Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Judaism and the Death Penalty; Of Two Minds but One Heart

 If one can be certain of anything in a discussion of Judaism’s views regarding capital punishment, especially those held in a public forum, it is that the following statement in the Mishna (Makkot 1:10) will be quoted:

A Sanhedrin that executed [more than] one person in a week is called a “murderous” [court]. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya states: “[More than] one person in 70 years [would be denoted a murderous court].” Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva state: “If we had been members of the Sanhedrin, no defendant would ever have been executed.”

While this passage properly finds its way into all discussions of the Torah’s approach to the death penalty, other Mishnaic statements of equal authority with different perspectives seem to be often overlooked. In fact, the very Mishna quoted above gives the last word to R. Shimon ben Gamiliel, who responds that had they indeed ensured that the death penalty would never be carried out, R. Tarfon and R. Akiva “would have been increasing the murderers in Israel.”

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