By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
September 1, 2001
In the quest to create the Torah's ideal society, it is necessary to designate certain crimes as so heinous that they carry the ultimate penalty - death. At times, it is even necessary to go beyond execution:
And if a man has committed a sin worthy of death, and he has been executed, and you shall hang him on a gallows. You shall not let his body remain overnight on the gallows, but you shall surely bury him on that day, because the curse of Elo-him is the hanged one (KI KIL'LAT ELO-HIM TALUI); and you shall not defile your land which Hashem your G-d gives you for an inheritance (Devarim 21:22-23).
Sefer HaChinuch (ascribed to either R. Aharon HaLevi or R. Pinchas HaLevi of Barcelona, mid-13th Century) identifies three commandments here, two positive and one negative:
1. The body of one who was executed for certain sins must be hung.
2. The body may not be left overnight.
3. The executed person must be buried before nightfall.
After the execution, which was scheduled for late in the day, the body was suspended by the arms from a piece of wood that had been attached to a beam sunk into the ground. After a brief time, the body was immediately removed and buried.
(In truth, the second and third commandments listed also apply to those who are not executed, so that all burials must take place on the same day and not be delayed, except if it involves the deceased's honor. It is interesting that these general precepts regarding proper treatment of the dead are derived from this extreme case of a criminal condemned for a crime so horrible it deserves the death penalty.)
What does the Torah wish to convey by the qualifying statement, "because the curse of Elo-him is the hanged one"? A survey of most of the major commentaries reveals a wide spectrum of answers, which break down according to their understanding of the components of the statement, as well as the purpose of the entire statement (in other words, what does "because" mean?):
1. KIL'LAT means
b.) "the curse of"; or
b.) "the dishonor of"
1. ELO-HIM means
d.) "the judges"; or
e.) "the soul"
1. TALUI means
f.) "the person hanged"; or
g.) "the place of hanging"
As a result, the commentaries variously translate the statement KIL'LAT ELO-HIM TALUI as:
- "The curse of the judges" - the reason for these commandments is to prevent people from cursing the judges who pronounced the sentence of death
- "The cursing of G-d" -
a) the body is hanged because the person cursed G-d;
b) G-d's influence will curse (infect with disease) those around the place of hanging, so the public must be protected
- "The dishonor of the soul" - it would bring disgrace to the immortal soul to keep the body hanging after death
- "The dishonor of G-d" - because man is created in the image of G-d (and Israel are His children), disgracing the human body through hanging would bring dishonor to G-d (Rashi).
a.) KI : The intention of this clause can either be:
b.) to define the circumstances of the commandment to hang the body of one who was executed; or
c.) to explain the reason for the commandments that one who was hanged may not be left overnight and to bury the executed person.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 45b-46b) sees the obligation to hang the executed person as defined by the phrase "the curse of Elo-him", referring to one who blasphemes. It cites two views:
- Rabbi Eliezer reasons that since the blasphemer is executed by stoning (Vayikra 24:13-16), the Torah is establishing a model, so that all those who are stoned to death are hanged.
- The Sages, on the other hand, restrict the obligation of hanging to the blasphemer and to the only other sinner of comparable severity, the idolater: they alone have repudiated
Hashem by their deeds, and both are called "those who revile Hashem" (Bamidbar 15:30; this final point was originated by
(It is surprising to note that in his commentary to the Torah,
Rashi favors the view of Rabbi Eliezer, rather than that of the Sages. This prompts Mizrachi (R. Eliyahu Mizrachi [c. 1450-1526]), in his super-commentary, to postulate that in the Torah Rashi only utilizes those Rabbinic interpretations that are closest to the plain meaning of the text, whether or not they are according to the established Halacha!)
One way to explain the reason for the commandments is found in Ramban's commentary, although it is also to be found in Rashi's commentary on Sanhedrin: In accord with the position of the Sages, seeing one hanged will lead people to recount the details of blasphemy or idolatry, and a desecration of Hashem's Name will thus ensue.
Another explanation is in the same passage in the Talmud, using a remarkable allegory, which both Rashi and Ramban cite, although each understands it differently: Once there were identical twin brothers in a town. One became a king, while the other was arrested for robbery and hanged.
When people saw the hanged twin they declared that the king was hanged, so the king decreed that the body be taken down. Thus, because man is created in the image of G-d, it would dishonor G-d to leave the criminal's body hanging, because even the most despicable person remains a human being, and is a reflection of Hashem.
Thus, this passage demonstrates the immense scope of our Rabbis' understanding of the Torah, while delineating the values of the Torah society. These values are proven even under extreme conditions.
As our Sages teach, "And you shall love your friend as yourself "(Vayikra 19:18) extends also to the condemned (Ketubot 37b). Even when we must mete out the severest punishment, we must not forget the criminal's humanity, or ours.