The previous perakim of Massekhet Sanhedrin dealt with the court system and the legal procedures necessary to try capital cases according to Jewish law. The sixth perek – Perek Nigmar HaDin – focuses on questions about how the death penalty was carried out. Before applying the court’s decision, every possible precaution was taken to ensure that there should not be a miscarriage of justice. Thus, even unlikely scenarios are considered in an attempt to ensure that even in the last moments of his life, new evidence would be considered on behalf of the convicted prisoner.
According to Jewish law, carrying out the death penalty is not only performed out of a sense of protecting the community by removing a dangerous person from its midst, it is also the fulfillment of a Torah obligation incumbent upon the beit din, and like all mitzvot it has many requirements and details. Thus this chapter covers such topics as the location where the punishment will be carried out, the means by which it will be carried out, upon whom is it incumbent to carry out the punishment and so forth.
The importance of fulfilling this commandment impacts not only on society at large, but aims to affect the convicted man, himself. The punishment that he receives acts as partial penance for his crime; the purpose of his viduy – admission of guilt – at the time that the death penalty is carried out is not to reassure all assembled that justice was done, rather it is the beginning of the process of the forgiveness that he will receive.
Among the mitzvot of the Torah are some that are distasteful, yet they are included in the corpus of Torah commandments and they have significance and importance. Clarifying the rules and regulations that govern these commandments must be done with the same level of care and concern that other mitzvot receive, and even these commandments require kavanna – proper intent – to fulfill the mitzva as commanded. The principle ve-ahavta le-re’akhah kamokhah – you should love your neighbor as yourself – applies even when a person is condemned to death. Even here the Torah requires that the court concern itself with the condemned man’s best interests, to the best of its ability.