CRIMINALS AND CRIMINAL PUNISHMENTS.
Four kinds of capital punishment were decreed by the court of
justice:--Stoning, burning, beheading, and strangling; or as Rabbi
Shimon arranges them--Burning, stoning, strangling, and beheading. As
soon as the sentence of death is pronounced, the criminal is led out to
be stoned, the stoning-place being at a distance from the court of
justice; for it is said (Lev. xxiv. 14), "Bring forth him that hath
cursed without the camp." Then one official stands at the door of the
court of justice with a flag in his hand, and another is stationed on
horseback at such a distance as to be able to see the former. If,
meanwhile, one comes and declares before the court, "I have something
further to urge in defense of the prisoner," the man at the door waves
his flag, and the mounted official rides forward and stops the
procession. Even if the criminal himself says, "I have yet something to
plead in my defense," he is to be brought back, even four or five times
over, provided there is something of importance in his deposition. If
the evidence is exculpatory, he is discharged; if not, he is led out to
be stoned. As he proceeds to the place of execution, a public crier goes
before him and proclaims, "So-and-so, the son of So-and-so, goes out to
be stoned because he has committed such-and-such a crime, and So-and-so
and So-and-so are the witnesses. Let him who knows of anything that
pleads in his defense come forward and state it." When about ten yards
from the stoning-place, the condemned is called upon to confess his
guilt. (All about to be executed were urged to confess, as by making
confession every criminal made good a portion in the world to come; for
so we find it in the case of Achan, when Joshua said unto him (Josh.
vii. 19), "My son, give, I pray thee, glory to the Lord God of Israel,
and make confession unto him," etc. "And Achan answered Joshua and said,
Indeed I have sinned." But where are we taught that his confession was
his atonement? Where it is said (Ibid., v. 25), "And Joshua said, Why
hast thou troubled us? The Lord shall trouble thee this day;" as if to
say, "This day thou shalt be troubled, but in the world to come thou
shalt not be troubled.") About four yards from the stoning-place they
stripped off the criminal's clothes, covering a male in front, but a
female both before and behind. These are the words of Rabbi Yehudah; but
the sages say a man was stoned naked, but not a female.
The stoning-place was twice the height of a man, and this the criminal
ascended. One of the witnesses then pushed him from behind, and he
tumbled down upon his chest. He was then turned over upon his back: if
he was killed, the execution was complete; but if not quite dead, the
second witness took a heavy stone and cast it upon his chest; and if
this did not prove effectual, then the stoning was completed by all
present joining in the act; as it is said (Deut. xvii. 7), "The hands of
the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward
the hands of all the people."
"Criminals who were stoned dead were afterward hanged." These are the
words of Rabbi Eliezer; but the sages say none were hanged but the
blasphemer and the idolater. "They hanged a man with his face toward the
people, but a woman with her face toward the gallows." These are the
words of Rabbi Eliezer; but the sages say a man is hanged, but no woman
is hanged.... How then did they hang the man? A post was firmly fixed
into the ground, from which an arm of wood projected, and they tied the
hands of the corpse together and so suspended it. Rabbi Yossi says, "The
beam simply leaned against a wall, and so they hung up the body as
butchers do an ox or a sheep, and it was soon afterward taken down
again, for if it remained over night a prohibition of the law would have
been thereby transgressed." For it is said (Deut. xxi. 23), "His body
shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise
bury him that day; for he that is hanged is accursed of God," etc. That
is to say, people would ask why this one was hanged; and as the reply
would needs be, "Because he blasphemed God," this would lead to the use
of God's name under circumstances in which it would be blasphemed.
The sentence of burning was carried out thus:--They fixed the criminal
up to his knees in manure, and a hard cloth wrapped in a softer material
was passed round his neck. One of the witnesses, taking hold of this,
pulled it one way, and another the other, until the criminal was forced
to open his mouth; then a wick of lead was lighted and thrust into his
mouth, the molten lead running down into his bowels and burning them.
Rabbi Yehudah asks, "If the criminal should die in their hands, how
would that fulfill the commandment respecting burning?" But they
forcibly open his mouth with a pair of tongues and the lighted wire (the
molten lead) is thrust into his mouth, so that it goes down into his
bowels and burns his inside.
The sentence of beheading was executed thus:--They sometimes cut off the
criminal's head with a sword, as is done among the Romans. But Rabbi
Yehudah says this was degrading, and in some cases they placed the
culprit's head upon the block and struck it off with an ax. Some one
remarked to him that such a death is more degrading still.
The sentence of strangling was carried out thus:--They fixed the
criminal up to his knees in manure, and having twined a hard cloth
within a soft one round his neck, one witness pulled one way and the
other pulled in an opposite direction till life was extinct.
THE TALMUD, _Sanhedrin_, fol. 42, col. 2; fol. 49, col. 2; fol. 52, cols. 1, 2.