Punishing Women For Their Husbands

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I. Going Down With The Ship

R. Jonathan Sacks recently quoted historian Paul Johnson as saying that one of Judaism’s greatest achievements is “giving equal weight to individual and collective responsibility” (link). While Communism overemphasizes the communal and the secular West the personal, Judaism negotiates between the two. This attitude also appears when identifying a person’s individual and familial roles. Sometimes you are not just an individual but the member of a specific family, for better or for worse. I think this helps explain a difficult Rambam.

Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilhos Avodas Kokhavim 4:6) describes the process by which a court investigates and condemns an idolatrous city (ir ha-nidachas). As we know, this has never actually taken place and never will. Yet this theoretical law is still a matter for study. Here is the process:

II. Executing Idolators

When appropriate, the high court in Jerusalem investigate a city until it knows with certainty that all or most of the residents of a town worship idolatry. The court then sends two scholars to rebuke the town. If the residents continue in their wicked ways, the court calls all Jews to war against this city. After it is captured, many courts are established to judge each of the residents.

Anyone about whom two witnesses testify worshiped idolatry is set aside. If they are less than half the city, then only they are executed (by “stoning”). If they are the majority, then only they are brought to the high court which executes them, including their wives and children, by the sword. If everyone in the city worshiped idolatry, then they are all executed including the women and children.

Rambam’s repeated mention of worshiper’s wives and children raised questions already in the Middle Ages. (Note that Ramban on Deut. 13:16 appears to agree with Rambam.) The Migdal Oz quotes R. Meir Ha-Levi Abulafia as questioning Rambam’s inclusion of women and children in the men’s punishment. What did they do to deserve execution? Furthermore, what are his textual sources for this startling claim? Migdal Oz quotes a defense by the sages of Lunel, offering three sources and/or explanations. The texts appear more supportive of the argument that innocent children die alongside their fathers than that wives follow their husbands to death.

III. Saving the Women

Dr. Benny Brown, in his masterful work on the Chazon Ish (available here: link), expresses surprise that his subject reinterpreted Rambam to avoid the issue of wives (pp. 661-667). The Chazon Ish (Sanhedrin 24:14) states repeatedly that it is inconceivable that the Torah would execute a woman for her husband’s sin. Instead, he explains that Rambam only means that women who worshiped idols are executed along with their husbands. Those women who are innocent are certainly not executed for their husbands’ sins.

Dr. Brown points out that the Chazon Ish explicitly maintains his explanation its slight difficulty fitting into the Rambam’s words. Yet this cannot be simply a case of morality overriding law because the Chazon Ish voices no discomfort over children dying for their fathers’ sins. Rather, it is a matter of law. An innocent adult cannot be judged guilty and executed for a crime she didn’t commit.

R. Meir Ha-Levi Abulafia and the sages of Lunel read the Rambam simply — that innocent women are executed for their husbands’ idolatry. The Kesef Mishneh quotes this exchange with seeming approval, albeit concluding that he disagrees with some of their ideas. The Minchas Chinukh (564:20) also assumes the Rambam means innocent wives are executed with their guilty husbands.

However, other recent scholars have similarly reinterpreted the Rambam. R. Menachem Krakowski (Avodas Ha-Melekh, ad loc.) explains, in the name of R. Chaim Soloveitchik, the Rambam and Ramban to mean that guilty women are executed without the required warning if their husbands’ received it. They are only included in their husbands’ execution in terms of warning, but the crimes are their own.

R. Krakowski’s nephew, R. Ahron Soloveichik (Parach Mateh Aharon, ad loc.), offers an entirely different explanation without quoting his uncle or grandfather. Women are exempt from punishment as enticers to idolatry. Rambam (and Ramban) are only saying that this exemption does not apply to idolatry itself, for which guilty women will be executed alongside their guilty husbands.

IV. Collective Punishment

If these interpretations are correct, then they are. However, I am not certain they are necessary. As part of a family, sometimes you suffer for a fellow member’s misdeed. This is particularly true for a husband and wife, who have joined into one unit (link). If they are one unit when it comes to fulfilling commandments, why not sins as well?

However, this seems more like divine punishment than human. God judges on multiple levels, individuals and groups. Human courts only look at individuals and evaluate the evidence against each person. Rambam emphasizes the establishment of special courts to judge these possible idolators yet where else does a court convict someone for a crime someone else committed? This is, presumably, precisely the problem that so bothered the Chazon Ish.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. “it is inconceivable that the Torah would execute a woman for her husband’s sin.”

    Numbers 16:27-33?

  2. As we know, this has never actually taken place and never will.
    ouch- submitted on behalf of r’yonatan -sanhedrin 71a

  3. As you correctly alluded to, R. Gil, the Torah (and society for that matter) often judge people as part of the larger units they’re part of — family, community, nation, humanity. Collective punishment (and collective reward) is all over the Torah. All of Egypt suffered for enslaving the Jews because they were collectively guilty. Tons of prophesies in Tanach concern nations as a whole. Etc. etc. etc.

    It is only in recent times that collective punishment has suddenly seemed so immoral to many people (although I’ll bet that in their own lives, they too often relate to the world in terms of collectives without even realizing it — I’m not even sure if doing otherwise is really practical).

  4. Baruch — it is much older. See the 2nd para through the end of the section on the next page at: http://tinyurl.com/7rzzxtt

  5. But, I think from his last paragraph that Gil is drawing a distinction between divine punishment and human punishment.

    I am not sure how tenable that distinction is for the case of Ir Nidachat.

  6. IH: Num. 16:27-33 is a case of divine punishment, as Rashi emphasizes.

  7. Num. 16:27-33 is about the death of Korach and his followers

  8. וְדָתָן וַאֲבִירָם יָצְאוּ נִצָּבִים, פֶּתַח אָהֳלֵיהֶם, וּנְשֵׁיהֶם וּבְנֵיהֶם, וְטַפָּם

  9. >Yet this cannot be simply a case of morality overriding law because the Chazon Ish voices no discomfort over children dying for their fathers’ sins.

    I am a bit troubled that he wouldn’t feel discomfort. And the concept of a person not being punished for the sins of the father???? How does he explain that?

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