Sanhedrin, Chapter Seven, Mishnah Three
Mishnah three describes the final two forms of execution: slaying by the sword and strangulation.
1) Slaying by the sword was performed thus: they would cut off his head by the sword, as is done by the civil authorities.
a) R. Judah says: This is a disgrace! Rather his head was laid on a block and severed with an axe.
b) They said to him: No death is more disgraceful than this.
2) Strangulation was performed thus: the condemned man was lowered into dung up to his armpits, then a hard cloth was placed within a soft one, wound round his neck, and the two ends pulled in opposite directions until he was dead.
Section one: According to the Sages execution by sword was done by decapitating the condemned, as is the practice amongst the non-Jewish authorities. Rabbi Judah says that this is a disgrace. Rather they should lay his head on a block of wood and chop it off with an axe. The Sages reply to Rabbi Judah that this is even more disgraceful. Although it is hard for us to understand why one form of decapitation is more disgraceful than the others, the important issue in this mishnah is that both sides want to prevent a disgraceful execution. As we have already stated, in the ancient world it was common to search for the most disgraceful execution possible. The Rabbis took a totally opposite approach. Even while executing the man the court must look for the least disgraceful way of ending his life.
Section two: Strangulation was done by tying a rope around the condemned mans neck and pulling it from both sides until he dies. Again, we see in this mishnah that the Sages tried as much as possible to prevent disfiguration to the body. This is accomplished in our mishnah by putting the rough rope inside a soft rope. Although in either way the condemned will die, the soft rope will leave less damage on the body. It is also important to note that while all of the other forms of execution are mentioned specifically in the Torah, strangulation is not. It is probably a new form of execution, created by the Rabbis, specifically with the intent of causing as little physical damage to the body as possible.
Questions for Further Thought:
· What is the basis for the dispute between Rabbi Judah and the Sages?