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Question 12.27:
What does Judaism say about the punishments in the Torah?


The Torah contains many types of punshment, from stoning to death. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein points out that, on the surface, all punishments in the Torah appear ludicrous! How is it possible that a Jew is deserving of death by stoning for kindling a match on the Sabbath, whereas a thief only has to repay what he is stolen as a punishment (and in certain situations double)? Why is it that the concept of incarceration does not exist in the Torah (except for designating cities of refuge for someone who killed _unintentionally_)? Further, Judaism does not actually impose any penalties unless we have two independent, non-related eyewitnesses, who have warned the perpetrator before doing the act what punishment he will receive, and the perpetrator must answer them "Even so, I will transgress and do (whatever the bad act is)". Our rabbis teach us that a court that has put a person to death more than once in 7 years, and according to some opinions more than once in 70 years, is a "trigger happy" court, and must be disqualified! Is this a deterrent?

The explanation, again according to Rav Feinstein, is that the Torah concept of punishment is entirely different from the secular concept of punishment. The reason there are punishments in secular law is to protect society. Hence, those who steal are locked up to "get them off the streets", and there is no punishment at all for people who choose to violate the Sabbath. However, the Torah perspective is that the punishment is not for the protection of society, for G-d guards and protects society. The Torah punishments are primarily a message to those who study them, teaching the gravity and essence of the laws that they are studying. For example, in traditional Judaism, a Jew who intentionally violates the Sabbath must be aware that this is an act of denial that G-d created the universe, and consequently his life is not worth living, because for what other purpose are we here other than to know and teach that there is one Creator whom we must serve! A person who steals must repay what he has stolen, to the point of going into servitude if he is unable to, to drive home the message of what he has done, and what steps thus must be taken to rectify it.

We also find that the Talmud "borrowed" this technique, and taught us that there are some things that might seem trivial to us that we would do that are "deserving of death" or that a person who performs it "forfeits his life". One example is in Pirke Avot [Chapters of Our Fathers] (3:9), where we are taught that if someone is studying Torah as he is walking, and interrupts his studies to comment about how beautiful G-d's creation that is surrounding him is, he is considered to have "forfeited his life". Obviously we are not saying that we kill such a person; rather, there is an underlying message.

So, when we read about a punishment in the Torah, we should ask ourselves: "What does the punishment teach me about this transgression, and how might I better improve my service of G-d with this knowledge?"

The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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