OzTorah: Ask the Rabbi.



Indonesia should be ashamed of itself for executing two Australians as well as a few others.  It is not that the people who were executed were lily white.  Indonesia has processes of law which led to their sentencing.  No-one denies the Indonesian right to have strict laws and stern penalties.  But having to resort to putting people to death is monstrous and unethical and brings no credit to those responsible.

It doesn’t help to tell us that capital punishment was part of Biblical criminal law. Those who had the responsibility for implementing this law surrounded it with so many ifs and buts that it lost its sting.  One view was,

“A court which put a person to death once in seven years was bloodthirsty”.

Another view said,

“Once in seventy years”.

Two of the greatest rabbinic sages said,

“Had we been members of the court no-one would ever have been put to death” (Mishnah Makkot).

This latter view was not uncontested. Its opponents said,

“They (the abolitionists) would increase the shedders of blood in Israel”.

But there are other ways of achieving the purpose which the Bible says is to make people “hear and fear”.

The convicted person can be punished, and the community warned, without a death penalty but by means of harsh imprisonment.

What does a death penalty say about the court?  Like the person whose fate is in their hands, they are human beings.  The question hanging over their heads is,

“Who says your blood is redder than his?”

There is no doctrine of the infallibility of the judicial bench.  It is always possible that a court can make a mistake, and once the accused is dead there is nothing that can be done.  This must not be taken as accusing the Indonesian court of making a mistake, but no court can or should play God.

The ancient discussions were especially concerned with dealing with murders.  In Indonesia the problem is the serious crime of drug-trafficking.  In some ways it is as bad as murder because its effect is also to destroy lives.

It is not that the drug-trafficker is necessarily out for revenge or sadistic.  He wants financial advantage.  He will tell you that it’s not his fault that people want drugs; he claims that he is simply supplying a need.  Who is he deceiving – himself?  He deserves to be handled harshly and his potential victims need to be helped through a tough time.

But the death penalty doesn’t solve the problem and it is flawed in itself.


Women in Bialystok carry pots of cholent to the baker’s oven on a Friday afternoon. Credit: forward.com

Question.   Why did Jews develop such an indigestible food as cholent?

Answer.     Cholent (pronounced tsholent) is a stew that simmers overnight on Friday in order to have hot food on Shabbat. The word may be from the French “chaud”, “warm”, or Hebrew “sheyalin”, “that which stays overnight”.

Though many people insist that cholent needs meat, it is quite feasible to have a tasty vegetarian cholent. Not everyone, however, would go as far as Rabbi Yehudah ben Barzillai of Barcelona who says in his Sefer HaIttim,

“He who does not eat chamin (cholent) on Shabbat should be excommunicated. He should be removed from the community of Israel.”


Question.   Why was the Torah not given to Abraham?

Answer.    Abraham is so highly esteemed that you may well have a point. The Talmud raises a similar question in relation to Ezra.

“Had Moses not preceded him,” we are told, “Ezra would have been worthy of receiving the Torah for Israel”

(Sanhedrin 21b). So if Ezra was qualified to receive the Torah, why not Abraham?

A further Talmudic passage suggests an answer. It states that for the first 2000 years of history – according to rabbinic chronology, from Adam to Abraham – the world was destined to be spiritually desolate (Sanhedrin 97a). Thus though Abraham was a great man, his environment was not ready for the Torah, and it was only due to God’s grace and not human righteousness that the world survived (Maharsha).

Moses’ generation, however, had suffered slavery, been carried out of Egypt “on eagles’ wings” (Exodus 19), and shared the birth pangs of nationhood, and they were ready for the Revelation.

Abraham had to accept that there would be no Torah in his generation, just as David had to accept that there would be no Temple in his lifetime.

Later history has had many a similar experience. Pioneering thinkers have dreamed of great things happening, but they were often ahead of their contemporaries and the dream could not come true until the times were right.


Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. Now retired and lives in Jerusalem.

Blog: http://www.oztorah.com

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  1. I disagree with Rabbi Apple about the death penalty. Sometimes the crime is so egregious that the death penalty is appropriate and just. For instance, if the terrorists who’d butchered innocent Israelis had been put to death, they wouldn’t have been used as bargaining tools in prisoner exchanges. Also, we must remember that Eichmann was put to death by Israel. Was that wrong?

    If the Rabbi is so opposed to the death penalty, presumably he is also opposed to soldiers killing the enemy in combat. Thank G-d that during WW2 we had people like Churchill, who realised that sometimes it’s necessary to kill people in order to defeat evil.

    Sorry, but I find this Gandhi-like pacifism is leading to a dangerous place. Remember that he said the Jews should have let Hilter kill them. He said something like “the Jews should have thrown themselves on the butcher’s knife”. To me this is anathema. Sometimes you have to have the courage to fight evil.

  2. After this last fiasco in Bali, I have mixed feelings about the the death penalty. I think it’s the whole situation there.

    We’ve had 10 years of non-stop coverage. Then we were ‘treated’ to every minute detail of the whole gruesome procedure of them being taking to the island, appeals being knocked back, family being denied visiting rights, crosses with their names on it and on and on it went.

    For convicted murderers etc , yes but don’t stretch it out for years.

    In Israel, capital punishment is allowed only during wartime and only for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, treason, and crimes against the Jewish people. The current Arab-Israel conflict is considered a war, and the committing of any of the crimes can result in the death penalty.

    • I agree that it was awful the way it was protracted, and that it should have been done quickly, staight after they were convicted. However, I don’t think the death penalty is always wrong, and I believe Israel was totally justified in using it in Eichmann’s case.

      You could argue that the West is also in a war against terrorists, and so the death penalty would, in my opinion, be appropriate for all the crimes Israel lists.