Death Row

Sanhedrin (6:1) | Yisrael Bankier | 12 years ago

For capital cases beit din’s administer on of four capital punishments. The Mishnah (6:1) teaches that once the accused was found guilty of a crime punishable by skilah (stoning), they took the criminal to the beit ha’skilah (the stoning place). The Mishnah teaches us that the beit ha’skilah was located outside or at a distance from beit din. It continues to explain that this is learnt from the parasha of the mekalel (the blasphemer), where Moshe was instructed to “take out the blasphemer” (Vayikra 24:14).

The Mishnah appears to be explaining that it is sufficient as long as the beit ha’skilah was not located on the same premises as the beit din. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 42b) immediately questions this assumption explaining that a Beraitah instructs that the beit ha’skilah must be located “outside the three camps”. Let us first explain the question. The reference is to the three camps of the Jewish people in the desert - machaneh Shechina (location of the Mishkan), machaneh Leviya and machaneh Yisrael. Once settled in Eretz Yisrael, this means outside the city of . Tosfot (Sanhedrin 42b, s.v. beit) explains that as each walled city has the status of machaneh Yisrael, “outside the three camps” also implies outside a walled city. Consequently the requirement on the location of the beit ha’skilah is much more than just off-premises.

The Gemara answers that indeed the beit ha’skilah must be located outside the three camps. The Mishnah’s phrasing addresses if the beit din itself left the three camps. In such a case, the beit ha’skilah would nonetheless be located at a distance from the beit din. It appears then that the Mishnah and Beraitah combine to introduce two requirements on the beit ha’skilah’s location – outside the city and away from beit din­ – both of which derived from the mekalel.

Interestingly the Gemara continues to provide two reasons for these requirements. Firstly, distance is required so that the beit din do not appear to be murders (see Rashi). Alternatively, it provided time between passing judgment and execution, creating the opportunity for someone to supply new evidence that could reverse the decision.

The Tosfot (s.v. ki) question the necessity of this rational; once the p’sukim have stated the requirements there is no need! They explain that the Mishnah indeed teaches us that when the beit ha’skilah is situated outside the city the beit ha’skilah must be off-site. However how far away it must situated is not addressed. This detail is instead provided by the subsequent rationale. This is one reading of the sugya.

When the Rambam discusses this law he simply states as follows (Sanhedrin 12:3):

The location that beit din would execute him was outside beit din and far from beit din; as it states “take out the blasphemer to outside the camp”. It appears to me that this was far, like six mil, as was the distance between the beit din of Moshe Rabbeinu that was in front of the ohel moed and [the end of] machaneh Yisrael.

The Tiferet Yisrael explains that since the entire encampment of Am Yisrael was twelve mil wide and the beit din was situated by its centre, Moshe was required to execute the mekalel at a distance of six mil. Based on our initial understanding of the Gemara the Rambam appears odd. Where is the distinction between if the beit din was located inside or outside the city? Also, granted that he quoted the pasuk, but above we also required the rationale to complete picture! Finally from where does he extract this fixed distance? To understand the Rambam we surely need to reread the Gemara.

The Gemara had questioned the Mishnah’s language that the beit ha’skilah had to be “outside” beit din by quoting the Beraitah that it must be located “outside the three camps”. The Gemara then admitted that the Beraitah was correct, but the question still remains what does the requirement “outside the three camps”, as demanded by the pasuk, mean? We initially understood (like Tosfot) that this meant outside any location having the status of machaneh Yisrael. Alternatively, the pasuk could be providing an objective distance as measured from the centre to outside the three camps in the desert. The practical difference or “nafka minah” (to use the language of the Gemara) between these two approaches is if (indeed) the beit din was located outside the city.

The Gemara is therefore not saying that the Mishnah and Beraitah provide too separate requirements. Instead, the Gemara is explaining that while the Mishnah agrees with the requirement of being “outside the three camps” had it used that terminology, it could have potentially been misunderstood. From where did the Mishnah know this was the correct meaning? Here enters the rationale, which reaffirms that the sole intention of the pasuk was to provide distance.


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