ט״ו באלול ה׳תשע״ז (September 6, 2017)

Sanhedrin 52a-b: Execution by Decapitation

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

When the Mishna 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 kofitz – a large knife or cleaver. According to the Mishna, 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-beḥukotekhem lo telekhu – it is forbidden to follow the practices of non-Jews (see Vayikra 18:3). 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 kofitz 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 Meiri 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.

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