Parsha Mishpatim

Death Penalty


Why does the Torah often say that if someone does something wrong “he shall die.” It seems rather bloodthirsty. But the fact is that two thousand years ago the rabbis claimed that “he shall die” usually means “he deserves to die.” Remember that according to Jewish law it was almost impossible to condemn anyone, much more than in the USA today. You needed two witnesses to the event and two others who could attest in court that he knew what he was doing was wrong and what the punishment would be. You’d have to be almost suicidal to get convicted.

Amongst the many laws we read this week is that if a man owns an ox that gores someone to death, the owner shall die. Yet throughout the Torah no one is punished for something he did not do personally. The law deals not with an accident but with an animal that has a record of being dangerous and the owner failed to control it and is therefore responsible for any damage it does. It is like owning a Rottweiler dog that kills a child. You as the owner are responsible. But we don’t believe in taking a life for a life literally any more than we cut off the hands of thieves or stone an adulteress. We look for financial compensation so that people affected can get on with their lives.

These ancient laws are relevant today. Some people argue that one can substitute “car” for “ox.” But the fact is that if you drive a car carelessly or fail to maintain it so that it becomes a danger on the road, according to Jewish law you are even more responsible for damages than the owner of an ox who gores or a dog which bites.

So what’s the point of saying “you shall die”? The Torah means that they have shown such disregard for human life that their very right to live is questioned. Why do they deserve to live if some innocent person has died because of their negligence? That after all is how we define a caring human being, someone who tries very hard not to hurt or even offend others.