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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Killing Killers: Is the Death Penalty Good for the Jews?

by Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff (Posted on November 2, 2016)
Topics: Ethics, Machshava/Jewish Thought, Noach, Sefer Breishit, Torah

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This article is part of Torat Chovevei, a Community Learning Program led by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah with the support of the Covenant Foundation. The goal of the program is to connect communities to YCT through the medium of Torah learning. All topics discussed weave relevant contemporary issues together with Torah and non-Torah sources in monthly home-based learning groups (chaburot). These groups are guided by Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff, Rebbe and Director of Community Learning at YCT. For further information about Torat Chovevei, and how your community can get involved, please contact Rabbi Resnikoff at


There is significant tension in the Torah literature regarding the death penalty. On one hand, the written Torah clearly supports the use of the death penalty although it is not so clear why. On the other hand, the Rabbis seem to be uncomfortable with it, apparently out of concerns for judicial error and perhaps also because of their discomfort with direct retaliation. In any case, the death penalty continued to exist in some Jewish communities throughout the Middle Ages. Because it was justified as a social construct, rather than a fulfillment of Torah law, much of the discomfort of the Rabbis was circumvented. It appears to me that there is no definitive position on State sanctioned capital punishment in the Torah but various nuances in the halakha seem to permit it with extreme sensitivity to the value of human life. How does the position of the Written Torah which embraces capital punishment jive with the theology of “created in the image of God”?


Genesis 9:5-6

(ה) וְאַ֨ךְ אֶת־דִּמְכֶ֤ם לְנַפְשֹֽׁתֵיכֶם֙ אֶדְרֹ֔שׁ מִיַּ֥ד כָּל־חַיָּ֖ה אֶדְרְשֶׁ֑נּוּ וּמִיַּ֣ד הָֽאָדָ֗ם מִיַּד֙ אִ֣ישׁ אָחִ֔יו אֶדְרֹ֖שׁ אֶת־נֶ֥פֶשׁ הָֽאָדָֽם׃ (ו) שֹׁפֵךְ֙ דַּ֣ם הָֽאָדָ֔ם בָּֽאָדָ֖ם דָּמ֣וֹ יִשָּׁפֵ֑ךְ כִּ֚י בְּצֶ֣לֶם אֱלֹקִ֔ים עָשָׂ֖ה אֶת־הָאָדָֽם׃(5) But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man! (6) Whoever sheds the blood of man, By man shall his blood be shed; For in His image Did God make man.

Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 20:14:1

(יד) כיצד נתנו עשרת הדברות? יקוק על לוח זה ויקוק על לוח זה. כתיב “אנכי יקוק א-לקיך” וכנגדו “לא תרצח”, מגיד הכתוב שכל מי ששופך דם – מעלה עליו הכתוב כאלו ממעט בדמות המלך; משל למלך בשר ודם שנכנס למדינה, והעמיד לו איקונות ועשה לו צלמים וטבעו לו מטבעות; לאחר זמן כפו לו איקונותיו, שברו לו צלמיו ובטלו לו מטבעותיו ומיעטו בדמותו של מלך; כך, כל מי שהוא שופך דמים – מעלה עליו הכתוב כאלו ממעט בדמות המלך, שנ’ (בראשית ט ו) “שֹׁפֵךְ דַּם הָאָדָם בָּאָדָם דָּמוֹ יִשָּׁפֵךְ – כִּי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹקִים עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם”…(14) How were the Ten Commandments given? Five on one tablet and five on the other. “I am the L rd your G d,” and opposite it “You shall not kill,” whereby Scripture apprises us that spilling blood is tantamount to “diminishing” the likeness of the King. An analogy: A king of flesh and blood enters a province, sets up statues of himself, makes images of himself, and mints coins in his likeness. After some time, they upset his statues, break his images, devalue his coins — and “diminish” the likeness of the king. Likewise, Scripture equates spilling blood to “diminishing” the likeness of the King, as it is written (Genesis 9:6) “One who spills the blood of man … (For in the image of G d did He make man.”)…

Rambam Laws of the Murderer and Protection of Life, ch. 1 sect. 4

(ד) וּמֻזְהָרִין בֵּית דִּין שֶׁלֹּא לִקַּח כֹּפֶר מִן הָרוֹצֵחַ. וַאֲפִלּוּ נָתַן כָּל מָמוֹן שֶׁבָּעוֹלָם וַאֲפִלּוּ רָצָה גּוֹאֵל הַדָּם לְפָטְרוֹ. שֶׁאֵין נַפְשׁוֹ שֶׁל זֶה הַנֶּהֱרָג קִנְיַן גּוֹאֵל הַדָּם אֶלָּא קִנְיַן הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (במדבר לה-לא) “וְלֹא תִקְחוּ כֹפֶר לְנֶפֶשׁ רֹצֵחַ”. וְאֵין לְךָ דָּבָר שֶׁהִקְפִּידָה תּוֹרָה עָלָיו כִּשְׁפִיכוּת דָּמִים שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (במדבר לה-לג) “וְלֹא תַחֲנִיפוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ” וְגוֹ’. (במדבר לה-לג) “כִּי הַדָּם הוּא יַחֲנִיף אֶת הָאָרֶץ” וְגוֹ’: (4) And the court is warned not to take a ransom from the murderer, even if they give all of the money in the world, and even if the redeemer of blood wishes to exempt them. For the life of this person who was killed is not the possession of the redeemer of blood but rather the possession of the Holy One Blessed be He as it says, “Do not take a ransom for the life of a murderer.” And there is nothing that the Torah is more exacting about than bloodshed as it says, “You shall not pollute the land…”(BeMidbar 35:33) “…for blood pollutes the land…”

Albert Camus, Reflections on the Guillotine, in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, translated by Justin O’Brien, The Modern Library, New York, 1963.

When the extreme penalty simply causes vomiting on the part of the respectable citizen it is supposed to protect, how can anyone maintain that it is likely, as it ought to be, to bring more peace and order into the community? Rather, it is obviously no less repulsive than the crime, and this new murder, far from making amends for the harm done to the social body, adds a new blot to the first one…


  1. What is the relationship between the image of God and the punishment for murder?
  2. Is Camus right that killing the killer is totally inconsistent with the goals of the punishment? How might we reconcile this inconsistency?

Walter Berns, “Justified Anger, Just Retribution”, Imprimis, June, 1974

…Penalties Reflect Principles
It is quite clear, I think, that the schedule of penalties to be found in any criminal code reflects some principle other than deterrence… We punish murder more severely than larceny, even grand larceny, because we regard the taking of a human life as a much more grave offense than the taking of property, in whatever amount. I insist that we take a life—after due process of law—precisely because we value life, although the abolitionists have heaped so much ridicule on this proposition that it has become unfashionable in our day to say so… Our schedule of punishments reflects what we have been made ashamed to admit now, namely, that in addition to the effort to deter crime, we punish in order to pay back, to retribute. Retribution constitutes a justification for punishment, and, I shall argue, it is altogether proper to pay back a murderer in kind. Our schedules of punishment are an effort to make punishment fit the crime; to agree with this principle is to agree that retribution should play a role in punishment.
What should we do with John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, killers of presidents? Karl Menninger would have us treat Booth—after all, it is a crime to punish him; and suppose we are successful in this treatment, and after a year, say, we pronounce him cured, and he returns to the community promising never to do it again. But Abraham Lincoln is dead. There is such a gross disproportion between Booth’s deed and Menninger’s response to it; and I submit that in that disproportion there is embodied an implicit disrespect for Lincoln’s life, for human life. For the dignity of human life is displayed in Lincoln’s life, and in our punishing of Booth (as we would not punish a dog or a horse); but the dignity of human life is not displayed in Booth’s life or in Lee Harvey Oswald’s life. Something of this is contained in the principle that the punishment should fit the crime. Would it have been proper to put Lee Harvey Oswald in a minimum security prison, even for life? Or not put him in prison at all—after all, do we not know from statistics that murderers are the least likely of criminals to repeat their crime? Why is it that we cannot accept that conclusion?

Rambam, Ibid. ch. 4

(ח) הַהוֹרֵג נְפָשׁוֹת וְלֹא הָיוּ עֵדִים רוֹאִין אוֹתוֹ כְּאַחַת אֶלָּא רָאָהוּ הָאֶחָד אַחַר הָאֶחָד אוֹ שֶׁהָרַג בִּפְנֵי שְׁנֵי עֵדִים בְּלֹא הַתְרָאָה אוֹ שֶׁהֻכְחֲשׁוּ הָעֵדִים בִּבְדִיקוֹת וְלֹא הֻכְחֲשׁוּ בַּחֲקִירוֹת. כָּל אֵלּוּ הָרַצְחָנִים כּוֹנְסִין אוֹתָן לְכִפָּה וּמַאֲכִילִין אוֹתָן לֶחֶם צַר וּמַיִם לַחַץ עַד שֶׁיָּצֵרוּ מֵעֵיהֶן וְאַחַר כָּךְ מַאֲכִילִין אוֹתָן שְׂעוֹרִים עַד שֶׁתִּבָּקַע כְּרֵסָם מִכֹּבֶד הַחלִי:
(ט) וְאֵין עוֹשִׂין דָּבָר זֶה לִשְׁאָר מְחֻיְּבֵי מִיתַת בֵּית דִּין אֲבָל אִם נִתְחַיֵּב מִיתָה מְמִיתִין אוֹתוֹ וְאִם אֵינוֹ חַיָּב מִיתָה פּוֹטְרִין אוֹתוֹ. שֶׁאַף עַל פִּי שֶׁיֵּשׁ עֲוֹנוֹת חֲמוּרִין מִשְּׁפִיכוּת דָּמִים אֵין בָּהֶן הַשְׁחָתַת יִשּׁוּבוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם כִּשְׁפִיכוּת דָּמִים. אֲפִלּוּ עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה וְאֵין צָרִיךְ לוֹמַר עֲרָיוֹת אוֹ חִלּוּל שַׁבָּת אֵינָן כִּשְׁפִיכוּת דָּמִים. שֶׁאֵלּוּ עֲוֹנוֹת הֵן מֵעֲבֵרוֹת שֶׁבֵּין אָדָם לַמָּקוֹם אֲבָל שְׁפִיכוּת דָּמִים מֵעֲבֵרוֹת שֶׁבֵּינוֹ לְבֵין חֲבֵרוֹ. וְכָל מִי שֶׁיֵּשׁ בְּיָדוֹ עָוֹן זֶה הֲרֵי הוּא רָשָׁע גָּמוּר וְאֵין כָּל הַמִּצְוֹת שֶׁעָשָׂה כָּל יָמָיו שְׁקוּלִין כְּנֶגֶד עָוֹן זֶה וְלֹא יַצִּילוּהוּ מִן הַדִּין שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (משלי כח-יז) “אָדָם עָשֻׁק בְּדַם נָפֶשׁ” וְגוֹ’…
(8) One who takes a life and the witnesses did not see them as one but rather, they saw them from one behind the other, or they killed before witnesses without being warned, or the witnesses contradict one another in trivial details but not in the essentials. All of these murderer are placed in an enclosed space and force fed dry bread and water until their guts hurt and then they feed them barley until their stomachs rupture from the weight of the sickness.
(9) One does not do this matter in the remainder of instances where the death penalty can be imposed by the court, but if one is liable for execution, they should execute him and if one is not liable for execution they should free him. That even if there transgressions that are weightier than the spilling of blood, they are not as corrupting to society as the spilling of blood. Even idolatry and it does not need to be said, forbidden sexual relations or the desecration of the Sabbath are not like the spilling of blood. That these transgressions are offenses between a person and God, but the spilling of blood is an offense between people. And everyone who has in his hand this sin, see, he is completely evil and all the commandments that one has done in his lifetime cannot balance against this sin and will not save him from judgment. As it is said, “A person weighed down with the blood of a life, etc, (Proverbs 28:17)…

Berns, Ibid. (continued)

…The law praises righteousness and obedience to law. This point is well made by Adam Smith: we resent the criminal, he says. So much do we resent him, that not only do we wish to see him punished, but we wish to see him punished by our own hand and for the crime he committed. We feel cheated, he says, if the criminal should die of a fever before he is brought to justice. And with respect to murder, nature, antecedent to all reflections upon the utility of punishment, has in this manner stamped upon the human heart, in the strongest and most indelible characters, an immediate and instinctive approbation of the sacred and necessary law of retaliation. This passion—which he labels resentment—must of course be tamed; it must be tamed lest it become simple revenge, the most detestable of the passions.9 It is the job of the law to tame this passion, which the law does by satisfying it. The law tames that passion, that anger we feel in the presence of injustice, by satisfying it, and it satisfies it when it brings the guilty to justice and when it pays him back…

Injustice Arouses Justified Anger

That anger is not reprehensible. Anger is the sentiment aroused by the sight of injustice, and is therefore intimately allied with justice—and civil society requires justice. But that anger has to be tamed, and the local police alone cannot do it. I mean, the police protecting the suspect at the police station cannot tame that anger unless they can assure that righteously angry crowd that the murderer will be paid back. But there is more in this than immediately meets the eye: that anger is satisfied when retribution is exacted, yes, but that righteous anger is also rewarded when retribution is exacted. And that righteous anger should be rewarded, for its basis is the sentiment that to murder is wrong. The law blames murder when it punishes the murderer; the law praises those who do not murder when it punishes that murderer, and in this way deters murder. Many are the pangs of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds him who trusts in the Lord. Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, o righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart. (Psalm 32, vs. 10-11)

The abolitionists, following modern thought, want to excise anger from the soul—to get rid of it rather than to make a virtue of controlling it. To them anger is mere selfishness and altogether reprehensible. But if anger is a natural attribute of the human soul, one is bound to wonder how it will manifest itself when it is denied its legitimate expression, however tamed. And what would a world without anger be like?


  1. Does Dr. Berns’s thesis of justified anger fit within the Rambam’s discussion of how murder is different from every other capital crime? Would the Rambam agree with Dr. Berns?
  2. What, if anything, does this discussion have to do with God’s image?

Camus, Ibid. (continued)

…Can it even be asserted that none of them is innocent? …must it not be admitted that capital punishment is eliminative only insofar as it is irreparable? The 15th of March, 1957, Burton Abbott was executed in California, condemned to death for having murdered a little girl of fourteen. Men who commit such a heinous crime are, I believe, classified among the irremediable. Although Abbott continually protested his innocence, he was condemned… At 11:15 Abbott entered the gas chamber. At 11:18 he breathed in the first whiffs of gas. At 11:20 the secretary of the Committee on Reprieves called on the telephone. The Committee had changed its mind. They had tried to reach the Governor, who was out sailing; then they had phoned the prison directly. Abbott was taken from the gas chamber. It was too late. If only it had been cloudy over California that day, the Governor would not have gone out sailing. He would have telephoned two minutes earlier; today Abbott would be alive and would perhaps see his innocence proved. Any other penalty, even the harshest, would have left him that chance. The death penalty left him none.

This case is exceptional, some will say… The jurist Olivecroix, applying the law of probability to the chance of judicial error, around 186o, concluded that perhaps one innocent man was condemned in every two hundred and fifty-seven cases. The proportion is small? It is small in relation to average penalties. It is infinite in relation to capital punishment… It is understandable that Belgium gave up once and for all pronouncing the death penalty after a judicial… It is also possible to understand the conclusions of the Attorney General who, when consulted as to the appeal of a very probably guilty criminal whose victim had not been found, wrote: ‘The survival of X . . . gives the authorities the possibility of examining at leisure any new clue that might eventually be brought in as to the existence of his wife. On the other hand, the execution, by canceling that hypothetical possibility of examination, would, I fear, give to the slightest clue a theoretical value, a power of regret that I think it inopportune to create.” A love of justice and truth is expressed here in a most moving way, and it would be appropriate to quote often in our courts that “power of regret” which so vividly sums up the danger that faces every juror. Once the innocent man is dead, no one can do anything for him, in fact, but to rehabilitate him, if there is stilI someone to ask for this. Then he is given back his innocence, which, to tell the truth, he had never lost. But the persecution of which he was a victim, his dreadful sufferings, his horrible death have been given him forever…

When the learned expert holds forth in court, it seems as if a priest has spoken, and the jury, raised in the religion of science, expresses its opinion. However, recent cases…have shown us what a comedy of experts is like. Culpability is no better established for having been established in a test tube, even a graduated one. A second test tube will tell a different story, and the personal equation loses none of its importance in such dangerous mathematics… Today, as yesterday, the chance of error remains…

Mishnah Sanhedrin, 4:5

(ה) כיצד מאיימין את העדים על עדי נפשות. היו מכניסין אותן ומאיימין עליהן. שמא תאמרו מאומד. ומשמועה. עד מפי עד ומפי אדם נאמן שמענו. או שמא אי אתם יודעין שסופינו לבדוק אתכם בדרישה ובחקירה. הוו יודעין שלא כדיני ממונות דיני נפשות. דיני ממונות אדם נותן ממון ומתכפר לו. דיני נפשות דמו ודם זרעיותיו תלוין בו עד סוף העולם שכן מצינו בקין שהרג את אחיו. שנאמר (בראשית ד, י) דמי אחיך צועקים. אינו אומר דם אחיך אלא דמי אחיך. דמו ודם זרעיותיו…לפיכך נברא אדם יחידי ללמדך. שכל המאבד נפש אחת מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו איבד עולם מלא. וכל המקיים נפש אחת מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קיים עולם מלא….ושמא תאמרו מה לנו ולצרה הזאת. והלא כבר נאמר (ויקרא ה, א) והוא עד או ראה או ידע אם לא יגיד וגומר. ושמא תאמרו מה לנו לחוב בדמו של זה. והלא כבר נאמר (משלי יא, י) באבוד רשעים רנה:(5) How do we threaten the witnesses in a capital case? We bring them in [to the court’s chambers] and press them: “Perhaps what you say [isn’t eyewitness testimony] is but your own assessment, or from rumors, or your witnessing an actual witness testify, or your reporting what a trustworthy said. Or perhaps you were unaware that by the end we’d interrogate you, with examination and inquiry. Know that capital cases are not like monetary ones. In monetary cases, [a false witness] can return the money and achieve atonement. But in capital cases, the blood of [the victim [and all his future offspring hang upon you until the end of time. For thus we find in regard to Cain, who killed his brother, “The bloods of your brother scream out!” (Genesis 4:10) – the verse does not say blood of your brother, but bloods of your brother, because it was his blood and also the blood of his future offspring [screaming out]! …[The judges’ speech continues] “It was for this reason that man was first created as one person [Adam], to teach you that anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world.”… [The judges’ speech continues:] “Maybe you [the witnesses] will now say, ‘What do we need this, and all this anxiety for [let’s not come forward even with true testimony]!’ But Scripture has already spoken: “If he be a witness – having seen or known – if he does not express it, he shall bear his sin.” (Lev. 5:1) Maybe you will now say, ‘What do we need this, to be responsible for another man’s death?’ But Scripture has already spoken: “When the wicked are destroyed there is rejoicing.” (Prov. 11:10)”


  1. What new factor does Camus bring to the table here? How might Dr. Berns reply? What would the Rambam say?
  2. What is the tension that the Mishna is attempting to harness? Why is it so difficult?

Mishnah Makot 1:10

(י) …סנהדרין ההורגת אחד בשבוע. נקראת חובלנית. רבי אליעזר בן עזריה אומר אחד לשבעים שנה. רבי טרפון ורבי עקיבא אומרים אילו היינו בסנהדרין. לא נהרג אדם מעולם רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר אף הן מרבין שופכי דמים בישראל:(10)A Sanhedrin that would execute somebody once in seven years would be considered destructive. Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah says: “Once in seventy years.” Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva said: “If we were on the Sanhedrin , nobody would have ever been executed.” Rabban Shim’on Ben Gamliel said: “They too would have increased violence in Israel.”

Talmud Bavli, Tractate Makot 7a

רבי טרפון ורבי עקיבא אומרים אילו היינו וכו’: היכי הוו עבדי רבי יוחנן ורבי אלעזר דאמרי תרוייהו ראיתם טריפה הרג שלם הרג אמר רב אשי אם תמצא לומר שלם הוה דלמא במקום סייף נקב הוה…ורבנן היכי דיינו כשמואל דאמר שמואל במנאפים משיראו כמנאפים:Rebbi Tarfon and Rebbi Akiva said, If we were part of court…etc.: What would they have done? Rebbi Yochanon and Rebbi Elezer said together, [they would ask the witnesses,] did you see if the victim was a Terefah or viable? Rav Ashi says, If it came out that they said that they saw that the victim was viable [prior to being killed, they would say that] maybe in the place that the sword entered there was a hole… And what would the Rabbis do [to execute in such a case]? They would hold like Shmuel, for Shmuel says, They are adulterers when they behave in the manner of adulterers.


  1. What does the Mishna mean when it says that a court is “destructive” if it executes one criminal in seven years? Is this related to Camus’s concern with Judicial error or something else?
  2. Is the Machloket between Rabbi Akiva and Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel about judicial error or is it about something else? How is the implication different in the Mishnah than in the Gemara?

Responsa Zichron Yehudah, ch. 58

תשובת שאלה. המשכילים רבי פעלים הזקנים הנכבדים אשר בקורטובה יצ”ו… הגיעני כתבכם בענין ההכאות שהכה שאול ליצחק…ובקשתם ממני שאכתוב לכם מה יראה לי שיהי’ עונשו ואם יש לכם לחפש אם יתאמתו דברי שאול אשר בכתבו על העדים שהעידו עליו ואם יתאמתו הדברים אם יתבטל עדותם בשביל כך ואני איני כדאי שאתם שולחים לי אבל למלאות מצותכם לא אוכל להשיב פניכם דבר ידוע הוא כי מן היום אשר גלתה סנהדרין מלשכת הגזית בטלו דיני נפשות מישראל וכל מה שהדין עתה הוא לגדור פרצת הדור וברוך יקוק אשר נתן כזאת בלב מלכי הארץ הזאת לתת כח לישראל לדון ולבער עושי רשעה לולי זה לא הי’ קיום לישראל בארץ הזאת וגם כמה אנשים מישראל ימלטו דייני ישראל שהיו נהרגין ע”י שופטי ע”א והדינין שאנו דנים בדיני’ נפשות אינם כולם ע”פ התורה לכן אכתוב לכם מה שיראה לי מקו היושר לפי מה שראיתי דנין בעיר הזאת תחילת הענין יש לנו לחפש אם יתאמתו דברי שאול בענין העדים ואין לכם להטיל חרם כל מי שיודע על אחד מן העדים שנחשד בשום עבירה שיבוא ויעיד… אבל אם יבא לפניכם אנשים ידועים שיעידו על שום א’ מהם תטילו חרם בפניהם שיעידו האמת ותקבלו עדותם ואם יצא על שום א’ מהם שעבר על לאו מלאוי התורה הידועים הוא פסול לעדות ואל תביטו אל עדותו ואם עבר על דבר שהוא נפסל בו מדרבנן הוא פסול לעדות אבל העדות שהעיד הוא עדות כי צריך שיכריזו עליו בב”ד קודם העדות וכל מה שהעיד קודם ההכרזה אין לפסול אותו ועתה נוהגין לקבל עדות כל אדם כל זמן שלא נפסל באחד מן הדרכים הפוסלים אותו…ועל זה הדרך יתברר לכם איזה עדות יש לכם להכשיר ואשר שאלתם מה יראה לי שהרבה מאוד לפשוע להכות ליהודי מכת אכזרי ובשביל שמהפשוטים שדבר מפורסם הוא שהכהו ההכאה שמת ממנה ההרוג והוא הודה בדבר וגם בריחתו הוא עדות עליו וגם הוציא הוצאות על רפואתו ודקדקתי בעדות ומצאתי כי משה פישיליש ואברהם חלול העידו שראו שהכהו המכה שמת ממנה ויוסף בן עביד ויצחק בן יום טוב העיד שראה אותם מתקוטטים והלכו להם וחזרו עוד וראו ליצחק מוטל בארץ מוכה בראשו והדם שותת ושאר עדות אין בהם עדות מספיק לענין שעת ההכאה… ובענין עונש שאול יראה לי שראוי להיות על א’ מחמש דרכים לפי מה שרגילין עתה לדון בדיני נפשות אם תתקיים עדות משה ואברהם שראוי להרג ואם תתקיים עדות אחד מהם עם עדות יוסף או יצחק שראוי לחתוך שתי ידיו ואם תתקיים עדות א’ מהם ותתבטל עדות יוסף ויצחק שראוי לחתוך ידו הימנית בעדות משה או אברהם לבד עם מה שנתפרסם עליו שהוא הכהו ההכאה שמת ממנה ואם תתבטל עדות משה ואברהם ותתקיים עדות יוסף ויצחק שראוי לחתוך ידו השמאלית בעדות אחד מהם וגם מה שנתפרסם עליו שהכהו ואם יתבטלו כל העדיות שראוי לחייבו גלות על שנתפרסם עליו שהוא הרגו לקיים מה שנאמר ובערת הרע מקרבך..In answer to a question: To the enlightened and accomplished elders of Cordova may it’s Maker should guard and have mercy on it…Your letter reached me regarding the blows that Saul struck Isaac…you asked me to write you what it seems to me should be his punishment and whether you are required to confirm Saul’s claims that he wrote about the witnesses who testified about him. And if his claims are confirmed, should their testimony be discounted because of this. And I am not worthy that you should send for me, but to fulfill your command, I cannot turn you away. It is well known that from the day that the Sanhedrin was exiled from the Hewed Stone Chamber [Attached to the Temple where the High Court of 71 sat] the adjudication of capital crimes has been eliminated from Israel. And all of the judgments that are ruled now are to close up the outbreaks in the generation. And blessed is God who put it in the heart of the kings of this country to give Israel the power to judge and to eliminate evil doers. If not for this, there would be no existence for Israel in this country. And also many people of Israel survived the judges of Israel who would have been killed by the judges of the nations of the world. And the judgments that we judge in capital cases are not all according to the Torah. Therefore, I will write to you what appears to me from my integrity according to how I have seen judged in this city. First of all, we must confirm the claims of Saul against his witnesses. And you do not need to put a Cherem (ban) on people who know something about the witnesses, e.g. that they are suspected of some sin, that they should come and testify…However, if people who are known come before you who testify on any one of them (the witnesses) that they violated a negative commandment from the Torah, that witness is disqualified and you should disregard their testimony. And if they violated something that disqualifies them according to the Rabbis, they are disqualified, but their testimony that they have already given still counts…And today it is our custom to accept the testimony of all people as long as they have not been disqualified by the things that disqualify one (from the Torah)…And this should clarify for you which testimony you can accept. And what you asked what I think about the fact that he terribly sinful to strike a Jew such cruel blow, and it is well known that he struck the blow that killed the victim. And he himself admitted it, and he also fed which is testimony on him, and he also paid for his medical care. I was very precise with the testimony and I found that Moses Fishilish and Abraham Chalul testified that they saw that [Saul] struck the blow that he died from. But Joseph ben Avid and Isaac ben Yom Tov testified that they some them fighting and they went away and returned and saw that Isaac was laid out on the ground, wounded in his head, and the blood was flowing… And with regard to the punishment of Saul, it appears to me that it is appropriate that he should have one of five possibilities according to how we are used to judging capital crimes. If the testimony of Moses and Abraham is confirmed, he should be put to death. And if the testimony of only one of them is confirmed along with the testimony of Joseph or Isaac, he should have both his hands cut off. And if the testimony of one of them (Moses or Abraham) is confirmed but the testimony of Joseph and Isaac is nullified, he should have only his right hand cut off…and if all of the testimony is nullified, he should be exiled because it is well known about him that he killed him, to fulfill what is said, “And you shall remove the evil from your midst.”  

Donald Lazere, “Camus and his Critics on Capital Punishment,” Modern Age, Fall 1996, Vol. 38, Issue IV, p. 371

… Berns’ literary penchant leads him even farther astray when he compares The Stranger unfavorably with Macbeth, prefacing his praise of the latter with an endorsement by Abraham Lincoln, “‘Nothing equals Macbeth . . . . It is wonderful.’ Macbeth is wonderful because, to say nothing more here, it teaches us the awesomeness of the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill.'” Berns, however, does say more:

Can we imagine a world that does not take its revenge on the man who kills Macduff’s wife and children? (Can we imagine the play in which Macbeth does not die?) Can we imagine a people that does not hate murderers? (Can we imagine a world where Meursault is an outsider only because he does not pretend to be outraged by murder?) Shakespeare’s poetry could not have been written out of the moral sense that the death penalty’s opponents insist we ought to have. Indeed, the issue of capital punishment can be said to turn on whether Shakespeare’s or Camus’ is the more telling account of murder…

In Macbeth the majesty of the moral law is demonstrated to us . . . . In a similar fashion, the punishments imposed by the legal order remind us of the reign of the moral order; not only do they remind us of it, but by enforcing its prescriptions, they enhance the dignity of the legal order in the eyes of moral men, in the eyes of those decent citizens who cry out for “gods who will avenge injustice.”…

Berns’s comparison cavalierly disregards several major differences in the teleological and aesthetic beliefs of Shakespeare’s time versus Camus’. Modern literary realism and naturalism, from which The Stranger derives, were precisely reactions against earlier ages of belief in “gods who will avenge injustice.” We may still thrill today to the poetic justice in Macbeth, but we know that in real life, Macbeth would be just as likely to kill Macduff as the reverse. Berns’s appeal to “the reign of the moral order,” like Molnar’s, seems quite plaintive in a wholly pragmatic, materialistic modern moral order…


  1. How does the Zichron Yehudah deal with issues of judicial error, or the problem of inconsistency in killing killers?
  2. Based on the opinion of the Zichron Yehudah, what place does capital punishment have in Jewish society when it is possible?
  3. Does this mean that a Jewish state should embrace capital punishment? Does Lazere’s comment about the difference in time and place between Shakespeare and Camus have any relevance here?

Moshe Feinstein, Iggrot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat, vol. 2 ch. 68

בענין עונש מיתה.
פורים תשמ”א. מעלת כבוד שר המדינה הנכבד והחביב עלינו מאד, יאריך השם יתברך ימיו ושנותיו וממשלתו בטוב ובנעימים.
ראשית הנני להביע רגשותי באהבה וביראת הכבוד לשר המדינה בדבר רצונו לידע דעת התורה שניתנה מהשם יתברך על ידי משה רבנו בהבאור בתורה שבעל פה שנמסר מחכמי דור לחכמי דור עד שנכתבה בגמרא ובפוסקים הרמב”ם והשלחן ערוך ועוד שהיא דעה האמתית, וגם במה שיש לשר המדינה בטחון שאני יודע להשיב האמת והנכון לפי דיני התורה שעל זה יתברך מהשם יתברך בכל.
ועתה אשיב בקצרה, כי בעצם נאמרו בתורה עונשי מיתה לעבירות החמורות מאד כרציחת נפש אדם, ומיני גניבת אדם, ומיני עריות, ועל אחד שעובד עבודה זרה שהוא לשמש ולירח ולעץ ולאבן וכדומה שאז הוא מופקר לעשות כל מה שבלבו ממיני נבלות ואכזריות שבעולם שיבדו הרשעים לטובת עצמם, אבל לא היה זה מצד שנאה לעושי דבר הרע ומצד יראה לקיום העולם דעל זה איתא בגמ’ (ב”מ פ”ג ע”ב) יבא בעל הכרם ויכלה את קוציו והלכה כן כדפסק הרמב”ם (ה’ חובל פ”ח ה”ט) וכל הפוסקים, אלא הוא שידעו האינשי חומר האיסורים אלו ולא יעברו על זה. ומצד שני, יש הדגשה על חשיבותו של כל נפש, ועוד חשבונות, ולכן נצטוינו שלדון דיני נפשות אינם כשרים אלא על פי סנהדרין שנסמכו לזה ואין סומכין לזה אלא לגדולים ביותר בחכמת התורה וגם גדולים בשאר חכמות, ויהיו ענוים מאד ויראי השם יתברך ושונאי ממון ואוהבי האמת ואהובים לבריות בזה שהם בעלי טובה ונפש שפלה וחברתן טובה ודבורן ומשאן בנחת עם הבריות ולא יהא שום גנאי ולא שם רע עליהם ורחמנים ביותר. ומטעם זה אין מעמידין זקן מופלג בשנים שכבר נשכח ממנו קצת צער גדול בנים ולא מי שאין לו בנים שאולי חסר לו קצת רחמנות ויכעוס על העוברים יותר מדי. ואנשים גדולים וטובים אלו אין יכולים לדון אלא כשהם עשרים ושלשה סנהדרין, ולבד זה צריכין להושיב לפניהן שלש שורות גדולים בתורה מאד אך שעדיין לא הגיעו למדרגת הסנהדרין אבל קרובה להם שהוא שמירה גדולה כדי שלא יחייבו בטעות, דהא כשיהא נדמה לג’ השורות שמזכין בטעות משתקין אותו ואין שומעין כלל את דבריו. וכן לא שייך לדון דיני נפשות לחייבו אף מאומדנא היותר גדולה שבעולם אלא דוקא על פי שני עדים כשרים שאינם בכלל נוגעים בדבר, ובטח לא ע”י עדים שמבטיחים לפוטרם מעונש אם יעידו על אחרים, אחרי שמזהירין אותם חומר האיסור דעדות שקר בכלל וחומר איסור רציחת נפש ואיום גדול ביותר, וגם צריך התראה וקבלת התראה וגם שיאמר בפירוש שאף שיודע כל זה הוא עובר, שלכן לא היה נארע למי שיחייבוהו מיתה אלא אחד לכמה שנים, וגם לא אפשר לדון דיני נפשות אלא כשביהמ”ק =כשבית המקדש= היה קיים וישבו סנהדרין של ע”א שהם עוד יותר גדולים בלשכת הגזית בביהמ”ק, שלכן לא דנו דיני נפשות אף במדינות שהיה רשות מהמלכות שידונו היהודים לעצמן בדיני התורה, ומ”מ לא היה נמצא כמעט בכל הדורות רוצחים ביהודים מפני חומר האיסור ומפני מה שנתחנכו ע”י התורה וע”י עונשי התורה להבין חומר האיסור ולא סתם היו מתיראים מהעונש כענין של כל דאלים גבר.
וכל זה הוא כשלא הופקר איסור הרציחה אלא שבשביל איזה תאוה גדולה או איזה מריבה על טענת ממון וכבוד עשה זה, אבל מי שהורג נפשות מחמת שהופקר אצלו איסור הרציחה והוא אכזרי ביותר, וכן כשנתרבו רוצחים ועושי רשעה היו דנין למיגדר מלתא למנוע מעשה רציחה שהוא הצלת המדינה.
והנני חותם בברכה לשר המדינה שינהל המדינה בצדק וביושר וגם במשפט הראוי כל ימיו ועוד יתגדל שמו בכל מדינתנו ארצות הברית.
המברכו, משה פיינשטיין.
On Capital Punishment

Purim, 1981. To the High Honorable Governor of this state who is honored and much beloved by us. May God extend your days and your years and your good and pleasant government.

First of all, I’d like to express my feelings with love and honorable awe to the Governor for your desire to know the position of the Torah that was given from God to Moses our Teacher with the interpretation of the Oral Torah that was passed down by the sages of one generation to the sages of the next generation until it was transcribed in the Gemara and in the writings of the legal decisors, the Rambam, and the Shulchan Arukh. And furthermore it is the position of truth. And also that the Governor of the state has confidence that I know how to reply truly and correctly according to the rule of the Torah. And for this may he be blessed of God in all things.

And now I will reply briefly: The Torah reserves capital punishment for those sins which are very serious such as murder, kidnapping, sexually prohibited relations and idolatry. The perpetrator in these cases is unrestrained and is capable of doing whatever disgusting and cruel acts in the world that are in his heart that he thinks are for his benefit. However the death penalty is not administered out of hatred to evildoers or fear for the welfare of society because Bava Metzia (83b) tells us that G d will punish transgressors. That in fact is the halacha as poskened by the Rambam (Hilchos Chovel u’Mazik 8:9) as well as all other poskim. So on the one hand the purpose of capital punishment is to let people know the severity of these prohibitions so that they will not transgress them. On the other hand the laws of capital punishment emphasize the importance of each soul and other concerns. Therefore we are commanded that only the Sanhedrin with proper semicha can judge these cases. Only the greatest people in Torah scholarship and other knowledge receives this semicha. In addition to their knowledge they also need to have perfected their character and be very humble as well as G d fearing people. They also need to hate money and love the truth as well as wonderful people who are beloved by all…They don’t have any imperfections or bad reputations and they are very merciful. That is why very old people are not appointed judges because they have forgotten the stress of raising children. Also people without children are not appointed because they lack mercy to some degree and they will be too angry at those who have committed sins.

Even these great and good people cannot judge unless they constitute a Sanhedrin of 23 people.However it is not enough there are 23 such people to make a Sanhedrin. They also need to have before them 3 rows of very great Torah scholars who are not yet great enough to be part of the Sanhedrin – but are almost great enough. This is to protect the Sanhedrin from convicting in error. However, when these three rows of scholars think that the Sanhedrin is mistaken in their ruling of innocence, they are told to be silent. Another safeguard against making a mistake is that they do not convict based on circumstantial evidence – no matter how convincing. They only convict a person based on two valid witnesses who have not the slightest bias in the matter… Furthermore the witnesses are warned concerning the severity of the sin of false testimony as well as the seriousness of the sin of murder so that they are very afraid of mistakenly convicting or mistakenly declaring the suspected murderer innocent. Even with all of this the witnesses also have to warn the person against murder and the suspected murderer has to acknowledge the warning by saying that even though he is aware of the seriousness off the crime he is still doing it. As a consequence of all these safeguards, only once in many years would someone be convicted of murder. In addition it was impossible to judge capital cases unless the Temple existed and that the Sanhedrin of 71 of the greatest scholars was in session on the Temple Mount. In fact capital cases were not judged even in those countries where the king gave the Jews permission to judge their own people according to the law of the Torah.

As a consequence of these two factors there were almost no Jewish murderers because of the awareness of the severity of the prohibition of murder and because they were educated by means of the Torah and the punishments of the Torah to understand the seriousness of the crime. They were not simply afraid of punishment in the sense of getting caught but were afraid of the crime itself.

However this use of the Torah system to run society was only when the crime of murder was not common but was simply the result of someone’s great lust or some quarrel concerning money or honor. But when people killed simply because it was viewed as an insignificant thing and the murderer was simply a callous and cruel person or similarly if there was a great deal of murders and wickedness – then a different system of law was utilized that was concerned with the pragmatic question of stopping killing and the goal became saving the society.

And I finish with the blessing that the Governor should rule the State with righteousness and honesty and also with the rule of law that is appropriate all his days. And his name should be made great among the United States.

With Blessing,
Moshe Feinstein

Thanks to Shmuel Peri, “Capital Punishment in Halakha,” for the bulk of this translation


  1. How does Rav Moshe address the concerns both of Dr. Berns regarding punishments reflecting principles and justified anger, and Camus regarding judicial error? Does this seem a reasonable middle position.
  2. How does Rav Moshe contextualize the position of the Zichron Yehudah? Would this satisfy Dr. Lazere?
  3. Would Rav Moshe urge Jews to support or oppose the death penalty in America? What about in Israel?