In previous articles on this week’s Torah reading, I’ve mentioned that this was always fun material to teach. When I presented it to eighth graders, I had each student choose one of the myriad mitzvot in the parsha, and then report back to the class. They would research the Halacha, but also applications in the secular world. There was always some ghoulish young man who would choose the mitzva about hanging perpetrators of capital crimes, even though the actual punishment was death by a different means, e.g. S’KILA (stoning). The ‘fun’ came in reporting about the vicious methods of execution used throughout the ages. I was always fascinated by the reactions of delight (generally, boys) and disgust, (mostly girls) in the classroom.
One interesting detail always troubled me. Many Christian countries would leave the deceased on display for long periods of time. In England, the custom was to display the head of the beheaded for a month. Why wouldn’t societies who profess to follow the Bible not observe: you shall not leave his body on the pole overnight; rather, you shall bury him on that same day (Devarim 21:23)?
I’d like to further explicate that injunction. Here’s the critical phrase: KI KLILAT ELOKIM TALOI (end of verse 23). It’s hard to believe the variety of translations for those four words. Let’s go through the words. KI means either ‘that’ or, occasionally, ‘because’. KLILAT refers to a curse or insult. Now ELOKIM is the wild card. It can be a name of God (holy) or a human leader, like a judge (profane, so ELOHIM). Then, TALOI means ‘depends’ or ‘hanging/suspended’. Is that referring to the criminal? Maybe.
Here’s the way most Christian translations handle the phrase: for he that is hanged is accursed of God. In other words, don’t keep the criminal on display, because that person is a disgrace.
Here’s a sample of modern Jewish translations: for an impaled body is an affront to God (JPS), for a hanging person is a curse of God (ArtScroll), since a person who has been hanged is an extraordinarily great curse (Rav Aryeh Kaplan in his footnote). Rav Kaplan (and Robert Alter) point out that ELOHIM maybe an adjective and mean ‘supremely’ or ‘extraordinarily’, and is modifying ‘cursed’. Rav Kaplan credits the Vilna Gaon for this approach.
None of these translations follow the most popular interpretations of our commentaries. Within the rabbinic world there are two famous ways of dealing with our phrase. I’m going to quote from the Rashbam and the Sforno to represent these opinions, because in my Mikraot Gedolot they’re right next to each other.
Reb Ovadiah S’forno (1475-1550) gives the most famous point of view. He writes: Notice that every essential item which is separate from the physical reality of an entity is called ELOKIM. Similarly, the essence of humanity’s intelligent life force (NEFESH SICHLIT) is called our TZELEM ELOKIM (Divine image)…Therefore any disgrace to the deceased is also a disgrace to that intelligent life force…so that leaving the body hanging over night, without burial, is a disgrace to that eternal essence called ELOKIM.
Rashi’s grandson the Rashbam (1085-1158), on the other hand, gives a more prosaic, less esoteric, interpretation. He states: When people observe the hanged individual, they tend to curse the judges, the family of the deceased, or other people associated with the action. Since, sometimes the transgression isn’t deemed severe enough for execution. This is why God forbade cursing judges, and, similarly, the overnight hanging of an individual and demands immediate burial.
I didn’t really understand or appreciate the translations which described the ‘curse’ or ‘disgrace’ as referring to the criminal. That individual has already become a disgrace. By leaving the body on view for a prolonged period of time we’re embarrassing our God and our society by our cruel and demeaning behavior.
The combination of the Rashbam and S’forno, I believe, provides us with most important lesson for ourselves and our communities. We must always be careful to never denigrate the dignity of God or the dignity of our fellow humans. I’m not even sure which is most important, because both saintly commentaries overlap on this point: that the respect for both is integral to righteousness.
The ultimate message is clear. A just and ethical society must always respect the nobility of humanity and the grandeur of God.