Masechet Sanhedrin 49a-55b

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26 Mar 2010

The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.

Sanhedrin 49a-b

One of the most complicated personalities in the Tanach is Yoav, the Commander-in Chief of King David’s army. Although he served the king, he also refused to accept some of the king’s orders and, in fact, supported King David’s son, Adoniyahu, who tried to claim the throne prior to King David’s death. Ultimately, King David charged his son, King Solomon, to deal with him appropriately. The Gemara on today’s daf discusses how Yoav was tried before King Solomon. According to the Gemara, King Solomon accused Yoav of playing a role in the revolt led by King David’s son, Adoniyahu, even though he remained on King David’s side during Avshalom’s revolt.

The fact that the navi emphasizes that Yoav did not join Avshalom’s revolt, which seems to imply that he might have been punished for that, as well, leads Rav Yehuda to conclude that he wanted to join the revolt, but did not do so. One of the explanations offered by the Gemara to explain why he did not join that revolt is that at that time much of King David’s strength remained. Specifically, as Rav Yehuda quotes Rav as teaching, there were 400 soldiers in King David’s army who were the offspring of relations with neshei yefat to’ar (see Devarim 21:10) who behaved like non-Jews, cutting their hair, for example, in the fashion of non-Jews, and growing a blorit. These soldiers were the leaders of the garrisons, and Yoav feared this formidable army.

Many suggestions are offered to define the term blorit, but no word in Greek or Latin is a perfect match for it. The hairstyle involved allowing the hair to grow long particularly on the sides and in the back of the head, and the hair was tied and braided into different shapes. Later on, the braided hair was shaved off in a special pagan ritual ceremony.

Sanhedrin 50a-b

The seventh perek of Masechet Sanhedrin, Perek “Arba Mitot,” focuses on how capital punishment is meted out by Jewish courts according to the Torah. According to the Sages, there are four types of such punishments:

While the previous perek dealt with some of the rules and regulations of sekilah, the current perek examines the sources for all of the death penalties imposed by the Torah, how they are carried out from a technical perspective and so on.

The question that is discussed at length on today’s daf is the order of severity of the different types of capital punishment. This question is important in order to determine what punishment to give a person whose actions make him liable for more than one such punishment. Moreover, clarifying this question will also help determine what punishment is appropriate in cases where the Torah declares that a person who does a given sinful action should receive a death penalty, but does not state clearly which of the punishments he deserves.

According to the Mishnah (49b), the order of severity of the capital punishments are Sekilah, Sereifah, hereg and chenek, while Rabbi Shimon rules that sereifah is the most severe punishment, followed by Sekilah, hereg and chenek. The Gemara on today’s daf attempts to bring sources for the severity of a given punishment based on the severity of the crime committed. For example, Sekilah is considered to be the most severe punishment since it is the punishment given to someone who is a blasphemer and to someone who is an idol worshiper. Since both of these sins are rebellions against God, clearly the Torah considers them to be serious crimes.

Tosafot point out that we should not automatically assume that a severe crime receives the most severe punishment, as it is possible that a severe crime may receive a relatively light type of death sentence, and that the “lighter” punishment will be augmented with another punishment – e.g. the people of an Ir HaNidachat – a city that was led to idol worship – receives hereg, since there is an additional punishment that their money is destroyed, as well.

Sanhedrin 51a-b

Generally speaking, the purpose of discussions that we find in the Talmud is to understand the halacha – the law – that is derived from the Sages’ conversations, which lead to concrete conclusions that can be applied in the real world. The focus of our perek on applying capital punishment in cases where such punishment is appropriate according to Torah law appears to have no application in our day-and-age when the Sanhedrin does not operate.

This issue is raised by the Gemara itself on today’s daf. In the course of a discussion about how Rabbi Eliezer’s ruling about incestuous relationships is to be understood, Rav Nachman quotes Rabbah bar Avuha in the name of Rav that the halacha follows the interpretation offered by Ravin in the name of Rabbi Yossi the son of Rabbi Chanina.

Rav Yosef objects to this ruling with the exclamation hilcheta le-meshicha!? — are you ruling on a matter that will have no practical application until the days of the Messiah when the Sanhedrin will be reestablished? Abayye responds by pointing out that were we to follow that reasoning, we should not study the laws of the Temple sacrifices, since they have no current application. Rather we do this under the category of derosh ve-kabel sakhar — study it to receive reward — i.e. there is intrinsic value in the study of Torah, even if it is not currently applicable. Here, too, there is intrinsic value in the study of these laws.

Rav Yaakov Emden suggests that the objection raised by Rav Yosef hints to the fact that even in Messianic times, the ordinary laws will remain in place, and that there will still be a need for the rules and regulations regarding the punishments of bet din (see Yeshayahu 65:20 “…for the youngest shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner being a hundred years old shall be accursed”).

Sanhedrin 52a-b

When must we be concerned lest Jewish practices mimic those of idol worshipers?

When the Mishnah on today’s daf discusses how hereg – death by sword – is carried out, two opinions are offered. The Tanna Kamma suggests that the Jewish court would sever the head of the condemned man just as is done by the non-Jewish authorities. Rabbi Yehuda argued that the proper way to carry out this death penalty was by having the condemned man place his head on a table, where his head would be chopped off with a kufitz – a large knife. According to the Mishnah, Rabbi Yehuda was told that this could not be the method used, since this is the most revolting of any possible means of death.

According to a baraita quoted by the Gemara, this conversation continued, and Rabbi Yehuda insisted that he, too, recognized how repulsive it would be to carry out a death sentence in this fashion, but he had no choice since the alternative suggested by the Tanna Kamma is forbidden because of u-bechukotekhem lo telekhu – it is forbidden to follow the practices of non-Jews (see Vayikra 18:3). The Sages believe that since the law prescribing the death penalty of hereg appears in the Torah, we recognize that we are not borrowing the practice from pagans and there is no prohibition.

A kufitz is a large knife that is often slightly bent. It was used for both cutting and grinding meat. The Ramah explains that using such a knife would be considered particularly disturbing because its thickness would not only cut but would completely destroy the neck of the condemned. Others suggest that placing the person on what appears to be a butcher’s block is particularly revolting.

The Me’iri explains that the basic problem with “following in the path of non-Jews” is only when the activity has some connection with pagan idol worship. Nevertheless, the Sages extended it to other activities, as well. When the Gemara explains that this law is written in the Torah the intention is not so much that the Torah law came first, so much as the idea that the explanation for this law appears in the Torah so there is no need to be suspicious of the source for this law.

Sanhedrin 53a-b

Among the biblical prohibitions that would lead to a death sentence according to Torah law are cases of incest. The Mishnah on today’s daf lists those situations – like sexual relations with one’s mother, one’s father’s wife or one’s daughter-in-law – that lead to the punishment of sekilah – of death by stoning.

The Gemara quotes a baraita where Rabbi Yehuda teaches that in the case of incestuous relations with one’s father’s wife, for example, if the marriage was “not appropriate,” and it was forbidden for the couple to have married, then the relationship is not considered incestuous.

What does the baraita mean when it says that the marriage was “not appropriate”?

The halacha recognizes two different types of forbidden marriages. If the prohibition was on a level that the punishment would have been severe – i.e. the punishment would have been karet (being “cut off” – a reference to divine retribution) or mitat bet din (death penalty carried out by the court) – then no marriage can be said to have taken place at all. Any marriage ceremony that is performed, for example, on behalf of a brother and sister, has no meaning whatsoever; he is not her husband and she is not a married woman. A second type is when the prohibition was merely a lav – a simple prohibition. In such cases, e.g. when a kohen marries a divorcee, according to most opinions the marriage does take effect, even though it is incumbent upon the Jewish court to try to force the husband to divorce his wife, since they cannot sanction the couple living together.

The Gemara suggests that Rabbi Yehuda may agree with Rabbi Akiva who rules that even in the latter case where the prohibition is a mere lav, the marriage is forbidden and has no significance in Jewish law. Were that to be the case, even if the prohibition were a simple lav the marriage would be seen as not have taken effect, and the cases of incest described in the Mishnah would not be significant.

Sanhedrin 54a-b

According to the Mishnah on today’s daf, one of the biblical prohibitions that would lead to the punishment of sekilah – death by stoning – is bestiality. Thus, sexual relations by a man or a woman with an animal is forbidden by the Torah, and such an act is punishable by death – for both the person and the animal that was involved (see Vayikra 20:15-16 “And if a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death; and ye shall slay the beast. And if a woman approach unto any beast, and lie down thereto, thou shalt kill the woman, and the beast: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”).

The Mishnah raises an obvious question: Since it is clear that in such a case the instigator of this sexual interaction is the man or the woman we can certainly understand why the Torah requires them to be punished – but why should the animal be punished, as well? Two answers are offered in the Mishnah. One possibility raised is that this animal served as a “stumbling block” before the person, which is reason enough to kill it. Another suggestion is that we do not want the animal to be a center of interest, whereby people would see it in the marketplace and comment “that is the animal that led to so-and-so’s being stoned.”

The Tiferet Yisrael explains these two suggestions as follows. According to the first reason, given that the animal has already served as a “stumbling block” to one person, we are concerned lest another person may choose to sin with it, as well. According to the second reason, even though the person has committed an act that is punishable by death, nevertheless the Torah concerns itself with the person’s honor.

Sanhedrin 55a-b

The last Mishnah on today’s daf introduces the law that applies to a megadef – someone who commits blasphemy by cursing God.

According to the Mishnah, a megadef will not be held liable for his blasphemy until he clearly utters the Name of God.

According to the Rambam (Sefer Mada, Hilkhot Avodat Kochavim 2:7), uttering the Name of God means saying the four letter name of God and cursing while using one of the Names of God that cannot be erased. The Rambam quotes some opinions that believe that the four letter name referred to here is only the name that appears in the Torah that we do not pronounce – that is, pronouncing the letters yud-heh-vav-heh. The Rambam disagrees with this ruling and suggests that the four letter name is the expression of adnut – referring to God as “Lord” in the manner that we usually pronounce his name. According to the Kesef Mishnah, the Rambam believes that a person who curses using either of these names would be liable for sekilah (death by stoning – see Vayikra 24:16), while someone who curses one of the other Names of God would be transgressing a simple lav (biblical prohibition).

The source for the term megadef appears in Sefer Bamidbar 15:30, although the simple meaning of the word as it appears there does not refer to cursing or blasphemy – most of the commentaries understand that that is a reference to someone who practices avodah zara – idol worship. The Sages, however, never want to make use of the term “cursing” in the context of cursing God. In fact, the Gemara often uses the expression birkat Hashem — “blessing God” as a euphemism meaning the opposite. The Ran explains that they apply the more oblique term megadef since when someone curses they are effectively involved in the chillul ha-Shem (desecration of God’s name) referred to in the pasuk.

In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.