False Prophet, Inciter, Condemned City

  • Rav Elchanan Samet

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


False Prophet, Inciter, Condemned City

By Rav Elchanan Samet



The three halakhic parashot included in chapter 13 of Sefer Devarim - the false prophet, the inciter, and the condemned city - are connected in several ways, both linguistic and thematic. All are essentially concerned with idolatry. Because of these connections, Chazal felt justified in extrapolating various laws from one parasha to another among these three.

A fourth halakhic parasha - the law of an idolater being put to death by stoning (17:2-7) - is likewise related to these three parashot by means of several linguistic and thematic links. Why, then, is the parasha that discusses the punishment of the idolator found in chapter 17, far removed from the three parashot so similar to it? The answer is a dual one: because of what it contains that does not exist in the three other parashot, and because of what they contain that it does not.

The punishment of the idolater admittedly resembles that of the inciter, but the description of the former in chapter 17 contains two instructions that have no mention in chapter 13:

(5) "AND YOU SHALL TAKE OUT that man or that woman who has done that evil thing TO YOUR GATES… and you shall stone them with stones, and they shall die.

(6) BY THE WORD OF TWO WITNESSES or three witnesses shall he be put to death; he shall not be put to death by the word of one single witness."

These two instructions link the punishment of the idolater to the adjacent laws in parashat Shoftim, which deal with the laws of judges and of jurisprudence. These links, once again, are both linguistic and thematic.

On the other hand, the parasha of the idolater lacks two important elements which are central to the three parashot in chapter 13. Firstly, it contains no act of incitement: the sinner who engaged in idolatry did so of his own accord, with no influence on anyone else. For this reason, the root "n-d-h" ("led astray"), which appears in all three of the parashot in chapter 13 (in verses 6, 11, 13), is absent.

Secondly, the parasha of the idolater contains no expression of any difficulty involved in executing the verdict or a call to overcome such difficulty. This motif is repeated in various forms in each of the three parashot of chapter 13, and is apparently fundamental to this speech. In the parasha concerning the prophet, the text addresses the listeners (verse 4), exhorting them not to listen to him and to recognize that God is testing them - which is a precondition for the possibility of that prophet being put to death by the court. In the parasha of the inciter, the text urges the relative who is being led astray (verse 9) not to hesitate to hand over his inciting relative to be put to death. In the parasha of the destroyed city, the concluding verses (18-19) address all of Israel, in what appears to be an attempt to convince them of the need to carry out the most difficult task of putting an entire city of people to death - and even promising reward for fulfilling this difficult duty.

These two missing elements in the parasha of the idolater justify its severance from chapter 13 and its location in a different and more appropriate legal context.


What is the reason for the order of the three halakhic parashot in chapter 13?

It would seem that the guiding principle here is the element discussed in the previous section: the psychological difficulty involved in carrying out the verdict. This is the most important theme of this speech, leading to the disjunction of the law of the idolater.

The difficulty involved in putting to death a person who claims to be a prophet, and who has succeeded in performing some sign or wonder, is obvious. But this difficulty is not experienced by the individual who hears the prophet's words - for the individual neither judges the prophet nor carries out the verdict. Nor is there any significant difficulty for the court, for the judges know that this man is not a true prophet; they do not believe his words at all. Nevertheless, there is a certain natural identification, as expressed in the text's call to the prophet's audience:

(4) "You shall not listen to the words of that prophet… for the Lord your God is testing you…."

Putting an inciter to death is immeasurably more difficult, and this difficulty is faced by the person being influenced (rather than by the court), for he is a close relative of the inciter. The relative must overcome his natural feelings of family closeness and expose what was told to him in secrecy as sufficient legal grounds to put the inciter to death. Therefore, the Torah exhorts him to overcome his natural feelings, to expose the inciter and to become an active partner in his punishment:

(9) "You shall not consent to him, nor shall you listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you have mercy on him or conceal him.

(10) But you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be upon him first to put him to death…."

The most difficult obligation of all concerns the city:

(16) "You shall surely smite the inhabitants of that city by the sword; you shall utterly destroy it and all that is in it, and its animals, by the sword.

(17) And you shall gather up all of its spoil… and burn it with fire - the city and all its spoil [shall be burned] completely for the Lord your God. And it shall forever be a heap of ruins; it shall not be rebuilt."

Here the difficulty confronts both the court and the nation of Israel as a whole, for the nation is required to execute a painful amputation of a part of itself. The destruction of an Israelite city, turning it into a heap of ruins for all time, is one of the most difficult challenges that any generation can be required to meet. The Torah attempts to ameliorate this predicament and promises appeasement and a great reward for performing this deed:

(18) "…In order that God will return from His fierce anger and show you mercy and have compassion on you, and multiply you as He promised to your fathers."

The Torah makes three different statements here concerning the beneficent consequences of meeting the challenge:

1) "IN ORDER THAT GOD WILL RETURN FROM HIS FIERCE ANGER" - Rashi quotes the Sifri (96): "For so long as idolatry exists in the world, there is anger in the world." Ibn Ezra gives a more pointed explanation: "'In order that God will return from His fierce anger' - AND NOT DESTROY YOU FOR THE SIN OF THE CITY." This is reminiscent of the beginning of parashat Pinchas (Bemidbar 25:10):

"Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aharon the kohen TURNED BACK MY ANGER FROM UPON BNEI YISRAEL, by his zealousness for My zeal among them, AND I DID NOT DESTROY BNEI YISRAEL IN MY ZEALOUSNESS."

2) "AND SHOW YOU MERCY AND HAVE COMPASSION ON YOU" - This seems a rather surprising reward, considering the context: it follows the slaughter of an entire city! The Netziv, in his Ha'amek Davar, explains:

"The [destruction] of this [idolatrous] city causes three evils in Israel.

Firstly, one who kills a person becomes cruel in his nature. If an individual must be put to death by the court, the court already has people appointed to fulfill this task. But [in the case of] an entire city - against our will we must make several people ready to kill and to be cruel… The text promises that if one engages in this [destruction] without any benefit from the spoils, then God will return from His fierce anger 'and show (lit., give) you mercy' – [He will give you] THE ATTRIBUTE OF MERCY.

Secondly, there is no one in that city who does not have relatives elsewhere; thus, hatred will proliferate in Israel. For this reason, the text promises, 'and have compassion on you' - that they will love you (the root 'r-h-m' being close in meaning to the root 'a-h-v')."

3) "AND HE WILL MULTIPLY YOU AS HE PROMISED TO YOUR FATHERS" - the third evil brought about by the destruction of the idolatrous city (and noted by the ) that "a [demographic] gap and diminishment is created in Israel." We are therefore promised that the nation of Israel will not be diminished by wiping out the city; rather, God will multiply them, as He promised the forefathers.


What makes the verdict of the idolatrous city so difficult to contemplate is not the death of the people who worshipped foreign gods: they are deserving of death even simply as individuals who engaged in idolatry. Neither is the burning of all the spoil in the streets of the city the most problematic aspect, nor even turning the city into a heap of ruins forever. The hardest aspect of it is what we are told in verse 16:

"You shall surely smite the inhabitants of that city by the sword, YOU SHALL UTTERLY DESTROY IT AND ALL THAT IS IN IT, and its animals, by the sword."

Rambam describes the punishment of the idolatrous city in chapter 4 of his Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim (Laws Concerning Idolatry), a chapter devoted entirely to the condemned city:

"How is the law of the idolatrous city to be carried out? At a time when the law of the 'idolatrous city' applies [i.e., all the conditions listed in laws 2-5 are fulfilled], the High Court sends and inquires and questions until they know, with clear proof, that all of the city, or most of it, has been led astray to engage in idolatry. Then they send them two learned Torah scholars, to warn them and to return them (to the proper path). If they repent - well and good; if they maintain their folly, then the court commands all of Israel to go up against them in battle. They besiege them and engage them in battle until the city is breached.

When it is breached - immediately, several court panels are set up to judge them. Anyone concerning whom two witnesses testify that he worshipped idols after being warned - he is set aside. If the idolaters are found to be the minority, they are stoned [following the law of individual idolaters], while the rest of the city is spared. If they are found to be the majority, they are taken up to the High Court and their verdict is passed there, and all those who worshipped idols at the end are killed.

EVERY HUMAN BEING who was in the city is killed by the sword, INCLUDING CHILDREN AND WOMEN, if the ENTIRE city was led astray. And if the idol worshippers are found to be [only] the majority [and not the entire population], THEN ALL THE CHILDREN AND WIVES OF THE IDOLATERS ARE KILLED by the sword [but not the families of those who did not worship idolatry]."

The Rambam's closing statements, about the killing of the women and children, aroused debate and controversy between the Spanish sage Rabbi Meir Ha-Levi Abulafia (Ramah) and the Provencal sages of Lunel in the year 1199 - five years before the Rambam's death. Rabbi Meir Ha-Levi sent a letter from Toledo to the sages of the city of Lunel listing his critiques of many points in the Rambam's Mishneh Torah. Rabbi Aharon bar Meshulam of Lunel responded to each of his criticisms, and this correspondence is included in Rabbi Meir Ha-Levi's book, "Kitaab al-Rasail" (Book of Letters). Here we find Rabbi Meir Ha-Levi's questions on the above ruling of the Rambam:

"I am surprised by what he writes: 'All the children and wives… are killed by the sword.' On what basis are these women killed? If they worshipped idols, then they themselves are among the people of this condemned city; if they did not worship idols, why are they killed? 'Tuvia sinned and Zigud received lashes'? ...

Moreover, concerning what he writes: 'All the children are killed' – [I say,] 'Far be it from God to perform wickedness' (Iyov 34:10)! Since when is a minor held responsible and condemned?... Moreover, where [the Gemara] seeks to rule that the law concerning a city is more severe than that of individuals [who engaged in idolatry], it points out only that the property [of the inhabitants of the city] is destroyed. If the Rambam were correct, [the Gemara] would have to mention [the killing of] the women and children, [for that is much more severe than destruction of property].

And if [the Rambam bases his ruling on the words of] the text, 'You shall utterly destroy it [the city] and all that is in it,' [it cannot be referring to minors, because of what the Gemara teaches in Sanhedrin 68b concerning the 'rebellious son':] 'Since when does the Torah consider a minor punishable, such that a verse is required to acquit him?'"

The Ramah challenges the Rambam based on a logical argument, as well as a precise analysis of various sugyot in the Talmud. But the Tannaim themselves were divided as to the law concerning the minors of the city - as R. Aharon bar Meshulam of Lunel answers Ramah in his response. The Sifri (94) brings this debate:

"'The inhabitants of that city' – Some said: The minors are not left alive.

Abba Chanan taught: 'Fathers shall not be put to death on account of their children' (Devarim 24:16) – this verse is talking about a condemned city."

Other Tannaim discuss this issue in the Tosefta (Sanhedrin 14:3):

"The minor children of the idolatrous inhabitants of a condemned city - are not killed.

RABBI ELIEZER said: They are killed.

RABBI AKIVA answered him: Who is referred to by the verse, 'And He shall show you mercy?'… This refers to the minors within [the city]!

Rabbi Eliezer says: Who is referred to in the verse, 'And He shall show you mercy?'… Thus says God: I shall show mercy to them [the judges who pass sentence on the condemned city] and place My love in the hearts [of the relatives of the inhabitants who are killed], that they will say: We hold nothing against you, for you have judged truly."


What exactly is the debate here? Firstly, it relates to the interpretation of verse 16. According to those who maintain that the minors should be killed, the verse should be read thus:

General rule: "You shall surely smite the inhabitants of that city by the sword."

Details: "You shall utterly destroy (1) it (2) and all that is in it (3) and its animals, by the sword."

According to this explanation, the words "You shall surely smite… by the sword" in the first part of the verse mean the same as "You shall utterly destroy… by the sword" in the second part. Thus, the "inhabitants of the city" that must be destroyed by the sword refers to three types: 1. "it" - the adults; 2. "all that is in it" - this of necessity must refer to the minors; and 3. "its animals."

But the verse may also be interpreted differently - admittedly in a somewhat forced fashion. "You shall utterly destroy it and all that is in it" may be understood as referring only to the spoils of the city, such that this is viewed as a parenthetical phrase within the verse. According to this possibility, the detailed application of this law comes only in the next verse (17): "And you shall gather all of its spoil… and you shall burn it with fire." If we adopt this interpretation, verse 16 should be read as follows:

"You shall surely smite the inhabitants of that city by the sword (you shall utterly destroy it and all that is within it) and its animals by the sword."

According to this interpretation, the repetition of the expression "by the sword" with regard to the animals is necessary because of the parenthetical phrase that comes between the "inhabitants of the city" and the "animals." The reason for the parenthetical phrase preceding the animals is that although they are killed "by the sword," they are ultimately part of the spoils of the city that must be destroyed. According to this interpretation, verse 16 does not serve as a basis for killing the minors.

However, it would seem that behind this debate lie two fundamentally different approaches to the law of the condemned city. Those who maintain that the minors of the city are not to be killed appear to regard the verdict of this city as a regular legal act - a punishment by the court. Although this punishment is more severe than the regular death penalties meted out by the court, for it involves the destruction of the property of the inhabitants, it cannot - to this view - includthe killingof people who did not sin and who are not legally accountable (the minors), for such a verdict would contradict all the regular legal principles of the Torah. This is what Abba Chanan means when he quotes the verse, "Fathers shall not be killed on account of their sons" - a verse that addresses the judges of Israel. This is also the reasoning of most of R. Meir HaLevi against the Rambam.

A completely different conception is held by those who maintain that the minors of the condemned city are also put to death. To their view, the law of the condemned city is not considered one of the punishments meted out by the court, and therefore the regular legal principles that apply to such punishments do not apply here.

If the killing of the inhabitants of the condemned city is not a punishment like any other meted out by the court, then how exactly is this act to be defined?

The Rambam (Guide III:41) explains the verse (Bemidbar 15:30-31), "But a person who acts haughtily, whether a born Israelite or a stranger - he dishonors God… for he has despised God's word and has violated His command; that soul shall be cut off, its sin is upon it:"

'"One who acts haughtily' is one who is deliberately disrespectful and audacious, who sins in public… Because he opposes the Torah and acts against it, the Torah says that 'he dishonors God,' and he is unquestionably to be killed.

This is done only by someone who has made a determined decision to rebel against the Torah, and for this reason we find the generally accepted interpretation (Keritot 7b): 'The Torah is speaking [in this verse] of idolatry' - for this is an outlook that is opposed to the foundations of Torah… HE (the person who rebels against the mitzvot of the Torah because he despises and disdains it) IS KILLED AS A HERETIC IS KILLED - NOT A DEATH PENALTY AS A PUNISHMENT. HE IS LIKE THE INHABITANTS OF A CONDEMNED CITY, WHO ARE KILLED FOR HERESY, NOT AS A DEATH PENALTY PUNISHMENT. For this reason their property is also burned and is not left to their heirs, as it would be if they were put to death as a punishment meted out by the court.

Likewise I maintain that the same should apply to any Israelite community that communally agrees to transgress any mitzva arrogantly - they are all to be killed. We learn this from the parasha of the children of Reuven and the children of Gad, concerning whom it is said (Yehoshua 22:12), 'All the congregation decided to go up against them in battle.'"

Rav David Zvi Hoffmann, in his commentary on Sefer Devarim, explains the law of the condemned city differently, paying special attention to the killing of minors:

"There is no reason to question why the minors are put to death. The nation of Israel, in this instance, is representing the Holy One. The city that is condemned to destruction IS LIKE SEDOM AND AMORAH. Israel, God's nation, is commanded to carry out the verdict. LIKE THE EXAMPLE OF THE GREAT FLOOD AND THE OVERTURNING OF SEDOM AND AMORAH, WHERE EVERYONE WAS DESTROYED, EVEN THE MINORS, SO LIKEWISE CONCERNING THE CONDEMNED CITY."

The emphasis here is that the punishment of the condemned city is a kind of heavenly punishment, and Israel's role in carrying it out is only to act as God's agent. This enables us to understand the deviation of this law from the regular limitations on punishments by the court - because such limitations do not apply to heavenly punishments.

Despite the difference in style, the distance separating what the Rambam says from Rav Hoffmann's explanation is not all that great.

R. Aharon bar Meshulam's response to Ramah appears to include both of these answers:

"Concerning your great surprise at the words of our teacher [the Rambam], who teaches that the children, too, are killed by the sword … why are you astounded and confounded? Open your eyes and see:

  1. the congregation of Korach, where they, their wives and children who were attached to them all descended, live, into the depths (Bemidbar 16:31-33);
  2. and see the men of Yavesh Gilad: because of the people who sinned by not coming to Mitzpeh, the children and women were attacked (Shoftim 21:5-10). If some sinned [by not presenting themselves to fight], what is the sin of the children and women?"

The first precedent brought by R. Aharon is a heavenly death sentence - as Rav Hoffmann discusses. The second precedent is the killing of a rebellious city that has not participated in a war of Israel, thereby violating the "great oath" whereby Bnei Yisrael obligated each city to go up to war against the tribe of Binyamin - an instance closer to the explanation of the Rambam.

I would like to add to these explanations. The law of the condemned city is expressed in one word in verse 16:

"You shall UTTERLY DESTROY (hacharem) it and all that is in it."

The law of this condemned city is a WAR OF "CHEREM" (annihilation). The war of annihilation closest to that of the condemned city is, surprisingly enough, that which we are commanded concerning Amalek. The Seforno notes this in his commentary on verse 16:

"'And its animals by the sword' - to erase their memory, thereby avenging the blessed God - as is the case concerning Amalek, as we learn (25:19), 'You shall wipe out the memory of Amalek.' So explains the prophet, when he says (Shemuel I 15:3), 'You shall put to death man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.'"

The beginning of the verse that Seforno quotes from Sefer Shemuel is:

"Go and smite Amalek, and ANNIHILATE (hacharamtem) all that they have; you shall not have mercy on them…."

Again, in the same chapter, in verse 18:

"Go and ANNIHILATE (hacharamta) the sinners, Amalek, and wage war against them until they are utterly destroyed."

A war of annihilation was always waged for religious reasons, and in a war of complete annihilation the enemy was killed entirely; no captives were taken. Taking spoils in such a war was considered a most serious transgression, as we are told in the case of the condemned city:

(18) "Nothing of what was set aside for destruction shall remain in your hand, in order that God will return from His fierce anger…."

The seriousness of the transgression is clear from the story of Akhan's deed in the war of annihilation against Jericho, and in Shaul's act in the war of annihilation against Amalek.

The reason for this is that even slight enjoyment or benefit from the spoils of the war act to nullify the religious dimension of this type of war, turning it into a war waged for motives of profit.

Why is the condemned city included in the limited group of instances in which we are commanded to wage a war of annihilation? To this the Rambam answers that the city has rebelled against God and has become idolatrous. Indeed, the attitude towards the condemned city is like that towards a rebellious city, a bitter enemy. A community that distances itself from the God of Israel and worships idols in an institutionalized manner - as is the case in the condemned city - is rebelling against the nation and its hidden King, and is openly rejecting all that binds Israel as God's nation.

The basis for the war of annihilation, in the Tanakh, is neither political nor ethnic, but rather religious. God's outspoken enemies - whoever they may be, whether gentiles or Jewish - are those against whom we are commanded to wage a war of annihilation, for they rebel against Him and against His nation, Israel.


In Sanhedrin (71a) we find the following baraita (there is a parallel in Tosefta Sanhedrin 14:1):

"We learn: There never was, nor will there ever be, a condemned city. So why is [this parasha] written? [For us to] learn it and receive reward."

The Gemara explains that this opinion is in keeping with the view of R. Eliezer:

"We learn: Rabbi Eliezer says: Any city in which there is even one single mezuza cannot be declared a condemned city."

The reason for Rabbi Eliezer's view is:

"He says: It is written, 'You shall gather all its spoil into its streets, and you shall burn it with fire.' If there is a mezuza, this is not possible, since it is written (12:4), 'You shall not do so [the mitzva requiring anything used or associated with idolatry be destroyed] to the Lord your God.'"

The symbolic significance of this explanation of Rabbi Eliezer's view is that an Israelite community, although presently rebelling against God and His nation, Israel, cannot be described as having no remnant of any loyalty to God. "Even a single mezuza," even one single sign of loyalty to God on one of the doorways of the city, will save it from being considered a complete enemy.

While, practically, is it almost impossible to imagine the possibility of a condemned city actually existing, the mitzva is written in the Torah in order for us to study it. Shall we then read it and not react? Could any Israelite community actually reach such a level? When despairing thoughts attack the student engaged in this parasha, he should remember the "saving mezuza" and know that "there is hope for you in the end."


(Translated by Kaeren Fish.

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