Q. Should terrorists who commit murder be executed? A question for the rabbi

February 11, 2015 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem…and answers questions.


Q. Should terrorists who commit murder be executed?

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

A. Written and conventional legal systems all agree that murder is wrong. Human life, without distinction as to creed, colour or ethnicity, is sacred and must be preserved. Even the person who carries out a killing has the right to live, though the court must still inflict a severe punishment.

The Mishnah states that a court that puts a person to death even once in seven years is bloodthirsty. Another view says that this applies even if the court puts a person to death once in seventy years. Two sages said, “Had we been on the court no-one would ever have been put to death”. But this view was not left unchallenged; another sage said, “If so, the court would have increased the number of murderers”.

In the end, the Jewish legal system surrounded the death penalty with so many procedural rules that it was virtually suspended, though the guilty party was still subject to harsh punishment of another kind. The law recognised, however, that in an emergency situation the death penalty could still function, both as a warning to the criminal and as a deterrent to others, so that “all the people shall hear and fear”.

If, as seems to be the case today, society – especially the enemies of Israel – cannot condemn murderers (unless it is one of their own who gets murdered), the Biblical law applies. It is a tragedy that this has to be said, and we hope and pray that the time will come when “all the people(s) shall hear and fear”, that there will be love and respect for everyone, that all can “dwell under their vine and fig tree with none to make them afraid”.


Q. I always thought women lit the Shabbat candles for positive reasons – because the candles bring light and joy to the home, and it is the woman who is regarded as the bringer of light and joy. But someone told me that it is to make up for Eve’s transgression that the candles are lit by women. How can this be?

A. Women have had the mitzvah of kindling the Sabbath lights for at least 1900 years: Mishnah Shabbat 2:6 threatens serious consequences if a woman neglects the practice.

In the G’mara (Shabbat 32a), Rashi quotes a Midrash which says that Eve’s sin caused death to enter the world and thus “put out the light of the world”, since King Solomon said, “The soul of man is the light of the Lord” (Prov. 20:27; cf. Gen. 2:7). The Jewish woman who lights Shabbat candles is thus said to be making up for Eve’s sin.

But the more positive view is that it is the woman who usually contributes the emotional and spiritual flavour to the home and says (or implies), in the words of one of the meditations often used on Friday evening, “May the holy and beautiful influence of the Sabbath ever abide with us… As I kindle these Sabbath lights as signs of joy and devotion so may Thy light be kindled within us”.


Q. Do we really have to give 10% of our income to charity?

A. Wealth is a privilege given by God and an opportunity to do something for the community. The Torah says, “If there be among you a poor man, one of your brothers, in any of your gates… you shall not harden your heart or withdraw your hand from your poor brother” (Deut. 15:4-8).

The priorities are set out in the Sifre to this passage: “‘A poor person’ – the one most needy takes precedence. ‘In any of your gates’ – the poor of your city take precedence over the poor of another city.” In other words, help should go to the most urgent cases; charity should start (but not finish) with your own community.

How should the funds be given? Preferably anonymously; the Temple had a “lishkat chasha’im”, a “chamber of the silent”, where someone in need could go quietly and take what they needed without donor or recipient being aware of each other’s identity. Maimonides, in his Eight Degrees of Charity (Hilchot Mat’not Aniyim 10:7-14), adds that even better than giving in time of need is to create the conditions for people to become self-reliant.

How much should be given? As much as you can afford, but not so much as to impoverish yourself and render you in turn dependent upon others. The best way is to give one-fifth; less than one-tenth is ungenerous. Whatever is given it should be willingly and cheerfully, and if you encourage others to give also, the spiritual reward is all the greater (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 247-259).

It is said in the Talmud, “Every charity and deed of kindness makes peace and intercedes between Israel and their Father in Heaven” (Bava Batra 10a). Charity also makes peace between the poor man and his Father in Heaven, because the poor man may be annoyed with God by reason of his lot.

Maimonides teaches in his Eight Rungs of Charity that the greatest tz’dakah is to see that a person never reaches the point of needing help.

Charity, from a root which means “love”, is a loving, respectful, tolerant attitude to every other human being. Charity is an approach, not just an action. And if you want God’s blessing, first you must be a blessing to God’s other creatures.

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