Sanhedrin, Chapter Four, Mishnah Five



Our mishnah begins with a description of the warning that the judges would give to the witnesses in a capital case.  The mishnah then continues with a discussion of the uniqueness of every human being and the consequential extreme severity of capital punishment.


Mishnah Five

1)                     How did they admonish witnesses in capital cases?

a)                                           They brought them in and admonished them, [saying], “Perhaps you will say something that is only a supposition or hearsay or secondhand, or even from a trustworthy man.  Or perhaps you do not know that we shall check you with examination and inquiry?

b)                                          Know, moreover, that capital cases are not like non-capital cases:  in non-capital cases a man may pay money and so make atonement, but in capital cases the witness is answerable for the blood of him [that is wrongfully condemned] and the blood of his descendants [that should have been born to him] to the end of the world.”

2)                     For so have we found it with Cain that murdered his brother, for it says, “The bloods of your brother cry out” (Gen. 4:10).  It doesn’t say, “The blood of your brother”, but rather “The bloods of your brother”—meaning his blood and the blood of his descendants.

i)                                                       Another saying is, “The bloods of your brother”—that his blood was cast over trees and stones.

3)                     Therefore but a single person was created in the world, to teach that if any man has caused a single life to perish from Israel, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had caused a whole world to perish; and anyone who saves a single soul from Israel, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had saved a whole world. 

a)                                           Again [but a single person was created] for the sake of peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, “My father was greater than your father”.

b)                                          Again, [but a single person was created] against the heretics so they should not say, “There are many ruling powers in heaven”.

c)                                           Again [but a single person was created] to proclaim the greatness of the Holy Blessed One; for humans stamp many coins with one seal and they are all like one another; but the King of kings, the Holy Blessed One, has stamped every human with the seal of the first man, yet not one of them are like another.

i)                                                       Therefore everyone must say, “For my sake was the world created.”

4)                     And if perhaps you [witnesses] would say, “Why should we be involved with this trouble”, was it not said, “He, being a witness, whether he has seen or known, [if he does not speak it, then he shall bear his iniquity] (Lev. 5:1).

a)                                           And if perhaps you [witnesses] would say, “Why should we be guilty of the blood of this man?, was it not said, “When the wicked perish there is rejoicing” (Proverbs 11:10).]


Explanation—Mishnah Five

Section one:  The mishnah begins with an exhortation made by the judges to the witnesses before they testify.  The judges warn the witnesses of the severity of their testimony and they warn them that secondhand testimony, even if it was heard from a reliable source is inadmissible.  The judges also remind the witnesses that they will be examined carefully.

The judges then warn the witnesses that the consequences of executing a wrongfully accused person are extremely serious and indeed eternal.  By testifying falsely against a person and thereby leading to his execution the witness is not only killing the accused himself, but is in essence eliminating all of his future descendants. 

Section two:  The mishnah proves its point, that killing one person is like killing all of his future descendants, by using a midrash on God’s words to Cain after he killed Abel, “The bloods of your brother call out”.  The midrash is based on the fact that God uses the plural “bloods” instead of blood.  This is to teach us that Cain killed not only Abel but all of Abel’s descendants as well.  The mishnah then proceeds with an additional interpretation of “the bloods”.  According to this interpretation God uses the plural because Abel’s blood was strewn in many places.  This last note is obviously a late gloss interpolated into the mishnah.

Section three:  The mishnah now proceeds with four different reasons why God at first created only one human being.  The first reason is that it was meant to teach us that one human being is in and of himself or herself an entire world.  Therefore, one who kills another person it is as if he destroys an entire world and one who saves another person it is as if he saves an entire world.  [This line may be familiar from the beginning of Schindler’s List.  It is probably one of the more famous lines in the Mishnah]. 

The second reason is so that people will not brag about their lineage.  Since we all come from the same person, no one can say “my father is greater than yours.”

The third reason is to prove to the heretics that there is only one God.  If more than one person had been originally created people might claim that each God created his own human being.

The fourth reason is to show the greatness of God, that although God created only one human, and each subsequent person is therefore stamped with Adam’s genes, no two people look or are alike. This teaches us that each person must say that for his/her sake the world was created.

Section four:  Finally, the mishnah returns to the exhortation that the judges give to the witnesses.  After having warned them of the dire consequences of false testimony there is fear that they will not want to testify at all.  Therefore they remind the witnesses that one who truly knows testimony and does not bring it to the court is considered to be a sinner.  According to the Torah a person has a religious obligation to testify if he has seen a crime.  Finally, although the Jewish law abhors the wrongful execution of a person, the rightful execution improves the world.  By testifying faithfully against a person who has truly committed a crime, the witnesses are bringing much needed justice into the world.