Is it really true that the Torah says to kill people who break Shabbat?
Question submitted to “Ask the Rabbi” by:
City: Manhattan, NY
School: Cornell University
“Is it really true that the Torah says to kill people who break Shabbat? Why does it say that?“
Rabbi Tully Bryks responds:
Many people feel passionately about their views of the death penalty. Opponents of the death penalty argue:
- “Two wrongs don’t make a right!”
- If an innocent person was mistakenly convicted, the innocent person would lose his life and there would no longer be a way to correct it.
- There’s no educational/rehabilitative benefit to the violator if he/she is no longer alive.
Supporters of the death penalty argue:
- “An eye for an eye”
- It’s a great incentive to stop other people from committing such serious crimes.
- It’s a powerful punitive measure.
But even supporters of the death penalty generally support it for only the most violent of crimes, such as murder. Judaism, at first glance, appears to be much more fanatical. The Torah applies the death penalty to a wide range of crimes, including (only partial list):
- Adultery (along with many other sexual prohibitions)
- False Prophecy
- Desecrating Shabbos (the Sabbath) in public
- Striking or cursing at one’s parent
While the list above is only a partial list, it seems to show that a Jewish society based on the Torah would involve a major population reduction, with court-sanctioned death sentences in almost every home, except for homes with nearly perfect children.
The reality is that the Jewish view is not in line with the pro death penalty movement nor is it in line with the anti-death penalty movement. It is really more of a fusion of these contradictory positions.
While the death penalty is in fact codified in Jewish law for violating a wide variety of commandments, in practice, it is virtually impossible to ever convict someone of a capital offense and actually carry out the death sentence. Here is a partial list of some of the many required safeguards enacted to help prevent the execution of the Jewish death penalty:
- The perpetrator of the crime must have been warned by at least 2 witnesses PRIOR to the commitment of the crime that he is “about to commit a capital crime.”
- The perpetrator has to then acknowledge to these 2 Kosher witnesses that he does in fact understand that he is about to commit a capital crime and then proceed with the crime shortly thereafter.
- These same 2 witnesses must then actually witness the crime.
- These same 2 witnesses must then testify all of the above to a Jewish court, knowing that if they falsely accuse someone of a capital crime, they themselves would face extremely harsh consequences.
- Rather then a standard Jewish court of 3 judges, the court for capital crimes would require 23 judges, who would go through a comprehensive vetting process to ensure their Piety, among many other standards.
- The witnesses may not have any subjective interest in the matter.
- The witnesses would need to go through intense interrogation by the judges. If the witnesses even disagree on, or forget, the most minor of details (such as the exact date, place and time of the crime and even the details of the clothing and shoes being worn by the perpetrator, among other things), their testimony is thrown out.
- According to the great Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria in Talmud Sanhedrin, If a Jewish court were to sentence someone to death more than once in 70 years, it would be considered a “killing court.”
- In the unlikely event that someone would be sentenced to death, the location of the execution was required to be far away from the courthouse, to allow time for new testimony or information or objections to arrive. The court would immediately publicize the verdict, along with details about the timing of the infraction, and the testimony, to help motivate someone to share conflicting testimony or new details. While the convict is being brought from the courthouse to the location of the execution, if anyone raises an objection, even the convict himself, then he is brought back to the courthouse to be reevaluated. This appeal process is permitted for an indefinite number of times!
So the compelling question we must now address is why is there a death penalty in the Torah when it is virtually impossible for it to be ever carried out?
One answer that I saw written by the former Gadol Hador (leading Rabbi) of the late 20th century, Rav Moshe Feinsten, zatza”l (of righteous memory) is that the death penalty in Judaism was designed by G-d as an educational tool. G-d loves us all (even the sinners) and He would not want us to start killing off His children. Hence, it is virtually impossible to convict someone, and actually carry out the death sentence. On the other hand, G-d wants to instill within us the magnitude of these transgressions. We study these laws on a regular basis from the time we are little children. We learn that the violation of many of these laws is so serious that we no longer to deserve to live. After all, G-d created us, gave us everything that we have, and we have willingly committed premeditated transgressions of His directives. From an educational perspective, this can leave an indelible mark on us and decrease the chances that we would serious contemplate violating any of these commandments.
As an aside, it is worth noting that we live in a time period of tremendous skepticism in the existence of G-d and His Torah. This phenomenon is so widespread and invasive that many leading Rabbis consider even a willful violator as a “Tinok Shenishba,” which basically means that we are like a baby with regard to our comprehension of the Spiritual realm. As such, G-d is even more merciful and understanding of our transgressions.
In conclusion, even though it is true that a public violator of Shabbos can be sentenced to death, in practice, it almost never happened (a notable exception was the person who chopped a tree on Shabbos during the 40 years in the desert). According to many commentators, he did it on purpose with the noble intention of publicizing the importance of Shabbos observance. In addition, G-d evaluates each of us based on our own unique backgrounds and challenges and is certainly aware of life in the 21st century.
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that on an educational level, G-d felt the need to enact the death penalty for Shabbos violators. And out of 613 Biblical commandments, Shabbos is one of just 10 commandments that made it to the Tablets. And for those who wonder what may be in store for us in the afterlife, one who truly observes Shabbos can actually “taste” the “World to Come” right here in this world!
To learn more about this topic, click on any of the suggestions below:
 Iggros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat, chelek 2, siman 68 – This piece was written in response to a letter from the Governor of NY in 1981. After explaining that the death penalty was more of an academic and educational tool in an ideal Torah society, he did go on to acknowledge that there could be a usefulness of a death a penalty in a society where murder is more rampant and demonstrate an apathy for the value of human life. As such, it is possible that he would have supported the death penalty in NY at the time.
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