Notes from Limmud 2005
How To Get Yourself Excommunicated
Rabbi Mark Goldsmith
[Note: the word "excommunication" technically refers to Christianity, meaning denial of communion to someone; I use it here in the looser sense of expulsion from any religious community, to render Hebrew חרם. (There is also a word כרת kārēth, meaning "spiritual excision"; traditionally this is regarded as meaning at the hands of G-d.]
[Further note: I appear to have, sadly, lost the handout that went with this; I've been able to reconstruct it partially using Google, but towards the end it comes a bit unthreaded. This is rather annoying; as some of the later bits were quite interesting. I shall repost this if it does turn up.]
חרם ḥerem, a ban on someone or something, comes from the same root as the Arabic حريم harem, which means "reserved". Both words have the connotation of a border within which is something exclusive.
We see the same double meaning in the root הלל: either praise, or חילול, profanation. [But surely these aren't the same root! A better example would be קדש, originally meaning set aside, which gives us קדוש kādosh "holy" and קדשה kedesha prostitute.]
Leviticus 27:28 ויקרא כז כח Notwithstanding no devoted thing, that a man shall devote unto the LORD of all that he hath, both of man and beast, and of the field of his possession, shall be sold or redeemed: every devoted thing is most holy unto the LORD. אך כל חרם אשר יוחרם איש לה׳ מכל אשר לו מאדם ומשדה אחזתו, לא ימכר ולא יגאל; כל חרם קדש קדשים הוא לה׳׃
It is possible to make something separate, and dedicated to G-d; it is not so easy to make to reverse that.
Exodus 22:19 שמות כב יט He who sacrifices to any god, except only to the Eternal, he shall be completely destroyed. זבח לאלהים יחרם בלתי לה׳ לבדו׃
The word is also used for the seven Canaanite nations which are to be destroyed on entering the Land of Israel:
The graven images of their gods shall ye burn with fire: thou shalt not desire the silver or gold that is on them, nor take it unto thee, lest thou be snared therin: for it is an abomination to the LORD thy God. Neither shalt thou bring an abomination into thine house, lest thou be a cursed thing like it: but thou shalt utterly detest it, and thou shalt utterly abhor it; for it is a cursed thing.
You should have an attitude of repulsion towards חרם objects.
You do not see the word חרם used again in the Tenach in a literal manner after the King Saul narrative. After that, it's only used in prophetic poetry. This is because in the monarchy period, if the loot of battle is חרם, the king can't take it as his own!
So why does the loot become acceptable? Is is not the seven nations mentioned in Deuteronomy? Or something about how war is being waged.
Talmud and later law codes
There is a big jump to the rabbinic idea of חרם. In the Talmud, the word turns up as a rabbinic doctrine of self-protection. The concept exists, but we don't hear much about it.
BT Berachot 19a (R. Yehoshua b. Levi lived at an earlier period, c. 250 CE):
R. Yehoshua b. Levi further said: In twenty-four places* we find that the Beth Din inflicted excommunication for an insult to a teacher, and they are all recorded in the Mishnah. R. Eleazar asked him, Where? He replied: See if you can find them.
He went and examined and found three cases: one of a scholar who threw contempt on the washing of the hands [Eleazar b. Hanoch—case not specified], another of one who made derogatory remarks about scholars after their death [Akaviah b. Mahalel, who insulted the judgment of Shemaiah and Avtalyon suggesting that they displayed prejudice in a particular case], and a third of one who made himself too familiar towards heaven. ["Shimon b. Shetach sent to Honi ha-Me'aggel: You deserve to be excommunicated, and were you not Honi, I would pronounce, I would pronounce excommunication against you."]
* This is a challenge to the codifier!
It's really difficult to come up with twenty-four cases; חרם is not really used in the Mishnah. Though there is a lot elsewhere about how excommunication works; excommunication is compared with mourning, and it from this that we derive a lot of the laws we have about how to mourn. E.g. whether to shave or not, whether to turn over one's furniture.
The eventual codified list of twenty-four offences is in much much later law codes, e.g. יורה דעה 334 in שלחן ארוך [the mediaeval law code Shulchan Aruch], given here. Most of these are from responsa case law: offences for which people were put in חרם. Though doing these does not automatically result in חרם.
- Insulting a learned man, even after his death.
- Insulting a messenger of the court.
- Calling an Israelite "slave".
- Refusing to appear before the court at the appointed time.
- Dealing lightly with any of the rabbinic or Mosaic precepts.
- Refusing to abide by the decision of the court.
- Keeping in one's possession an animal or an object that may prove injurious to others, such as a savage dog or a broken ladder.
- Selling one's real estate to a non-Jew without assuming the responsibility for any injury that the non-Jew may cause his neighbours. (The Jew is under an obligation in halacha to put a parapet around their roof, tie up their goring ox, etc. The non-Jew is not.)
- Testifying against one's Jewish neighbour in a non-Jewish court, through which the Jew is involved in a loss of money to which he would not have been condemned by a Jewish court. [E.g. Stamford Hill ca. 1995]
- Appropriation by a priest whose business is the selling of meat, of the priestly portions of all the animals for himself.
- Violating the second day of a holiday, even though its observance is only a custom.
- Performing work on the afternoon of the day preceding Passover.
- Taking the name of G-d in vain.
- Causing others to profane the name of G-d.
- Causing others to eat holy meat outside of Jerusalem.
- Making calculations for the calendar, and establishing festivals accordingly, outside of Palestine.
- Putting a stumbling-block in the way of the blind, that is to say, tempting one to sin.
- Preventing the community from performing some religious act
- Selling treyf meat as kosher
- Omission by a שוחט [slaughterer] to show his knife to the rabbi for examination.
- Engaging in business intercourse with one's divorced wife.
- Being made the subject of scandal (in the case of a rabbi).
- Excommunicating one unjustly.
Is that which was worthy of םרח a couple of hundred years ago still worthy of it now? [Well, some of them seem to be; some of them certainly do not!]
Elisha ben Abuya
In Ḥagigah 14b in the Talmud, we read the story, replete with mystical meaning:
"Four [sages] entered the orchard: Ben 'Azzai, Ben Zoma, Aḥer, and Akiva. Ben 'Azzai gazed and died; Ben Zoma gazed and went insane; Aḥer entered and cut the root; Akiva entered, and exited in peace."
The meaning of entering the orchard is studying the fullest meaning of the Torah (it's actually a wordplay). In this story, רחא Aḥer means "the Other". It refers to Elisha ben Abuya, who "pulled up the shoots"—became an apostate—which so reviled the Sages they could not even bear to name him thereafter.
This took place ca. 135 CE, the time of the Hadrianic persecutions. Torah study was prohibited - it was seen as a political act - and was [my notes break off here]
Midrash, Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:16
R. Meir exclaimed (to Elisha ben Abuya when they met along the way), "You possess all this wisdom and yet you do not repent." He replied, "I am unable." "Why?" He [Elisha] said to him, "I was once my horse riding behind the Temple on the Day of Atonement which occurred on the Sabbath, and I heard a Bath Kol [heavenly voice] crying out, 'Returning, ye backsliding children (Jer. 3:22), Return unto Me, and I will return unto you (Mal. 3:7), with the exception of Elisha b. Abuyah who knows My might and yet rebelled against Me!"
How did this happen to him? He once saw a man climb to the top of a palm-tree on the Shabbos, take the mother-bird [מקצה] with the young [Toraitic prohibition], and descend in safety. At the termination of the Sabbath, he saw a man climb to the top of a palm-tree and take the young but let the mother bird go free, and as he descended a snake bit him and he died. Elisha exclaimed, "It is written: Thou shalt in any wise let the dam go, but the young thou mayest take unto thyself; that it may be well with thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days (Deut. 22:7)." Where is the well-being of this man, and where is the prolonging of his days?
Some say that it was because he saw the tongue of R. Yehudah the baker (a martyr in the Hardrianic persecution, חצפית the Interpreter in the Ten Martyrs narrative]).
Some time later, Elisha fell ill. They told Rabbi Meir: "Your teacher is sick." He went to visit him, and found that he was indeed sick.
"Aren't you going to repent?" he asked him.
"Is a sickbed repentance acceptable, do you suppose?"
"The Bible says," he replied, "You turn a person into powder, and you say, Return, you children of men [Psalm 90:2]. Until the very moment the soul is turned to powder, repentance will be accepted."
Elisha burst out crying, and died. Rabbi Meir was well pleased, thinking that his teacher had died repentant.
After Elisha was buried, fire came down from heaven and burned his grave. They told Rabbi Meir: "Your teacher's grave is on fire." Rabbi Meir went to visit it, and found it ablaze.
What did Rabbi Meir do? He took off his cloak and spread it over the grave. He recited the verse: Spend the night here. When morning comes, if the Good One wants to redeem you—let him redeem you. And if he doesn't want to redeem you—then, by God, I will redeem you [Ruth 3:13].
Which he understood as follows: Spend the night here—this refers to the present world, which is dark as night. When morning comes—this refers to the future world, which is all one long morning. If the Good Onethis is G'd, who is good, of whom the Bible says "he is good to all, and has mercy on all his creation" [Psalm 145:9]. If he wants to redeem you—let him redeem you. And if he doesn't want to redeem you—then, by God, I [Rabbi Meir] will redeem you!
The flames died down.
He wept, but did he repent? The fire afterwards tends to suggest not.
The problems he wrestles with are... [notes break off]
And why did R. Meir continue to associate with him? [If there was an explanation, it's in the missing handout.]
חרם in practice
חרם can only be conferred by a Beth Din, a court of three rabbis. The effect of חרם was that nobody could approach within four cubits [six feet] of the banned person.
Forms of banishment ranged upwards from נציפה netsifah, a one-day ban. The idea is for full חרם to be the last thing you want to do; you actually want to stop the bad behaviour.
The next stage is נדוי nidui, a seven day (in the Babylonian tradition, thirty day in the Palestinian tradition) ban. There have to be three warnings given before it can be administered, on the preceding Monday, Thursday and Monday in the synagogue.
חרם, however, was indefinite: unless the person changed their mind.
If you don't repent, and die, your coffin is stoned by the Beth Din. Because this was felt to be unjust, it was watered down to them putting a symbolic stone on top of the coffin.
In some cases, when a man was put into חרם, the wife and children would be too.
A Beth Din can put someone in םרח; the authority for this comes from the Talmud, Bava Batra 8b, where it says a Beth Din has the authority to make its own ordinances. (The Talmud is talking about commercial matters, here, though.)
Putting someone in םרח is not done lightly. The person must be given the opportunity to repent, and then the banning is done with great ceremony, in public in the synagogue, with the Ark open, and people holding candles; the lights are then extinguished. The details of this are given in Yoreh Deah 334.
Maimonides on using the sanction (Mishne Torah 7:13): You can do it, but should you do it?
Although the power is given to a scholar to excommunicate a man who has slighted him, it is not paiseworthy for him to employ this means too frequently. He should rather shut his ears to the words of the ignorant and pay no attention to them, as Solomon, in his wisdom, said, "Also take no heed unto all words that are spoken" (Eccl. 7:21). This was the custom of the early pious men, who would not answer when they heard themselves insulted, but would forgive the insolent ... But this humility should be practised only when the insult occurs in privately when the scholar is publically insulted, he dares not forgive; and if he forgive he should be puinhsed, for then it is an insult to the Torah that he must revenge until the offender humbly apologises.
This also helps stop rabbis throwing חרם against each other.
Ashkenazim can't marry more than one person. The חרם of Rabbeinu Gershom prohibits it. חרם was used to enact something where you can't find strong enough authority for it from the Torah alone. It becomes the preventative sanction of Jewish law.
The חרם הישוב text
This is from a MS probably from Italy, currently located in the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris. It was written in the Middle Ages, at a time before Rashi—and some have suggested that this is the source of the secular guild system (it antedates any reference to it). It describes the situation of a town which is quite full, when a bunch of people come from Spain. There's not the room for them, but the town's inhabitants don't have the legal authority to prevent them moving in and crowding the place.
At a session of the elders, at an assembly of the people, we hereby decree by stringent oath and under pain of the חרם that there is no permission for a son of Israel or for a daughter of Israel to dwell in the community of ... nor within a parsang of that commuinity without the permission of A and B [perhaps leading individuals]. And whosever shall trangress this חרם that is shall come without the permission of A and B and take up residence in the above named city of village shall be under a [broken off due to lack of time to transcribe at the talk]
The only way to get around that was a חזקת הישוב, a document giving permission to settle there. These were bought and sold! Could the local lord sell these, rather than the Jewish community. Often they could.
Often these were couched in the language of trying to keep undesirables out.
There are passages in Talmud justifying stopping people from setting up in competition with you—except for rabbis, because there's no such thing as too much learning. And this doesn't apply if they pay tax.
R. Moses Sofer justified this by saying that over the years, by paying taxes, you built up whuffie with the local community. [Okay, so that wasn't the word he used. :o)] If someone came along and tried to move in, they were effectively stealing your whuffie.
The Canterbury חרם הישוב (dates from 1266)
This was issued twenty-four years before the expulsion of the Jews from England! I've only been able to find a small portion of this by googling:
In the year 1266 the Jews of Canterbury... have come to the conclusion and have bound themselves by oath that no liar, improper person, slanderer may settle in our town. [...]
The missing portion of the text implies if the king does say a banned person can go there, they'll pay him to send him back out again!
Interestingly enough, this didn't work, because there's a list of all the Jews in Canterbury in 1290 [the year of the expulsion], and many of them were known as X of [other town].
(Interesting question: is this חרם still standing?)
There were ways of getting around this: you could come and trade and leave the town the same day.
Getting himself excommunicated: Uriel Acosta 1585-1640
(There is a painting of Uriel Acosta, or Da Costa, instructing the young Spinoza—the older man passing on his heresy to the younger. This never happened, but it was a very tempting picture.)
Born in Oporto, his father was a minor Church official, he was Catholic. His own study of the Bible brought him back to his ancestors' Judaism.
[The handout had a quotation from Acosta; in its place I offer a chunk of Wikipedia:]
Upon arriving in the Netherlands, Uriel very quickly became disenchanted with the kind of Judaism he saw in practice there. He came to believe that the Rabbinic leadership was too consumed by ritualism and legalistic posturing. In 1624 he published a book titled An Examination of the Traditions of the Pharisees which questioned the fundamental idea of the immortality of the soul. Uriel da Costa believed that this was not an idea deeply rooted in biblical Judaism, but rather had been formulated primarily by the Rabbis. The work further pointed out the discrepancies between biblical Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism; he declared the latter to be an accumulation of mechanical ceremonies and practices. In his view, it was thoroughly devoid of spiritual and philosophical concepts.
The book became very controversial and was burned publicly. Uriel was called before the rabbinic leadership of Amsterdam for uttering blasphemous views against Judaism and Christianity. He was fined a significant sum and excommunicated.
He ultimately fled Amsterdam for Hamburg, Germany (also a prominent Sephardic center), where he was ostracized from the local Jewish community. He did not understand German, which further compounded his difficulties. Left with no place to turn, in 1633 he returned to Amsterdam and sought a reconciliation with the community. He claimed that he would go back to being "an ape amongst the apes"; he would follow the traditions and practices, but with little real conviction.
However, he soon again began to express rationalistic and skeptical views; he expressed doubts as to whether biblical law was divinely sanctioned or whether it was simply written down by Moses. He came to the conclusion that all religion was a human invention. Ultimately he came to reject formalized, ritualized religion. In his view, religion was to be based only on natural law; God had no use for empty ceremony. In many ways his beliefs were Deistic; he believed that God resides in nature, which is full of peace and harmony, whereas organized religion is marked by blood, violence, and strife.
Eventually Uriel da Costa came across two Christians who expressed to him their desire to convert to Judaism. In accordance with his views, he dissuaded them from doing so. For the communal leadership of Amsterdam, this was the final straw. He was thus again excommunicated. For seven years he lived in virtual isolation, shunned by his family and loved ones. Ultimately, the loneliness was too much for him to handle, and he again returned to Holland and recanted.
As a punishment for his heretical views he was publicly given thirty-nine lashes at the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam. He was then forced to lie on the floor while the congregation trampled over him. This left him so demoralized and depressed that he was unable to live with himself. After writing his autobiography, Exemplar Humanae Vitae (1640) [about ten pages long—Rabbi Goldsmith], in which he wrote about his experience as a victim of intolerance, he set out to end the lives of both his cousin and himself. Seeing his relative approach one day, he grabbed a pistol and pulled the trigger. It misfired. Then he reached for another, turned it on himself, and fired, dying, they said, a terrible death.
See "Stories of My People"—collection of primary sources.
Baruch Spinoza 1633-1677
Spinoza studied with Menashe Ben Israel—the Dutch Sephardi who persuaded Cromwell to let the Jews back into England.
Spinoza came under the influence of the Mennonite heresy: he questioned Moses as author of the Torah. Other people were excommunicated at the same time for the same reason.
He is best known today as a philosopher, a proponents of natural law: that G-d is the author of everything. Much of what he spoke about [notes break off; the speaker was going fast to get through everything]
In 1666 he was excommunicated. He changed his name to Benedict, moved from Amsterdam to the Hague, and became a lens-grinder (his family business had been importing fruit), but continued to study and publish.
His excommunication was never rescinded. He never felt he needed that social contact.
Yet it had a lasting effect: He died young, from glass dust in his lungs.
Putting an entire congregation into חרם: The case of the West London Synagogue of British Jews
In the nineteenth century, a preventative חרם was set up in by the (Sephardi) community of Bevis Marks in London; askama 1 of the synagogue's regulations stipulated no other synagogue or place of prayer within an area of six miles radius could be established, apart from Bevis Marks. There was a concern about other people proselytising.
However, many of the synagogue members were dissatisfied with the service. In 1841 a new synagogue was established in the West End: the West London Synagogue, the first Reform synagogue in the UK. This broke Bevis Marks' regulations, and the nine founding families were all put into חרם. Because this was confirmed by Chief Rabbi Herschel, this was extended to the whole synagogue. The justification for this was [...]
It wasn't until January 1842 that the חרם was put into effect. It had to be read out by every synagogue in the country, but some refused. One of these was Princes Road Synagogue in Liverpool, whose ex-Rabbi was now rabbi in the West London Synagogue. In Plymouth they burned the חרם in front of the [...]
One of the founders recanted in 1849.
After the West London furore (1854), Chief Rabbi Adler decided that no longer did the chief rabbi have the authority to put anyone into חרם.
1854 the Manchester Reform congregation was started. It was decided the חרם did not apply because the Chief Rabbi of the time had received his סמיכה [ordination] outside of the Land of Israel.
A picture of a declaration on a Jerusalem wall (and in the Encyclopaedia Judaica), dating from 1970, threatening a man (whose name is removed) with חרם unless he removes from his home and throws away the television from his house, as it is under the prayer room of the community and was disturbing the community!
Though of course this only had any effect if the person in question paid any attention to the authority of that Beth Din...