The Bloods of Your Brother: A Study from Mishnah Sanhedrin

Image: Drawing of the Council of the Sanhedrin in Solomon’s temple, by Gerhard Schott, circa 1723-1729. (Image courtesy of the Henry Wilson Coil Library & Museum of Freemasonry.)

In the United States, multiple people have been killed without benefit of a trial by the authorities (police.) In Israel, we have just seen the killing of an unarmed autistic man, Eyal Hallaq, by Israeli police officers. It seems a good time to reflect on the Jewish teachings regarding the value of a single life.

Mishnah Sanhedrin includes discussions among the rabbis on the rules governing the workings of rabbinical courts. It was written down in 200 CE, but had been transmitted from rabbi to student as Oral Torah for as many as 400 years before that. The customs and laws described go back even further, although we do not know exactly how far.

This particular section of the mishnah has to do with instructions to the witnesses in capital cases, cases in which the accused will be executed if found guilty. As you will see, the instructions remind witnesses of the seriousness of taking a life – in this case, the life of the accused. When the passage cites a passage in Torah, I will stop to give you that passage.

I thought about writing a summary, but the words of the mishnah are so powerful in and of themselves, and so pertinent to the killings we have seen lately, that I think anything I add will diminish them.

Here’s what the rabbis said to witnesses in a capital trial. As you read it, imagine that you are in the rabbinical court, listening as the presiding judge admonishes the witnesses:

How did they admonish witnesses in capital cases? They brought them in and admonished them, [saying], “Perhaps you will say something that is only a supposition or hearsay or secondhand, or even from a trustworthy man. Or perhaps you do not know that we shall check you with examination and inquiry? Know, moreover, that capital cases are not like non-capital cases: in non-capital cases a man may pay money and so make atonement, but in capital cases the witness is answerable for the blood of him [that is wrongfully condemned] and the blood of his descendants [that should have been born to him] to the end of the world.” For so have we found it with Cain that murdered his brother, for it says, “The bloods of your brother cry out” (Gen. 4:10).

M. Sanhedrin 4.5

Then [God] said, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s bloods cry out to Me from the ground!”

Genesis 4:10 (from the Cain and Abel story)

Resuming Mishnah Sanhedrin :

It doesn’t say, “The blood of your brother”, but rather “The bloods of your brother” meaning his blood and the blood of his descendants. Another saying is, “The bloods of your brother” that his blood was cast over trees and stones. Therefore but a single person was created in the world, to teach that if any man has caused a single life to perish from Israel, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had caused a whole world to perish; and anyone who saves a single soul from Israel, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had saved a whole world. Again [but a single person was created] for the sake of peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, “My father was greater than your father”. Again, [but a single person was created] against the heretics so they should not say, “There are many ruling powers in heaven”. Again [but a single person was created] to proclaim the greatness of the Holy Blessed One; for humans stamp many coins with one seal and they are all like one another; but the King of kings, the Holy Blessed One, has stamped every human with the seal of the first man, yet not one of them are like another. Therefore everyone must say, “For my sake was the world created.” And if perhaps you [witnesses] would say, “Why should we be involved with this trouble”, was it not said, “He, being a witness, whether he has seen or known, [if he does not speak it, then he shall bear his iniquity] (Lev. 5:1).

M. Sanhedrin 4.5

And now the cited passage from Leviticus:

If a person incurs guilt— When he has heard a public imprecation and—although able to testify as one who has either seen or learned of the matter—he does not give information, so that he is subject to punishment

Leviticus 5:1

Back to Mishnah Sanhedrin:

And if perhaps you [witnesses] would say, “Why should we be guilty of the blood of this man?, was it not said, “When the wicked perish there is rejoicing” (Proverbs 11:10).]

Which says:

When the righteous prosper the city exults; When the wicked perish there are shouts of joy.

Proverbs 11:10

A little later on in the mishnah, it requires that if the accused in a capital case is convicted and has to be executed, then the first and if needed, the second blow must be given by the witnesses, for in testifying they take on responsibility for the death of this person.

Some questions for study:

  1. What are the rabbis saying to the witnesses? Can you restate it in your own words?
  2. It makes sense that a murderer is responsible for the blood of the murdered person. Why is a murderer also responsible for the descendants who will never be born?
  3. Why is a witness in a murder trial responsible for the blood of the convicted murderer, and for the descendants who will never be born?
  4. What are our responsibilities as Jews, when we are witnesses to violence?
  5. What do you imagine the rabbis would have to say about viral videos that make millions of us witnesses to violence and killings? By watching the video, do we become witnesses? What are our responsibilities as witnesses?

If anyone wants to take a crack at these questions in the comments, I welcome you!

I owe the inspiration for this post to my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler.