The seventh perek of Massekhet Sanhedrin, Perek “Arba Mitot,” focuses on how capital punishment is meted out by Jewish courts according to the Torah. According to the Sages, there are four types of such punishments:
- Sekilah – death by stoning
- Serefah – death by fire
- Hereg – death by sword
- Ḥenek – death by choking
While the previous perek dealt with some of the rules and regulations of sekilah, the current perek examines the sources for all of the death penalties imposed by the Torah, how they are carried out from a technical perspective and so on.
The question that is discussed at length on today’s daf is the order of severity of the different types of capital punishment. This question is important in order to determine what punishment to give a person whose actions make him liable for more than one such punishment. Moreover, clarifying this question will also help determine what punishment is appropriate in cases where the Torah declares that a person who does a given sinful action should receive a death penalty, but does not state clearly which of the punishments he deserves.
According to the Mishna (49b), the order of severity of the capital punishments are Sekilah, Serefah, Hereg and Ḥenek, while Rabbi Shimon rules that Serefah is the most severe punishment, followed by Sekilah, Hereg and Ḥenek. The Gemara on today’s daf attempts to bring sources for the severity of a given punishment based on the severity of the crime committed. For example, Sekilah is considered to be the most severe punishment since it is the punishment given to someone who is a blasphemer and to someone who is an idol worshiper. Since both of these sins are rebellions against God, clearly the Torah considers them to be serious crimes.
Tosafot point out that we should not automatically assume that a severe crime receives the most severe punishment, as it is possible that a severe crime may receive a relatively light type of death sentence, and that the “lighter” punishment will be augmented with another punishment – e.g. the people of an ir ha-nidaḥat – a city that was led to idol worship – receives hereg, since there is an additional punishment that their money is destroyed, as well.