3 Elul 5774
Erev Shabbat Kodesh
Parashat Shoftim: Sanctifying the Name of God
by Daniel Pinner
“In the event that in any one of your gates which Hashem your God gives you, there should be found a man or a woman who does the evil in the eyes of Hashem your God, to transgress His Covenant by going and worshipping other gods and bowing to them, and to the sun or the moon or any of the host of Heaven which I have not commanded; and it will be told to you, and you will hear about it. Then you will investigate thoroughly, and if – behold! – it is true, the matter is correct, this abomination has been committed in Israel, then you will take out that man or that woman, who have done this evil thing, to your gates – the man or the woman – and you shall pelt them with stones, so that they will die” (Deuteronomy 17:2-5).
The Ramban picks up on the phrase “in any one of your gates which Hashem your God gives you…”, and states: “This does not mean that this applies solely in the Land of Israel, because even one who worships [idols] outside of Israel is stoned. Rather, the Torah’s intention here is to say that if this occurs in even the most distant of cities that Hashem gives you ‘when He will enlarge your borders’ (Deuteronomy 19:8)…then regardless of which city you are in when you hear about it, investigate the matter thoroughly; and when you know that it is true, then you shall take them out to the gate [of the same city] in which they worshipped [the idol], and there you shall stone them” (Commentary to Deuteronomy 17:2).
The Ramban proceeds to explain that the phrase “this abomination has been committed in Israel” does not mean “in the Land of Israel”, but rather “among the nation of Israel”.
And he continues: “Furthermore, the Torah had to say ‘in any one of your gates’ to teach that he is to be stoned at the self-same gate at which he worshipped [the idol]; this applies in the Land of Israel, because outside of the Land of Israel he is to be stoned at the gate of the court-house in which he was judged… And in truth, it is quite conceivable that [the Torah] mentions the phrase ‘in any one of your gates’ because it says ‘to transgress His Covenant’ – and this is the abomination that has been committed in Israel: the Torah informs you that the Covenant is in ‘the Land of the Covenant’ [quoting Ezekiel 30:5]; but one who lives outside of Israel is as if he worships idols”.
Rabbi Meir Kahane Hy”d explains the Ramban’s words: “The Torah could not describe idolatry outside of the Land of Israel with the words ‘to transgress His Covenant’ and ‘this abomination has been committed’, because even those who do not literally worship idols outside of Israel are nonetheless as if they do” (Peirush ha-Macabbee, Deuteronomy 17:2-3).
The Targum Onkelos and the Targum Yonatan (Deuteronomy 17:5) both understand that the idolater is to be stoned at the gates of the court-house, which according to the Ramban (as we have seen) applies solely outside of Israel. Rashi unequivocally disagrees with the Targumim: “The Targum, which renders ‘your gates’ as ‘the gates of the court-house’ is mistaken, for as we have learned, ‘your gates’ means ‘the gate in which he worshipped [the idol]’” (commentary to verse 5).
The Sforno gives a magnificent insight into the significance of stoning the idolater precisely at the place where he worshipped the idol: “He is taken to the gate at which he worshipped [the idol] in order to demonstrate that this foreign god who is worshipped there cannot save him”.
This is a truly powerful idea: the purpose of stoning an idolater to death is not merely punishment for his sin, it is the mirror-image of Kiddush Hashem as opposed to hillul Hashem. So to speak, executing an idolater at the self-same location where he worshipped the idol desecrates the name of that idol.
The Name of God is desecrated in this world when He appears to be irrelevant, replaced by impotent idols; the corollary is that His Name is sanctified in this world when His mastery over all His Creation is made clear and unequivocal. That is to say, stoning the idolater to death at the self-same place where he worshipped the idol demonstrates the supremacy of God over the idol.
And this, perhaps, explains a peculiarity in the halakhah. The Talmud says that “one who worships an idol is stoned at the gate where he worshipped it; but in a city where the majority are idolaters, he is stoned at the gate of the court-house” (Ketuvot 45b); and the Rambam brings this as practical halakhah (Laws of Sanhedrin 15:2). The Ramban’s view that the idolater is to be stoned at the gate where he worshipped the idol in Israel, and at the gate of the court-house outside of Israel, is a parallel idea.
If the purpose of executing the idolater is to sanctify the Name of God, then executing a Jew in full public view of non-Jewish idolaters would be counter-productive: for idolaters to see Jews executing other Jews would inevitably desecrate the Name of God. But when the majority of the city are Jews, then executing a Jewish idolater in public is the greatest public display of the mastery and sovereignty of the One true God.