insists on doing what he wants to do, the witnesses should get in skirmish with him. And if it's possible to prevent crime by hitting only some of chaser's organs, for instance, by depriving him of arm, leg or eye - the one should do that. And only if after that you still can stop him no other way than murder, - you should murder him before he commits the crime. And Tora warns the witnesses they should have no pity to such criminal and they should not stop before necessity to kill him. And so Hashem says (Dvarim 25:12): shall cut off hand... you shall not have pity. And it's explained in Sifri (Ki Tetze): Cut off hand... - it's written this way to teach you're bound to save the chased person even at the expense of chaser's hand. And where does it come from that if you can't save at the expense of hand then you must save at the expense of chaser's life? Tora says (there): You shall not have pity."

But the commandment to stop the criminal even at the expense of his life before he makes his intent come true doesn't refer to the infringement upon all Seven Laws. The commandment is valid only regarding him who chases the other person with the purpose to murder him, and regarding him who chases the other person to get into banned sexual affairs with him.

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