Make a Fixed Time for Study

עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Mitzvah 50: Off with their Heads

Posted by rabbiart on July 22, 2008

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

No one ever said that all the mitzvot are easy – to study or to carry out.  So here is the Torah on capital punishment.  In Shemot 21:20 we read

וְכִי-יַכֶּה אִישׁ אֶת-עַבְדּוֹ אוֹ אֶת-אֲמָתוֹ, בַּשֵּׁבֶט, וּמֵת, תַּחַת יָדוֹ–נָקֹם, יִנָּקֵם.

And if a man smite his bondman, or his bondwoman, with a rod, and he die under his hand, he shall surely be punished.

Because the Torah is explicating a divine law, it assumes that punishments will not be carried out incorrectly.  We also know that the Talmudic sages put so many restrictions around the exercise of capital punishment that it became almost impossible to carry out.

Why does the Torah (as interpreted by our tradition) provide for capital punishment?  Does that mean that the Torah, or HaShem, is bloodthirsty by nature, or angry, or harsh?  Or does it mean that the world in which we find ourselves is unfortunately filled by people who answer to that description?  What are we to do when confronted by people who abuse, beat, imprison, even kill innocents.

A response is required, a deterrent is needed. If we do not respond in a significant way when we see injustice, what kind of people are we? If the evil inclination is not deterred, what kind of world are we living in? Consider this teaching. “At the root of this precept lies the reason that HaShem wished to eradicate from the midst of His holy people the heart’s evil and great cruelty. Therefore the Torah commanded that if anyone becomes so overwhelmed by fierce anger that he beats to death his servant who is in his home and has no one to save him, then let the one who did this be put to death. Even though (it may be the case) that the servant was his purchased possession (a separate topic), and he lost his own property (what kind of reason is that) by the other’s (the servant) death, nevertheless he is to be slain, since his rage prevailed over his spirt to such an extent.

From the tradition’s point of view, failing to execute this law when circumstances require, is tantamount to putting a stumbling block before the blind, because it encourages terrible behavior.


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