Death Penalty in Judaism

Hebrew Words are all G-d ordained, supported by the G-d ordained court system. 

The problem of using English translations that rely on an understanding of Jewish culture is apparent. Some people assume the words "put to death" is always rooted in the same Hebrew word with one meaning (and meanings vary based on translations). That is clearly false. It ignores Jewish history, Jewish applied law, Jewish tradition and the recorded views of a society most people do not know.

Context not of just the line, but the paragraph and story, the word or phrase is in, is important. So even using context there is the clear understanding that G-d meant to physically kill, and even makes distinctions between murder, execution and spiritual death. Hebrew tradition and belief, to the extent it is relevant in a Chrisitan society in the US, has always stated that people are partners with G-d in perfecting society, sharing the "tikkun" (reconstruction) of an ordered society along G-d principles. This includes courts, laws and yes executions. The Talmud states: "...those who are kind to cruel will one day be cruel to the kind...". This supports the concern for paroling, escaping or commuting prisoner sentences and its affect on society. Society is brutalized by the maintenance and release of such criminals, not their execution. The Talmud and its hundreds of rules for interpretation, printed in 499 CE, compiled over a period of hundreds of years before due to the fear of dispersion of the Jews, is the basic tool for all Jewish Law education. It is not well known or appreciated outside of Orthodox Jewish circles - but is definitive in such matters.

Tirtzach (tear - tzach): murder (killing an innocent person) * Ex. 20:13: "lo tirtzach" - "Do not murder", part of the 10 commandments

* Used only a few times only in the entire Torah.

* Never used interchangeably with "put to death"

Mahvet (mah - vet): killing (killing a guilty person per court rules and G-d's law)

* Used most often in the Bible associated with court sanctioned punishment

* These sins do not necessarily result in spiritual death, as repentance can mitigate the heavenly decree to eradicate the soul (the ultimate divorce from G-d); after 11 months the soul can enter Eden.

* Num. 15:35: "Ado-shem kel Moshe, mos yu-maht..." means " G-d said to Moses, the man shall be put to death...". "Maht" is a root derivative of "mahvet". Interestingly this line pertains to violating the Sabbath and does not necessarily mean spiritual death.

* Never used interchangeably with Karet.

Karet (kar - et): spiritual, and sometimes physical, killing of guilty person and soul per G-d's law; heavenly eradication of the entire soul (neshamah) that disallows resurrection.

* "Cut from the people" in Hebrew culture means both physical and heavenly removal of the body and soul, from the earth and in heaven (bodies do not reside in heaven)

* Used a few times in association with sins that always require spiritual excision (no resurrection) by G-d in heaven (e.g.. idolatry); assumes no amount of repentance can save the soul; soul is eliminated; no return.

* Num. 15:30" "ti-karet ha-nefesh" - "that person (animal soul) will surely be cut off". The use of the term "nefesh" (animal soul) instead of the higher order soul (neshamah) indicates that which is closest to the physical body and its drives - it means kill the body and the soul will be cut off in heaven as well.

* Ex. 12:15: "...ah-kel cho-metz ve-ni-karet- tah ha-nefesh" means "eats unleavened bread that soul (nefesh, not nashamah) shall be cut off". This states that the soul will be cut off in heaven (i.e., no resurrection) and may imply an early death or a normal death in old age with no children born to the person, but no death via the court.

However a book translates these 3 words, the meaning is not to be altered as G-d rendered the Bible in the holy tongue of Hebrew using 3 different words with 3 different meanings, with nuances English lacks or interpreters err when trying to make comprehensible. The lesson here is that a written book, without an Oral Tradition is easily misunderstood and misapplied.

The use of Hebrew scripture in Christainity creates all kinds of difficulties. To supercessionist Chrisitians the NT replaces the Torah (OT). To egalitarian Christians, the Torah and the NT reside side by side, both valid for either people, or both peoples. Christianity, therefore, may decide to believe that capitol punishment is not what G-d wants of Gentiles, but cannot authoritatively say G-d meant that in the Torah for Jews. Logically, some can say at most that the New Testament changed what G-d meant for Christians only (since the NT does not apply to Jews - see references to G-d saying the Torah is the eternal law for the Jews, G-d does not lie or lack foresight), leaving intact the law and commandment by G-d to kill for application by the Jews. Also, in Deut. 13:1, G-d says, "The entire word that I command you, that you shall observe to do; you shall not add to it and you shall not subtract from it". Since the Torah is eternal, this clause precludes the NT from overriding the Torah.

Alan Hoffman