What is the worst way to be put to death? Chapter Seven of Tractate Sanhedrin begins with this gruesome question. “Four types of the death penalty were given over to the court,” says the mishna in Sanhedrin 49b: “Stoning, burning, killing [by which the rabbis mean decapitation], and strangulation.” Rabbi Shimon, however, lists them in a different order: “Burning, stoning, strangulation, and killing.” The discrepancy suggests that the order of the list is not arbitrary, but means to communicate something about the severity of the punishment. This is confirmed by the Gemara, where Rav is quoted to the effect that “the four types of the death penalty are taught in order.”
In considering what form of execution is the worst, however, the rabbis do not take what might seem to be the most natural point of view—that is, the perspective of the condemned. They are not interested in whether it is more painful to be stoned than it is to be strangled. Rather, they look to the Torah to see which crimes are assigned which sentences, since the more serious the crime, the more severely God would punish it. Yet this turns out to be a circular form of reasoning: The severity of the punishments is based on the seriousness of the crimes, but the seriousness of the crimes is itself revealed by the severity of the punishment.
An idol-worshipper is condemned to stoning, the Gemara observes, while the daughter of a priest who engages in adultery is condemned to burning. According to the rabbis, stoning is worse than burning, while Rabbi Shimon holds the reverse. So which of these is the more severe crime? The answer reveals something about the way religion is deeply bound up with patriarchy and the policing of sexuality. One might think that nothing could be worse than idol-worship, since as the Gemara says, this crime “undermines the fundamental”—that is, it transgresses against the very basis of Jewish belief. On the other hand, the rabbis argue, the adultery of a priest’s daughter might be considered even worse, since “she profanes her father.”
Evidently, the authority of a father, especially a priest, over his daughter’s sexuality is as important as God’s own authority. Indeed, many of the capital crimes discussed in this chapter have to do with sex, particularly incest, between various kinds of relatives. In Sanhedrin 53a, the mishna prescribes stoning as the punishment for “one who engages is intercourse with his mother; or with his father’s wife; or with his daughter-in-law.” Notably, sex with one’s mother-in-law or daughter-in-law is punished just as strictly as sex with one’s actual mother, suggesting that the law is concerned less with the incest ban than with safeguarding the sexual rights of men over their wives. (Such a passage would have fascinated Sigmund Freud, who in Totem and Taboo speculated that the origin of society lay in the rebellion of brothers against their father, who claimed all the tribe’s women for himself.)
In earlier chapters, the Talmud described the method of execution by stoning in detail, and now it does the same for the other types of death penalty. As is often the case, Talmudic law diverges in various ways from the plain meaning of the Torah’s commandments, leaving the rabbis an interpretive challenge. When the Torah prescribes burning as a punishment, one might naturally assume that this means actual burning—that is, setting the body of the condemned person on fire, in the way the Inquisition would later do in the auto-da-fé. But this is not how Jewish courts carried out the sentence, as the mishna explains in Sanhedrin 52a. Indeed, the mishna mentions a particular case where a woman, an adulterous priest’s daughter, was burned in a straightforward way—“they wrapped her in bundles of branches and burned her”—and makes clear that this was incorrect: “The court at that time was not proficient in halakhah.”
When done correctly, burning entailed lighting a “wick” (the Gemara specifies that this means a long, thin piece of lead) and throwing it down the throat of the condemned. In this way, he or she would be “burned” from the inside. This procedure seems just about as terrible and gruesome as actual burning, perhaps because of the “prongs” used to hold open the victim’s mouth. But the rabbis believe that it is a merciful death, in keeping with the verse from Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” As Rav Nachman explains, this means the executioner should select “a good death” for the victim, one that minimizes suffering and degradation. In the rabbis’ view, the method of internal burning accomplishes this. To bolster the case, they also draw a comparison with the deaths of Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aaron who offered “strange fire” at the altar. These deaths came about, according to Abba Yosei ben Dostai, when “two threads of fire came out of the Holy of Holies” and entered the nostrils of Nadav and Abihu, killing them from the inside.
When it comes to decapitation, the rabbis disagree about the exact method to be used. The Torah calls for certain offenders—for instance, the residents of an idolatrous city—to be killed by “the edge of the sword.” Thus one rabbinic opinion holds that the condemned man’s head is cut off using a sword—the same method, the mishna notes, used by “the monarchy,” that is, the Roman government. Rabbi Yehuda, however, believes that such a method “degrades” the victim, which is always to be avoided in Jewish law. Instead, he advocates for the use of a cleaver and chopping block. The Rabbis, conversely, believe that the cleaver is far more degrading than the sword. But in the Gemara, Rabbi Yehuda offers a rebuttal: even if a sword would offer a “good death,” it should still be avoided because Jews must not copy the “statutes” of gentiles.
The theme of the relationship of Jews to non-Jews comes to center stage in the following pages of Tractrate Sanhedrin. What the Talmud has to say on this subject is troubling, as when it suggests that, in Jewish law, a Jew cannot be held liable for a crime against a non-Jew, including theft and murder. This idea would seem to conflict with the central halakhic principle that “the law of the kingdom is the law.” Certainly, as the Koren Talmud notes, it troubled many later Jewish authorities, who found various ways around it—for instance, by explaining that the Talmud was referring only to situations where non-Jews lived lawlessly, as in pagan times.
Predictably, however, these pages of Sanhedrin have been seized upon by anti-Semites who believe they prove the Talmud to be a blueprint for Jewish hostility to gentiles. Over the five years that I have been writing this Daf Yomi column, there have been only two or three occasions when I have questioned whether I should avoid mentioning something in the Talmud for fear of attracting the attention of anti-Semites; this week was one of them. For the history of anti-Semitic readings of the Talmud is long and grim. In the middle ages, Jewish converts to Christianity sometimes sought to gain favor with the Church by exposing the unflattering things the Talmud says about Jesus. Many editions of the Talmud—including some in print today, though not the Koren Talmud—have censored the pages where these references occur.
In more recent times, anti-Jewish books such as Judaism Unmasked (from the 17th century) and The Talmud-Jew (from the 19th) used cherry-picked quotations from the Talmud to spread slander. This tradition is very much alive on the Internet, where anti-Semites gleefully “expose” what the Talmud has to say about, for instance, child marriage. Writing about the Talmud online, then, carries with it a special responsibility. Almost always, I feel that I meet that responsibility by wrestling openly with aspects of the Talmud I find troubling—such as its persistent mistrust of gentiles, a theme I have touched on numerous times. Jews are fortunate to live in a time and place where we can think and talk openly about our tradition, as ancestors seldom could. But the resurgence of anti-Semitism over the last year is a reminder that not everyone listening to this conversation is well-disposed.
As it happens, the question of whether Jews should teach non-Jews about Jewish law—as this column does, at least potentially—is directly addressed in Sanhedrin 59a. “Rabbi Yochanan says: A gentile who engages in Torah study is liable to receive the death penalty” on the grounds that the Torah was given as “an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” exclusively. One can certainly understand the motive for this view. Not only did Yochanan want to safeguard a holy possession, he surely also knew that anti-Jewish hostility would distort the Torah in a way that was dangerous to Jews. And indeed, this very passage is a favorite of anti-Semites: Type “Sanhedrin 59a” into Google and the results get ugly pretty quickly.
Later commentators, as the Koren Talmud explains, had various ways of interpreting and moderating Yochanan’s rule. Maimonides held that it was permitted to teach Torah to Christians because they too revered it as part of their holy scripture. The Meiri, a 13th-century Spanish follower of Maimonides, believed it was forbidden for a gentile to study Torah only if he did so with malicious intent; if he genuinely wanted to learn about mitzvot, it was permitted. Indeed, while anti-Semites frequently quote Yochanan’s opinion from Sanhedrin 59a as evidence of putative Jewish secretiveness, they never go on to quote the following, very different sentence: “Rabbi Meir would say … that even a gentile who engages in Torah study is considered like a High Priest.” It is almost always misleading to pick out a single line and declare it to be “what the Talmud says” on any given subject. When done with hostile intent, it can distort the Talmud into something totally unrecognizable to anyone who has actually studied it.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.