This Torah portion continues the Holiness code from the previous portion. This portion is mostly a list of rules, introducing two different types of capital punishment, and the punishment of cherem, or excommunication.
There are some lovely mitzvot here as well.
- Revere your mother and father
- Rest on the Sabbath day and keep it holy
- Not to reap all the way to the edges of a field, thereby depriving the poor and the homeless of teh possibility of gleaning from your fields, and thereby feeding themselves
- Do not pick your fruit trees clean, so that the poor have some fruit to eat
- Pay your laborers on the day they work, so that they do not go home hungry or unpaid
- Do not put obstacles in the way of blind people (the rabbis debate whether this is meant literally or figuratively, i.e. putting moral obstacles in the way of those without much moral foresight)
- Love your neighbor as you love yourself (unfortunately, some Christians think this originally came from Jesus. This is where Jesus got it.)
- Show deference to the elderly
- Love the stranger as you love yourself, for you were a stranger once in Egypt (some would interpret "stranger" as "foreigner")
- Treat the convert exactly the same way you would treat someone born Jewish
Two forms of capital punishment are introduced: stoning and burning. The Talmud describes stoning as a procedure where the condemned is thrown from a height of at least two stories to the street below. If they survive, a massive rock (so big that it takes at least two people to carry it) is dropped on them, crushing them. That's pretty barbaric, but not nearly as barbaric as the current version of stoning used in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan, Yemen, UAE, and Iran today. The contemporary version of stoning involves burying the condemned in the ground (men buried up to the waist and women up to the chest), and pelting them with rocks. The Iranian penal code forbids the use of any stones that individually could kill the condemned outright in one or two throws. It often takes a long time to die this way.
Burning, according to the Talmud is having molten lead poured down the throat.
The Talmud proscribes two other methods: decapitation and strangulation. Decapitation is with a sword, and strangulation is with two strong men on opposite sides pulling cords around the neck of the condemned until death.
In Jewish law, two witnesses had to see the crime for the death penalty to be in effect. These witnesses had to be fully educated in the law, had to be fully employed at the time of the crime, and could not be related to each other or to the accused. They had to each give a warning to the accused that the crime they were committing carried the death penalty. The accused had to acknowledge that the crime carried the death penalty and had to continue committing the crime anyway. The two witnesses could not have had a conversation afterwards about the offense, and thereby have corroborated their testimonies. The jury had to be in a strict majority, but could not be unanimous in their decision (to prevent a rigged jury). The two witnesses were required to be the executioners.
As a result, a Sanhedrin that executed more than one person in seven years (and some say seventy years) was considered to be excessively bloody.
- What sins carried a potential death penalty?
- One who gave a child to Molech
- One who insulted his father or mother
- A man who committed adultery with a married woman, and the married woman with whom he committed it
- A man who lay with his father’s wife, and his father wife with whom he lay
- A man who lay with his daughter-in-law, and his daughter-in-law with whom he lay
- A man who lay with a male as one lies with a woman, and the male with whom he lay
- A man who married a woman and her mother, and the woman and mother whom he married
- A man who had carnal relations with a beast, and the beast with whom he had relations
- A woman who approached any beast to mate with it, and the beast that she approached
- One who had a ghost or a familiar spirit
Now imagine that two men were having sex. Two witnesses, who are fully employed, and well-schooled in the law witness them in flagrante delicto. Each tells the two men to stop, that what they are doing is listed in the Torah as an offense that carries with it the death penalty. Each time, both men tell each witness that they know this, but are going to continue anyway. The two witnesses never talk to each other until after the Sanhedrin meets to decide the fate of the two men, and they decide for death by stoning, although not unanimously. How often do you think that occurred?
There are other rules in this Torah portion that seem bizarre to us today:
- Not to interbreed different species, or sow fields with two different kinds of grain
- Not to wear garments from both wool and linen (unless it is the High Priest's garment and you are the High Priest)
- Not to eat the fruit of a newly-planted fruit tree for three years
- Not to trim the hair on the sides of the head
- Not to destroy the side-growth of the beard
- Not to mourn for the dead by scarifying the flesh
The penalty of excommunication is also explained, and given as punishment for the following:
- One who turned to ghosts or familiar spirits (but presumably did not possess them)
- Marriage between siblings (including half-siblings, but not step-siblings)
- Sexual intercourse involving a menstruating woman (both people would be excommunicated)
So, the Holiness code can be very harsh, and somewhat arbitrary by today's moral standards. With the exception of some of the ultra-Orthodox, there is nobody today who follows every jot and tittle of it. The point of it all was to ascribe towards some sense of holiness as a means of emulating God. The word kadosh in Hebrew means holy. It is where the title of the 30° in the Scottish Rite, Knight Kadosh, comes from. We are created in the image of God. The Holiness code is an early attempt to set the ground rules for holiness.