Four kinds of capital punishment were decreed by the court of justice:--Stoning, burning, beheading, and strangling; or as Rabbi Shimon arranges them--Burning, stoning, strangling, and beheading. As soon as the sentence of death is pronounced, the criminal is led out to be stoned, the stoning-place being at a distance from the court of justice; for it is said (Lev. xxiv. 14), "Bring forth him that hath cursed without the camp." Then one official stands at the door of the court of justice with a flag in his hand, and another is stationed on horseback at such a distance as to be able to see the former. If, meanwhile, one comes
and declares before the court, "I have something further to urge in defense of the prisoner," the man at the door waves his flag, and the mounted official rides forward and stops the procession. Even if the criminal himself says, "I have yet something to plead in my defense," he is to be brought back, even four or five times over, provided there is something of importance in his deposition. If the evidence is exculpatory, he is discharged; if not, he is led out to be stoned. As he proceeds to the place of execution, a public crier goes before him and proclaims, "So-and-so, the son of So-and-so, goes out to be stoned because he has committed such-and-such a crime, and So-and-so and So-and-so are the witnesses. Let him who knows of anything that pleads in his defense come forward and state it." When about ten yards from the stoning-place, the condemned is called upon to confess his guilt. (All about to be executed were urged to confess, as by making confession every criminal made good a portion in the world to come; for so we find it in the case of Achan, when Joshua said unto him (Josh. vii. 19), "My son, give, I pray thee, glory to the Lord God of Israel, and make confession unto him," etc. "And Achan answered Joshua and said, Indeed I have sinned." But where are we taught that his confession was his atonement? Where it is said (ibid., V. 25), "And Joshua said, Why hast thou troubled us? The Lord shall trouble thee this day;" as if to say, "This day thou shalt be troubled, but in the world to come thou shalt not be troubled." About four yards from the stoning-place they stripped off the criminal's clothes, covering a male in front, but a female both before and behind. These are the words of Rabbi Yehudah; but the sages say a man was stoned naked, but not a female.
The stoning-place was twice the height of a man, and this the criminal ascended. One of the witnesses then pushed him from behind, and he tumbled down upon his chest. He was then turned over upon his back: if he was killed, the execution was complete; but if not quite dead, the second witness took a heavy stone and cast it upon his chest; and if this did not prove effectual, then the stoning was completed by all present joining in the
act; as it is said (Deut. xvii. 7), "The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people."
"Criminals who were stoned dead were afterward hanged." These are the words of Rabbi Eliezer; but the sages say none were hanged but the blasphemer and the idolator. "They hanged a man with his face toward the people, but a woman with her face toward the gallows." These are the words of Rabbi Eliezer; but the sages say a man is hanged, but no woman is hanged. . . . How then did they hang the man? A post was firmly fixed into the ground, from which an arm of wood projected, and they tied the hands of the corpse together and so suspended it. Rabbi Yossi says, "The beam simply leaned against a wall, and so they hung up the body as butchers do an ox or a sheep, and it was soon afterward taken down again, for if it remained over night a prohibition of the law would have been thereby transgressed." For it is said (Deut. xxi. 23), "His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; for he that is hanged is accursed of God," etc. That is to say, people would ask why this one was hanged; and as the reply would needs be, "Because he blasphemed God," this would lead to the use of God's name under circumstances in which it would be blasphemed.
The sentence of burning was carried out thus:--They fixed the criminal up to his knees in manure, and a hard cloth wrapped in a softer material was passed round his neck. One of the witnesses, taking hold of this, pulled it one way, and another the other, until the criminal was forced to open his mouth; then a wick of lead was lighted and thrust into his mouth, the molten lead running down into his bowels and burning them. Rabbi Yehudah asks, "If the criminal should die in their hands, how would that fulfill the commandment respecting burning?' But they forcibly open his mouth with a pair of tongues and the lighted wire (the molten lead) is thrust into his mouth, so that it goes down into his bowels and burns his inside.
The sentence of beheading was executed thus:--They sometimes cut off the criminal's head with a sword, as is
done among the Romans. But Rabbi Yehudah says this was degrading, and in some cases they placed the culprit's head upon the block and struck it off with an ax. Some one remarked to him that such a death is more degrading still.
The sentence of strangling was carried out thus:--They fixed the criminal up to his knees in manure, and having twined a hard cloth within a soft one round his neck, one witness pulled one way and the other pulled in an opposite direction till life was extinct.
Sanhedrin, fol. 42, col. 2; fol. 49, col. 2; fol. 52, cols. 1, 2.
The above, which has been translated almost literally from the Talmud, may serve to remove many misconceptions now current as to the modes of capital punishment that obtained in Jewry.
In further illustration of this topic, we will append some of the legal decisions that are recorded in the Talmud, authenticating each by reference to folio and column. Examples might be multiplied by the score, but a sufficient number will be quoted to give a fair idea of Rabbinic jurisprudence.
If one who intends to kill a beast (accidentally) kill a man; or if, purposing to kill a Gentile, he slay an Israelite; or if he destroy a fœtus in mistake for an embryo, he shall be free; i. e., not guilty.
Ibid., fol. 78, col. 2.
He who has been flogged and exposes himself again to the same punishment is to be shut up in a narrow cell, in which he can only stand upright, and be fed with barley till he burst.
Ibid., fol. 8 1, col. 2.
If one commits murder, and there is not sufficient legal evidence, he is to be shut up in a narrow cell and fed with "the bread of adversity and the water of affliction" (Isa. XXX. 20). They give him this diet till his bowels shrink, and then he is fed with barley till (as it swells in his bowels) his intestines burst.
A woman who is doomed, being enceinte, to suffer the extreme penalty of the law, is first beaten, about the womb, lest a mishap occur at the execution.
Erachin, fol. 7, col. 1.
If a woman who has vowed the vow of a Nazarite drink wine or defile herself by contact with a dead body (see
Num. vi. 2-6), she is to undergo the punishment of forty stripes.
Nazir, fol. 23, col. '.
The Rabbis teach that when the woman has to be flogged, the man has only to bring a sacrifice; and that if she is not to be flogged, the man is not required to bring a sacrifice. (This is in reference to Lev. xix. 20, 21.)
Kerithoth, fol. 11, col. 1.
Rav Yehudah says, "He that eats a certain aquatic insect, the swallowing of which while drinking would involve no penalty whatever--Tosefoth, receives forty stripes save one (the penalty for transgressing the negative precepts), for it belongs to the class of 'creeping things that do creep upon the earth' (Lev. xi. 29)." Rav Yehudah once gave a practical exemplification of this ruling of his.
Abaii says, "He that eats a particular animalcule found in stagnant water, receives four times forty stripes save one. For eating an ant this penalty is five times repeated, and for eating a wasp it is inflicted six times."
Maccoth, fol. 16, col. 2.
When one is ordered to construct a booth, or to prepare a palm-branch for the Feast of Tabernacles, or to make fringes, and does not do so, he is to be flogged till his soul comes out of him.
Chullin, fol. 132, col. 2.
Once on a time, as the Rabbis relate, the wicked Government sent two officers to the wise men of Israel, saying, "Teach us your law." This being put into their hands, three times over they perused it; and when about to leave they returned it, remarking, "We have carefully studied your law, and find it equitable save in one particular. You say: When the ox of an Israelite gores to death the ox of an alien, its owner is not liable to make compensation; but if the ox of an alien gore to death the ox of an Israelite, its owner must make full amends for the loss of the animal; whether it be the first or second time that the ox has so killed another (in which case an Israelite would have to pay to another Israelite only half the value of the loss), or the third time (when he would be fined to the full extent of his neighbor's loss). Either 'neighbor' (in Exod. xxi. 35, for such the word signifies in the original Hebrew,
though the Authorized Version has another) is taken strictly as referring to an Israelite only, and then an alien should be exempted as well; or if the word 'neighbor' is to be taken in its widest sense, why should not an Israelite be bound to pay when his ox gores to death the ox of an alien?" "This legal point," was the answer, "we do not tell the Government." As Rashi says in reference to the preceding Halacha, "an alien forfeits the right to his own property in favor of the Jews."
Bava Kama, fol. 38, col. 1.