Sanhedrin, Chapter Six, Mishnah Four



Mishnah four describes how the person was to be stoned.  The mishnah also discusses the hanging mentioned in Deuteronomy 21:22-23.  We should mention that we don’t really know exactly how this hanging was to be performed.  The JPS translation translates it as “impaling” but this is not the literal meaning of the word.  The purpose of such an action was to expose the body, and it was a common practice in the ancient and indeed also the modern world.  The Torah states that while this type of action may be done, the body may not be left overnight.  The Torah is concerned for the respect due to the human body and therefore it states that leaving a body hanging overnight is strictly forbidden.


Mishnah Four

1)                     The place of stoning was twice a man’s height.

a)                                           One of the witnesses pushed him by the hips, [so that] he was overturned on his heart.

b)                                          He was then turned on his back.

c)                                           If that caused his death, he had fulfilled [his duty]; but if not, the second witness took a stone and threw it on his chest.

d)                                          If he died thereby, he had done [his duty]; but if not, he [the criminal] was stoned by all Israel, for it is says: “The hand of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people” (Deut. 17:7).

2)                     All who are stoned are [afterwards] hanged, according to Rabbi Eliezer.

a)                                           But the sages say:  “Only the blasphemer and the idolater are hanged.”

b)                                          A man is hanged with his face towards the spectators, but a woman with her face towards the gallows, according to Rabbi Eliezer.

c)                                           But the sages say: a man is hanged, but not a woman.

i)                                                       Rabbi Eliezer said to them: “But did not Shimon ben Shetah hang women at ashkelon?”

ii)                                                      They said: “[On that occasion] he hanged eighty women, even though two must not be tried on the same day.

3)                     How is he hanged?

a)                                           The post is sunk into the ground with a [cross-] piece branching off [at the top] and he brings his hands together one over the other and hangs him up [thereby].

b)                                          R. Jose said: the post is leaned against the wall, and he hangs him up the way butchers do.

c)                                           He is immediately let down.

d)                                          If he is left [hanging] over night, a negative command is thereby transgressed, for it says, “You shall not let his corpse remain all night upon the tree, but you must bury him the same day because a hanged body is a curse against god” (Deut. 21:23).

e)                                           As if to say why was he hanged? — because he cursed the name [of god]; and so the name of Heaven [God] is profaned.


Explanation—Mishnah Four

Section one:  According to the Rabbis, stoning was not carried out by throwing stones at the person until he dies, which would seem to be the normal way that one would understand stoning.  Rather the person is pushed off a two story platform and then stones are dropped on him.  The first witness is the one who pushes him off and if he dies then the execution is over and no further stoning is done. If the person is still alive then the second witness throws a stone on him.  If he dies the execution is over, but if he remains alive the rest of Israel throws stones at him.  This process is based on a biblical verse.  We should note two things.  First of all the mishnah is careful to stone the person only until he dies.  Once he dies, the Rabbis forbade further disfiguration of his body.  Second, the Torah requires the witnesses to take part in the stoning.  A witness must believe his testimony firmly enough to actually carry out the execution himself.  In some cases this might discourage false testimony.

Section two:  According to Rabbi Eliezer, the Torah commands that all executed people are hung after their execution.  However, the Sages say that this is done only to the blasphemer (of God) and to the idol worshipper.

Rabbi Eliezer states that both men and women are to be hung, whereas the Sages say that only men are hung.  Note that even though Rabbi Eliezer believes that women are hung, he is still concerned with their modesty.  In order to prove his point that women are also hung, Rabbi Eliezer brings up the precedent of Shimon ben Shetach, an early Sage, who hung 80 women in Ashkelon.  (We don’t know why he hung them).  The Sages retort that this hanging was not done according to the law, for Jewish law forbids convicting even two people on one day.  According to the Sages the incident of Shimon ben Shetach was an unusual, one time affair, and does not set precedent for future cases.

Section three:  Rabbi Yose and the Sages dispute how a person is to be hung.  Note that the hanging described by the mishnah is not done by the person’s neck but rather by their hands.  This is, of course, closer to what we would call crucifixion.  However, according to the Rabbis hanging is not a form of the death penalty but is to be performed after the execution has been carried out.  The body must be let down immediately.  Indeed according to other sources, one hand puts the body up and another lets it down.  The disgrace done to the body is indeed only momentary.

The verse in Deuteronomy states that a hanged body is a disgrace to God.  Our mishnah understands that the verse comes to teach that people who see the body hanging will realize that it was because he cursed God, either by explicitly doing so or by worshipping idols, as we learned in section two.


Questions for Further Thought:

·                      Why are the Rabbis so concerned about not disfiguring the body of the executed criminal?  What value lies behind their laws?