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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Mitzvah 47 – Capital Punishment by Strangulation

Posted by rabbiart on June 30, 2008

A study of the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments/obligations) according to their order of appearance in the Torah.

With this mitzvah we hit on a difficult subject; capital punishment.  The mitzvah is based on Shemot 21:12.  The verse in translation reads “he that strikes a man so that he dies, shall surely be put to death.” In the original it is:

מַכֵּה אִישׁ וָמֵת, מוֹת יוּמָת

This verse of the Torah leads us into the well-known passage often referred to as lex talionis or the “law of retribution.  This is perhaps one of the passages that leads to the erroneous description of HaShem as the angry Old Testament god. Let’s face it, this passage is not exactly “touchy-feely.”  But what kind of a society would we be living in without this principle?  Or as it is rendered in our idiom “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

It’s not pleasant to consider executing a human being, and we can know for a certainty that in the United States today our criminal justice system has executed innocent people.  Perhaps not individuals that are “innocent” in the sense of never having committed a crime or done something that would cause us to lose our dinner, but innocent of the crime for which they are being executed.  But this is part of the Torah and part of our tradition, and it behooves us to wrestle with this command and with our feelings about it.

The details of carrying out this commandment are striking indeed and beyond description in this article. You can read them for yourself in Tractate Sanhedrin, Chapter Seven English online here.  But be careful, and don’t try this at home.

The rabbinic understanding of this commandment, and the unfortunate necessity for it, is based on a deep understanding of the flawed and fallible nature of human beings.  In the explanation by Sefer HaHinuch, we begin in the classic Rabbinic approach by quoting a verse from the Tanach.  In this case, he quotes Proverbs 29:4 “The King by justice establishes the land”. Simply put, he says “if not for the fear of justice, people would kill one another.”  In his examination of the details, he concludes that the Torah “lightened his (a killer) sentence to have him executed by strangulation, which is a death that comes swiftly” and not by other methods which there is great suffering.

Passing over the current debate on whether we – in our time – should abandon captial punishment entirely, we see that establishing the proper method of execution is a debate going on in our day. Does the Torah speak to us in our time? You betcha!


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