Two incredibly disturbing stories in a Gadol book

July 4, 2007

    I was reading a book which was a biography of the Steipler Gaon and within the first 100 pages there were two stories which although they were presented as evidence of righteousness were what seemed to be signs of extreme dysfunction.

The first story is about R’ David Baharain. In this story he was offered a Rosh Yeshiva position. Apparently the board felt they had to make the offer, but didn’t really want him for the job. When they asked him he asked what the responsibilities were. They answered that one was to decide which kollel families had use of the apartment buildings when they had a reshuffling every three years. Hearing this he immediately took the job. When asked why he said, “Because now I can fulfil the Rambam which says that the first to get charity should be your relatives”. This story was brought to show R’ David’s devotion to halachah, not his corruption, but isn’t that what jumps out at you.

The second story is about the Steipler, apparently his wife was careful not to disturb him while learning, wonderful, however when someone asked him about his son who was sick with a moderately severe illness he had no idea what the person was talking about. Devotion to learning is one thing, but isn’t it a problem when one of the stories to show your greatness is your obliviousness to everything around you?

The dead cat bounce

July 2, 2007

I hopefully will restart posting, but we’ll see about that.

In this post I would like to puncture one of the popular myths about Sanhedrin- that it almost never executed anybody. People draw support by quoting the Mishnah that said that a court which executed 1 person every 7 years was murderous and the other opinion being that the acceptable execution rate was slightly under once every seventy years. This Mishnah is taught as proof positive that Beis Din had extremely high standards for execution. However what we need to look at is the death penalty rate. Israel had approximately 5 million people at the height of its power. We know for sure that there was at least one court per tribe which could try capital cases and there probably were more because it seems that every town with a reasonable amount of people in it had one. So let’s say that we had somewhere between 13 (absolute minimum) and 500 courts (1 court per 10,000 people). If the courts killed one person every 7 years there would be between 1.5 and 72 people killed and if it was once every 70 years it would be between .15 and 7.2 people. This seems much, much less than America, but when you adjust for population size the numbers for ancient Israel becomes 90-5400 executions per year or 9-540 executions a year. By comparison the US has executed a maximum of 100 people in a year since 1976.

When you look at the numbers it becomes clear that unless you think that there was an unreasonably small amount of courts the ancient Beis Din was applying the death penalty at least as often than U.S. courts are even if they only executed a person once every 70 years.