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Torah Sparks

August 10, 2002 - 5762

Prepared by Rabbi David L. Blumenfeld, PhD
Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations

Annual Cycle: Deut.16:18-21:9; Hertz, p. 820; Etz Hayim, p. 1088
Triennial Cycle I: Deut. 16:18-18:5; Hertz, p. 820; Etz Hayim, p. 1088
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12-52:12; Hertz, p. 835; Etz Hayim, p. 1107

This Shabbat’s Torah Portion Summary

(16:18-17:7) The commandment to appoint judges and officers to keep order, and a warning against setting up a pillar for idol worship. The punishment for idolaters: death by stoning.

(17:8-20) The command to establish a central, higher court to deal with cases too difficult for local courts. The laws concerning the king, his privileges and obligations.

(18:1-8) The tribe of Levi, priests and Levites, have no territory, and therefore must be supported by dues from the rest of the people. The rights of the Levites who live outside of Jerusalem.

(18:9-22) The prohibition of sorcery, with a warning to listen to the true prophet and punish the false prophet.

(19:1-13) Laws concerning the accidental killer and cities of refuge.

(19:14) The prohibition of removing a landmark.

(19:15-21) Deliberately false witnesses: their punishment is whatever their false testimony would have brought upon their intended victim.

(20:1-20) Laws for the conduct of war.

(21:1-9) The laws of the beheaded heifer which were practiced in response to finding a murdered person in the open country between settlements.

This Shabbat's Theme: "Capital Punishment - The Debate Is Still On"

"A person shall be put to death only on the testimony of two or more witnesses; he must not be put to death on the testimony of a single witness. Let the hands of the witnesses be the first against him to put him to death, and the hands of the rest of the people thereafter. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst" (Deut.17:6-7)

Way back in our high school days, you may recall that invariably "capital punishment" would be a subject of debate in our English class or by the school's debating team in a contest against another school. Perhaps, this was always chosen as a popular debating subject because it had the effect of arousing in us some highly passionate opinions. And yet, we were challenged to present our thoughts in a reasoned, logical way.

Not much has changed. There still is fierce debate about the use of capital punishment in our society. Here are some pro and con opinions on the subject.


  1. It's a terrible commentary on society, but I'm afraid we have reached a point where some people, by their acts, do give up their right to survive. (Diane Feinstein, Mayor of San Francisco, quoted in the Los Angeles Times, February 17, 1990)
  2. In light of the circumstances, I feel that I must pass such sentence upon the principals in this diabolical conspiracy to destroy a God-fearing nation, which will demonstrate with finality that this nation's security must remain inviolate; that traffic in military secrets, whether promoted by the slavish devotion to foreign ideology or by a desire for monetary gain must cease. (Judge Irving R. Kaufman, speaking at the sentencing of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to death in 1951)


  1. I'm for capital punishment. You've got to execute people. How else are they going to learn? (Mort Sahl, satirist)
  2. If John Paul Penry is "put to sleep", as one friend of Penry's put it. It will not be because of his crimes alone - only eleven people were executed in the United States in all of 1988. It will be because he picked the wrong person to kill, he was born to the wrong parents, and the wrong lawyer represented him. (Alan M. Dershowitz, Contrary to Popular Opinion, 1992, discussing the execution case of a mentally retarded man convicted of rape and murder)

Jewish Mixed Opinion

  1. A court that orders an execution once in seven years is branded a murderous court. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah says: Or even once in seventy years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva said: Had we been members of the Sanhedrin, no one would ever have been put to death. Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel said: If so, they (namely Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva) would also have multiplied the murderers in Israel. (Mishnah, Makkot 1:3)
  2. There are few areas in Jewish law where the biblical and talmudic view so conflict as in the matter of capital punishment. The dominant, although not exclusive, line of argument proffered in the Talmud opposes the death sentence, even in the case of premeditated murder. It places so many restrictions on the judicial authorities that very few, if any, murderers would be convicted were the restrictions enforced. (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Wisdom, p. 409)

"Sparks" for Discussion:

There is a natural abhorrence to executing a human being. Even those in favor of it, are not seized by a sense of ghoulish delight when it is carried out. Generally, (as in the case of Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel) a positive rationalization is offered - such as the death sentence is a deterrent to further murderous acts.

During the course of time, we know that Jewish religious tradition has moved away from capital punishment. That this is so can be clearly seen in modern-day Israel where the death penalty is not imposed. And yet... Adolph Eichman was executed. Can you explain why this exception was made?

Are there other specific instances where you think the death penalty should be imposed in Israel or elsewhere in the world?

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