Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XLI - A Guide for the Perplexed
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CHAPTER XLI - Moses Maimonides, A Guide for the Perplexed 
A Guide for the Perplexed, translated from the original Arabic text by M. Friedlaender, 4th revised ed. (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1904).
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The precepts of the sixth class comprise the different ways of punishing the sinner. Their general usefulness is known and has also been mentioned by us. I will here describe them one by one and point out their nature in detail.
The punishment of him who sins against his neighbour consists in the general rule that there shall be done unto him exactly as he has done: if he injured any one personally, he must suffer personally; if he damaged the property of his neighbour, he shall be punished by loss of property. But the person whose property has been damaged should be ready to resign his claim totally or partly. Only to the murderer we must not be lenient because of the greatness of his crime; and no ransom must be accepted of him. “And the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein but by the blood of him that shed it” (Num. xxxi. 33). Hence even if the murdered person continued to live after the attack for an hour or for days, was able to speak and possessed complete consciousness, and if he himself said, “Pardon my murderer, I have pardoned and forgiven him,” he must not be obeyed. We must take life for life, and estimate equally the life of a child and that of a grown-up person, of a slave and of a freeman, of a wise man and of a fool. For there is no greater sin than this. And he who mutilated a limb of his neighbour, must himself lose a limb. “As he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again” (Lev. xxiv. 20). You must not raise an objection from our practice of imposing a fine in such cases. For we have proposed to ourselves to give here the reason for the precepts mentioned in the Law, and not for that which is stated in the Talmud. I have, however, an explanation for the interpretation given in the Talmud, but it will be communicated vivâ voce. Injuries that cannot be reproduced exactly in another person, are compensated for by payment; “only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed” (Exod. xxi. 19). If any one damaged the property of another, he must lose exactly as much of his own property: “whom the judges shall condemn he shall pay double unto his neighbour” (Exod. xxii. 8); namely, he restores that which he has taken, and adds just as much [to it] of his own property. It is right that the more frequent transgressions and sins are, and the greater the probability of their being committed, the more severe must their punishment be, in order to deter people from committing them; but sins which are of rare occurrence require a less severe punishment. For this reason one who stole a sheep had to pay twice as much as for other goods, i.e., four times the value of the stolen object; but this is only the case when he has disposed of it by sale or slaughter (Exod. xxi. 37). As a rule, the sheep remained always in the fields, and could therefore not be watched so carefully as things kept in town. The thief of a sheep used therefore to sell it quickly before the theft became known, or to slaughter it and thereby change its appearance. As such theft happened frequently, the punishment was severe. The compensation for a stolen ox is still greater by one-fourth, because the theft is easily carried out. The sheep keep together when they feed, and can be watched by the shepherd, so that theft when it is committed can only take place by night. But oxen when feeding are very widely scattered, as is also mentioned in the Nabatean Agriculture, and a shepherd cannot watch them properly; theft of oxen is therefore a more frequent occurrence.
The law concerning false witnesses (Deut. xix. 19) prescribes that they shall suffer exactly the same loss which they intended to inflict upon another. If they intended to bring a sentence of death against a person, they are killed; if they aimed at the punishment of stripes, they receive stripes; and if they desire to make a person pay money, they are sentenced to pay exactly the same sum. The object of all these laws is to make the punishment equal to the crime; and it is also on this account that the judgments are “righteous” (Deut. iv. 8). A robber with violence is not ordered to pay anything as fine (Lev. v. 24); the additional fifth part [of the value of the robbed goods] is only an atonement-offering for his perjury. The reason of this rule is to be found in the rare occurrence of robbery; theft is committed more frequently than robbery, for theft can be committed everywhere; robbery is not possible in towns, except with difficulty; besides, the thief takes things exposed as well as things hidden away; robbery applies only to things exposed; against robbery we can guard and defend ourselves; we cannot do so against theft; again, the robber is known, can be sought, and forced to return that which he has robbed, whilst the thief is not known. On account of all these circumstances the law fines the thief and not the robber.
Preliminary Remark.—Whether the punishment is great or small, the pain inflicted intense or less intense, depends on the following four conditions.
1. The greatness of the sin. Actions that cause great harm are punished severely, whilst actions that cause little harm are punished less severely.
2. The frequency of the crime. A crime that is frequently committed must be put down by severe punishment; crimes of rare occurrence may be suppressed by a lenient punishment considering that they are rarely committed.
3. The amount of temptation. Only fear of a severe punishment restrains us from actions for which there exists a great temptation, either because we have a great desire for these actions, or are accustomed to them, or feel unhappy without them.
4. The facility of doing the thing secretly, and unseen and unnoticed. From such acts we are deterred only by the fear of a great and terrible punishment.
After this preliminary remark, I say that the precepts of the Law may be divided into the following four classes with respect to the punishment for their transgression:—(1) Precepts whose transgression is followed by sentence of death pronounced by a court of law. (2) Precepts whose transgression is punished with excision, such transgression being held to be a very great sin. (3) In some cases the transgression is punished by stripes administered with a strap (such transgression not being considered a grievous sin, as it concerns only a simple prohibition); or by “death by Heaven.” (4) Precepts the transgression of which is not punished [even] by stripes. Prohibitions of this kind are all those that involve no act. But there are the following exceptions: [First], Swearing falsely, because it is gross neglect of man’s duty, who ought to bear constantly in mind the greatness of God. [Secondly], Changing an animal devoted to the sanctuary for another (Lev. xxvii. 10), because this change leads to contemning sacrifices devoted to the name of God. [Thirdly], Cursing a person by the name of God (ibid. xix. 14); because many dread the effect of a curse more than bodily harm. The transgression of other negative commandments that involve no act causes little harm, and cannot always be avoided, as it consists in mere words; moreover, man’s back would be inflicted with stripes all the year round if he were to be punished with stripes for each transgression of this kind. Besides, previous warning is impossible in this case. There is also wisdom in the number of stripes; for although the number of their maximum is given, there is no fixed number how many are to be applied to each person; each man receives only as many stripes as he can bear, but not more than forty (Deut. xxv. 3), even if he be strong enough for a hundred.
The “death by the court of law” is not inflicted for the transgression of any of the dietary laws; because in such a case no great harm is done, and the temptation of man to transgress these laws is not so great as the temptation to the enjoyment of sexual intercourse. In some of the dietary laws the punishment is excision. This is the case with the prohibition of eating blood (Lev. xvii. 26). For in ancient days people were very eager and anxious to eat blood as a kind of idolatrous ceremony, as is explained in the book Tomtom, and therefore the prohibition of eating blood is made very stringent. Excision is also the punishment for eating fat; because people enjoy it, and because it was distinguished and sanctified by its use in the offerings. The eating of leavened bread on Passover (Exod. xii. 15), and breaking the fast on the Day of Atonement (Lev. xxiii. 29), are likewise punished with excision: [first] on account of the great discomfort which the obedience to the law causes in these cases; [secondly] on account of the principles of faith which the laws of Passover and of the Day of Atonement inculcate: they confirm fundamental principles of the Law, viz., the belief in the wonderful departure [of Israel] from Egypt, and in the effect of repentance, according to the words, “For on this day will he forgive you” (Lev. xvi. 31). Just as in the case of eating fat, so is excision also announced as a punishment when a person eats that which is left [of a sacrifice beyond its limited time], or partakes of a sacrifice which has been made abominable; or when an unclean person eats of holy things (ibid. vii. 16-21). The object of this severity is to increase the estimation of the offering in the eyes of the people, as has been shown.
Death by the court of law is decreed in important cases: when faith is undermined, or a great crime is committed, viz., idolatry, incest, murder, or actions that lead to these crimes. It is further decreed for breaking the Sabbath (Exod. xxxi. 15); because the keeping of Sabbath is a confirmation of our belief in the Creation; a false prophet and a rebellious elder are put to death on account of the mischief which they cause; he who strikes his father or his mother is killed on account of his great audacity, and because he undermines the constitution of the family, which is the foundation of the state. A rebellious and disobedient son is put to death (Deut. xxi. 18seq.) on account of what he might become, because he will likely be a murderer; he who steals a human being is killed, because he is also prepared to kill him whom he steals (Exod. xxi. 16). Likewise he who is found breaking into a house is prepared for murder (ibid. xxii. 1), as our Sages stated. These three, the rebellious and disobedient son, he who steals and sells a human being, and he who breaks into a house, become murderers in the course of time, as is well known. Capital punishment is only decreed for these serious crimes, and in no other case. Not all forbidden sexual intercourse is visited with the penalty of death, but only in those cases in which the criminal act can easily be done, is of frequent occurrence, is base and disgraceful, and of a tempting character; otherwise excision is the punishment. Likewise not all kinds of idolatry are capital crimes, but only the principal acts of idolatry, such as praying to an idol, prophesying in its name, passing a child through the fire, consulting with familiar spirits, and acting as a wizard or witch.
As punishments and judgments are evidently indispensable, it was necessary to appoint judges throughout the country in every town; witnesses must be heard; and a king is required whom all fear and respect, who is able to restrain the people by various means, and who can strengthen and support the authority of the judges. Although I have shown the reason of all the laws contained in “the Section of Judges” (Sefer Shofetim), I find it necessary, in accordance with the object of this treatise, to explain a few of these laws, e.g., the laws concerning a rebellious elder.
God knew that the judgments of the Law will always require an extension in some cases and curtailment in others, according to the variety of places, events, and circumstances. He therefore cautioned against such increase and diminution, and commanded, “Thou shalt not add thereto nor diminish from it” (Deut. xiii. 1); for constant changes would tend to disturb the whole system of the Law, and would lead people to believe that the Law is not of Divine origin. But permission is at the same time given to the wise men, i.e., the great court (Synhedrion) of every generation to make fences round the judgments of the Law for their protection, and to introduce bye-laws (fences) in order to ensure the keeping of the Law. Such fences once erected remain in force for ever. The Mishnah therefore teaches: “And make a fence round the Law” (Abot i. 1). In the same manner they have the power temporarily to dispense with some religious act prescribed in the Law, or to allow that which is forbidden, if exceptional circumstances and events require it; but none of the laws can be abrogated permanently, as has been explained by us in the Introduction to the Commentary on the Mishnah in treating of temporary legislation. By this method the Law will remain perpetually the same, and will yet admit at all times and under all circumstances such temporary modifications as are indispensable. If every scholar had the power to make such modifications, the multitude of disputes and differences of opinion would have produced an injurious effect. Therefore it was commanded that of the Sages only the great Synhedrion, and none else, should have this power; and whoever would oppose their decision should be killed. For if any critic were allowed to dispute the decision of the Synhedrion, the object of this law would not be attained; it would be useless.
Transgressions may be divided into four classes, viz.—(1) involuntary transgressions, (2) sins committed in ignorance, (3) sins done knowingly, and (4) sins done spitefully. He who sins involuntarily is, according to the distinct declaration of the Law, exempt from punishment, and free from all blame; comp. “Unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death” (Deut. xxii. 26). If a person sins in ignorance, he is blamable; for if he had been more considerate and careful, he would not have erred. Although he is not punished, his sin must be atoned for, and for this reason he brings a sin-offering. The Law distinguishes in this respect between a private person and a king, a high-priest or Teacher of Halakah. Hence we conclude that a person who acts wrongly, or who teaches wrongly, guided by his own reasoning—except in the case of the great Synhedrion or the high-priest—is treated as mezid (as one who sins knowingly), and does not belong to the category of shogegim (of those who sin by error). A rebellious elder is therefore put to death, although he acted and taught according to his view. But the great Synhedrion must teach according to its opinion, and if the opinion is wrong, the sin is considered as due to error. In reference to such a case the Law says, “And if the whole congregation of Israel err,” etc. (Lev. iv. 13). It is on this principle that our Sages say, “The error in learning amounts to intentional sin” (Abot iv. 13); he who has studied insufficiently, and teaches and acts according to his defective knowledge, is to be considered as if he sinned knowingly. For if a person eats of the fat of the kidneys in the belief that it is the fat of the rump, his error is not so grave as the error of him who, eating of the fat of the kidneys, knows that it is that fat, but is ignorant of the fact that it is prohibited. The latter brings a sin-offering although he is almost an intentional transgressor. But this is only the case as far as he acts according to his knowledge; but if he decides a religious question [wrongly], he is undoubtedly an intentional sinner. The Law admits the plea of error in a religious decision only in the case of the great Synhedrion.
He who has sinned knowingly must pay the penalty prescribed in the Law; he is put to death or receives stripes, or—for transgression of prohibitions not punishable by stripes—other corporal punishment, or pays a fine. There are some sins for which the punishment is the same, whether they have been committed knowingly or unknowingly; because they are frequent, and are easily done, consisting only in the utterance of words, and involving no action besides; e.g., false swearing by witnesses, or by trustees. Intercourse with a betrothed handmaid is likewise easy and frequent; she is exposed unprotected, being in reality neither handmaid nor a free person, nor a married woman, according to the traditional interpretation of this precept.
If a person sins presumptuously, so that in sinning he shows impudence and seeks publicity, if he does not sin only to satisfy his appetite, if he does what is prohibited by the Law, not only because of his evil inclinations, but in order to oppose and resist the Law, he “reproacheth the Lord” (Num. xv. 30), and must undoubtedly be put to death. None will act in such a manner but such as have conceived the idea to act contrary to the Law. According to the traditional interpretation, therefore, the above passage speaks of an idolater who opposes the fundamental principles of the Law; for no one worships a star unless he believes [—contrary to the teachings of Scripture—] that the star is eternal, as we have frequently stated in our work. I think that the same punishment [viz., sentence of death] applies to every sin which involves the rejection of the Law, or opposition to it. Even if an Israelite eats meat [boiled] in milk, or wears garments of wool and linen, or rounds the corners of his head, out of spite against the Law, in order to show clearly that he does not believe in its truth, I apply to him the words, “he reproacheth the Lord,” and [I am of opinion] that he must suffer death as an unbeliever, though not for a punishment, but in the same manner as the inhabitants of a “city misled to idolatry” are slain for their unbelief, and not by way of punishment for crime; wherefore their property is destroyed by fire, and is not given to their heirs, as is the case with the property of other criminals condemned to death. According to my opinion, all the members of an Israelitish community which has insolently and presumptuously transgressed any of the divine precepts, must be put to death. This is proved by the history of “the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad” (Josh. xxii.), against whom the whole congregation of Israel decided to make war. When warning was given to the supposed offenders, it was explained to them that they had relinquished their faith, because by agreeing to transgress one particular law they rejected the truth of the whole Law. For they were addressed as follows: “What trespass is this that ye have committed against the God of Israel, to turn away this day from following the Lord?” (Josh. xxii. 16); and they replied: “The Lord knoweth, etc., if it be in rebellion, or if in transgression against the Lord,” etc. (ibid. 22). Take well notice of these principles in respect to punishments.
The Section on Judges includes also the commandment to blot out the memory of Amalek (Deut. xxv. 17-19). In the same way as one individual person is punished, so must also a whole family or a whole nation be punished, in order that other families shall hear it and be afraid, and not accustom themselves to practise mischief. For they will say, we may suffer in the same way as those people have suffered; and if there be found among them a wicked, mischievous man, who cares neither for the evil he brings upon himself nor for that which he causes to others, he will not find in his family any one ready to help him in his evil designs. As Amalek was the first to attack Israel with the sword (Exod. xvii. 8-16), it was commanded to blot out his name by means of the sword; whilst Ammon and Moab, who have not been friendly simply from meanness, and have caused them injury by cunning, were only punished by exclusion from intermarriage with the Israelites, and from their friendship. All these things which God has commanded as a punishment are not excessive nor inadequate, but, as is distinctly stated, “according to the fault” (Deut. xxv. 2).
This section contains also the law concerning preparing “a place without the camp,” and “having a paddle upon the weapon” (Deut. xxiii. 12, 13). As I have told you, it is one of the objects of the Law to train Israel to cleanliness; that they should keep free from dirt and filth, and that men should not be degraded to the condition of cattle. Another object of this law is to confirm by these preparations the belief of the warriors that God dwells in their midst. The reason of the law is therefore stated thus: “For the Lord thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp” (ibid. ver. 14). The mention of this reason gave occasion to add another lesson: “That he see no unclean thing in thee and turn away from thee” (ibid.). These words warn and caution us against the usual inclination of soldiers to fornication, when they are away from their homes a long time. God therefore commanded us to do certain things which remind us that He is in our midst; we will thereby be saved from those evil practices; as it is said, “and thy camp shall be holy’ that he see no unclean thing in thee” (ibid.). Even those who are unclean by pollution were compelled to stop outside the camp till the evening, and “then he shall come into the camp again.” It will thus be confirmed in the heart of every one of the Israelites that their camp must be like a sanctuary of the Lord, and it must not be like the camps of the heathen, whose sole object is corruption and sin; who only seek to cause injury to others and to take their property; whilst our object is to lead mankind to the service of God, and to a good social order. I have told you already that I only propose to give here such reasons as are apparent from the text of the Law.
To the same class belongs also the law concerning “the marriage of a captive woman” (Deut. xxi. 10seq.). There is a well-known saying of our Sages: “This law is only a concession to human weakness.” This law contains, nevertheless, even for the nobler class of people, some moral lessons to which I will call your attention. For although the soldier may be overcome by his desire which he is unable to suppress or to restrain, he must take the object of his lust to a private place, “into the inner of his house” (Deut. xxi. 12), and he is not permitted to force her in the camp. Similarly our Sages say, that he may not cohabit with her a second time before she leaves off her mourning, and is at ease about her troubles. She must not be prevented from mourning and crying, and she must be permitted to abstain from bathing, in accordance with the words, “and she shall weep for her father and for her mother” (ibid.); for mourners find comfort in crying and in excitement till the body has not sufficient strength to bear the inner emotions; in the same manner as happy persons find rest in various kinds of play. Thus the Lord is merciful to her and gives her permission to continue her mourning and weeping till she is worn out. You know certainly that he married her as a heathen, and that during the thirty days she openly keeps her religion and even continues her idolatrous practices; no interference with her faith was allowed during that time; and after all that she could not be sold, nor treated as a handmaid, if she could not be induced to accept the statutes of the Law. Thus the Law does not ignore the cohabitation of the Israelite with the captive woman, although it involved disobedience to God to some extent, having taken place when she was still a heathen. The Law prescribes: “Thou shalt not make merchandise of her, because thou hast humbled her” (ibid. 14). We have thus shown the moral lessons contained in these laws, and we have explained the reason of every precept of this section.]