Petihah Kollelet, Third Part, Letters 15-23

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Finishing with the Senses, On to the Punishments

We’ve been spending some time on thought and how it impacts halachah. In this week’s segment, Peri Megadim will finish that quickly, go back to other senses (he briefly again discusses sight and hearing), then move to the punishments the Torah prescribes for sins. It is an example of an element of his work I find interesting, his brilliance of insight into the structure of halachah is paired with a seeming disinterest in structuring his presentations more accessibly.

Senses: Thought, Sight, Speech

Letter fifteen of this third part points out thoughts can have real world results. His example is a man’s improper thoughts can lead to prohibited bodily activities while he sleeps. That idea leads him back to vision, because the Gemara was clear sight was another way for men’s thoughts (and bodies) to turn in directions they should not.

Sight can also lead to punishment, such as the prohibition of bal yera’eh, seeing leavened dough on Pesah, which adds a layer to the prohibition of owning it (Peri Megadim thinks it possibly incurs another set of lashes should one perform an action in violating the prohibition. That ties into a technical question about how lashes work, whether and when an extra prohibition establishes another set of lashes.)

On the more positive side, Hazal formulated blessings for seeings, such as the sites of miracles or the first fruits of a year. Blessings are of course an example of how speech supports our service of Gd, with other examples he has already noted (and does again), such as when a Jew announces the intention to donate to sanctified causes. As we said last time, amirato le-gavoah ke-mesirato le-hedyot, a spoken commitment to donate to sanctified causes counts the same as transfer of possession in ordinary transactions.

Most significantly, tradition called for studying Torah aloud [I do not, a flaw in me that troubles me every time I come across sources like these; the Gemara clearly preferred verbalized study, which is what Peri Megadim assumes here]. Once on the topic, writing ideas of Torah also has halachic value [although it is not a sense, it is a human skill we can turn to Gd’s service].

The last words of the paragraph give us a hint as to why this was of such interest, ve-chol pa’al Hashem le-ma’anehu, Mishlei 16;4, a phrase English translations take as “Gd created everything for a purpose,” or for its purpose. Peri Megadim is following more traditional readings, like Rashi’s, Gd created everything as a vehicle for Gd’s service [le-ma’anehu, on or for His behalf]; he has now shown how all our humanity, all the elements of our bodies, all our capabilities, can be turned towards Gd.

[Peri Megadim is not one to delve into questions like why Gd would be so focused on everyone serving Gd, so we will not do it here. I think the basic answer is that it is Gd helping us, because it is better for human beings to live that way.]


Letter sixteen pauses to tell us he has decided to discuss types of punishment a Jew might suffer in this world. He says that courts will administer, except his list of thirteen includes karet, mittah bidei shamayim (death sent by Gd), and kanna’im pog’im bo, those moved to righteous wrath by certain sins may themselves execute sinners in extraordinary circumstances (such as with Pinhas).

Notably to me, he does not explain why he turned to this now, and why here, when the rest of the third part goes back to issues we have seen before, making messengers and whether listening to someone can count as having said it oneself. At the end, I think we will see that his answer is that these are bodily experiences the sinner will have, and therefore line up with this third part, how our physicality is implicated in our service of Gd, for the good and the not so good.

The Death Penalties

He counted each type of death penalty separately among the thirteen types of punishment; now he puts them in one paragraph. Eighteen sins can incur stoning, only one of which appears in Orah Hayyim (the section of Shulhan Aruch to which this Petihah is ostensibly an introduction), violating Shabbat. [R. Eisenberger’s notes give the whole list; the ones most applicable in our times are certain of the sexual sins– such as homosexuality, bestiality, or a man’s incest with his mother—worshipping a power other than Gd, or cursing a parent.]

Today, when courts do not function, the primary halachic ramification of the death penalty is where the sinner also damaged someone’s property. In halachah, even hayyevei mittot shogegin, those who violated a capital crime unwittingly, are exempt from payment. If someone violated Shabbat Biblically, not realizing it was Shabbat or that this action was Biblically banned, that person would not be required to repay damages caused during that sin.

True for the other forms of death penalty as well, the next category being serefah, burning [pouring hot lead down the perpetrator’s throat], prescribed for ten sins, all of them sexual [it’s a remarkable fact I have not seen noted elsewhere, the only sins the Torah thinks deserve serefah are sexual; as it happens, this past week’s Daf Yomi had the idea Gd made the Flood of boiling water because the people had committed sexual sins].

He again does not list all ten. He does note a debate about some, relations with one’s wife’s relatives, such as her mother. Should the wife die, the prohibition of having relations with her mother is no longer punishable by serefah, although rishonim debate whether it becomes an ordinary prohibition or still incurs karet, excision.

That matters in our times because kiddushin can only be created between a man and a woman not prohibited to each other at the karet level. If a man decides to marry his deceased wife’s mother [which he may not!], the authorities who held the prohibition becomes an ordinary one would hold the kiddushin takes effect, and then she counts as a married woman. For the view there is still a karet prohibition here, the kiddushin has no impact.

Sayif, killing the sinner by sword (decapitation), applies to only two sins, murder and ir ha-nidahat, the idolaters of a city the majority of whom had fallen prey to the desire to worship a power other than Gd.

The last category, henek, strangulation, applies to six sins, including adultery and bruising a parent. [Notice the more serious forms of capital punishment are also the more prevalent, twenty-eight capital sins can punished with stoning or burning, only eight with the sword or strangulation. People who deserve death more commonly also deserve serious death.]

When Heaven Gets Involved

Some of the sins in the death penalty list would be punished by karet if a court did not get to them (or there had not been proper witnesses or warning). Twenty-one other sins, however, have karet as their highest form of punishment; for such sins, courts would lash the sinner (and thus absolve him/her from further punishment) should there be witnesses and warning. Three of those are discussed in Orah Hayyim, eating leaven on Pesah, eating or drinking on Yom Kippur, or performing prohibited creative activities on Yom Kippur. [Not in Orah Hayyim but applicable today, the list also includes certain sexual sins, including especially having relations with a niddah, a woman who has not gone to mikveh, and eating prohibited animal fats or blood].

Eighteen sins are punished by death at the hands of Heaven, all of them related to mistreatment of the Temple, its service, and connected items. This includes terumah, the portion of a harvest given to a kohen; eating from a harvest before terumah was set aside, a non-kohen eating terumah , or a kohen eating terumah while tamei  (or while the terumah is tamei), all risk and deserve mittah bi-yedei Shamayim. [The list suggests Gd only reacts in this way for infractions against the Temple, an idea worth further consideration.]

He points us to sources that explain the difference between the two, but does not elaborate. Karet can happen in this world (a person dying young) or the next, another complicated issue he nods at but does not explain fully. He notes ordinary physical objects are never destroyed, just converted into other forms (a version of the law of conservation of mass, which I just found out has been known in various forms from ancient times). A soul all the more so. Rather than go into details, he says it is not a topic for an ish hamoni, a common man, like him.

[I don’t think he was being quite as modest as he seems. I have taken the time to study his Petihah Kollelet because it is astonishing in its insights into halachah, as are many, many of his comments in Peri Megadim on Yoreh De’ah and Shulhan Aruch and his other works. At the same time, I have not seen him delve into hashkafah, the kinds of concepts and underlying ideas that might flesh out these issues. To me, he is an example of how one can become a gadol ba-Torah, a true giant of Torah knowledge and understanding, without taking it to theology.]

Another point he makes worth considering: Rambam in the sixth chapter of Laws of Repentance says that young children can die as a result of their parents’ deserving karetPeri Megadim says out loud what is not always made clear, tradition believed a child was still connected to the parent, still subject to the parent’s liabilities.

[I have heard the father’s blessing of barch she-petarani at a child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah explained as the father thanking Gd the child will no longer be at risk of being punished for the father’s sins. The child has become independent in Gd’s eyes. Although a daunting notion, it seems to me to point out birth does not make the baby its own being, it’s a process, a process halachah sees as culminating for this purpose at the child’s ascent to majority.]

These heaven-sent death penalties have one advantage over human punishments, that repentance can avert them. Courts must administer those punishments people bring on themselves (such as by violating Shabbat right after an effective warning), regardless of how fully the sinner has repented. The same is true for sacrifices, the topic we will start with next time: someone who sins in a way that requires a hatat may have repented more fully and better than anyone else ever in history, yet the sacrifice still must be offered.

Not so with karet or mittah bi-yedei Shamayim, where Hashem can decide to forego the punishment, because the person has repented, recognized the wrong, regretted it, determined never to do it again, and articulated those realizations (in vidui, which Peri Megadim reminds us is the essence of teshuvah).

On that slightly more positive note, we will stop here, and see the rest of the punishments next time.

About Gidon Rothstein

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