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Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin

Folio 49a

Let thyself be cursed rather than curse [another].1

Then Joab was brought before the Court,2  and he [Solomon] judged and questioned him, 'Why didst thou kill Abner?'3  He answered, 'I was Asahel's4  avenger of blood.'5  'But Asahel was a pursuer!'6  'Even so,' answered he; 'but he [Abner] should have saved himself at the cost of one of his [Asahel's] limbs.'7  'Yet perhaps he could not do so, remonstrated [Solomon]. 'If he could aim exactly at the fifth rib,' he retorted, ('even as it is written, Abner with the hinder end of the spear smote him at the waist;8  concerning which R. Johanan said: It was at the fifth rib, where the gall-bladder and liver are suspended.) — could he not have aimed at one of his limbs?' Thereupon [Solomon] said: 'Let us drop [the incident of] Abner; why didst thou kill Amasa?'9  He answered: 'Amasa disobeyed the royal order,10  for it is written, Then said the King to Amasa, Call me the men of Judah together within three days etc. So Amasa went to call the men of Judah together; but he tarried etc.' 'But,' said he [Solomon], 'Amasa interpreted [the particles] 'Ak and Rak.'11  [Thus:] he found them12  just as they had begun [the study of] a tractate; whereupon he said: It is written, Whosoever he be that shall rebel against thy [the King's] commandments and shall not hearken unto thy words in all that thou commandest him, he shall be put to death.13  Now, one might have thought that this holds good even [when the transgression is committed] for the sake of the study of the law: it is therefore written, only [Rak] be strong and of good courage.14  But thou thyself15  didst disobey the royal order, for it is written, And the tidings16  come to Joab, for Joab had turned after Adonijah, though he had turned not after Absalom.17  What is the purpose of 'though he had turned not.'18  — Rab Judah said: He wished to turn [after him], but did not. And why did he not? — R. Eleazar said: David still possessed his vitality.19  R. Jose the son of R. Hanina said: David's star20  was still in the ascendant, for Rab Judah said in Rab's name:21  Four hundred children had David, all the issue of yefoth to'ar; they had long locks, and used to march at the head of the troops; it was they who were the men of power in David's household.

This [view of Joab] is in contradiction to the view held by R. Abba b. Kahana, who said: But for David,22  Joab would not have succeeded in23  war; and but for Joab, David could not have devoted himself to [the study of] the Torah, for it is written, And David executed justice and righteousness for all his people, and Joab the son of Zeruiah was over the host:24  — i.e., why was David able to execute 'justice and righteousness for all his people'? — Because 'Joab was over the host.' And why was 'Joab over the host'?25  — Because 'David executed justice and righteousness for all his people.'

And when Joab was come out from David he sent messengers after Abner and they brought him back from Bor-Sira.26  What meaning has [the name] Bor-Sira? — R. Abba b. Kahana said: Bor27  and Sira28  caused Abner to be killed.29

And Joab took him aside into the midst of the gate to speak with him quietly.30  R. Johanan said: He judged him according to the law of the Sanhedrin.31  Thus he asked him: 'Why didst thou kill Asahel?' — 'Because Asahel was my pursuer.' 'Then thou shouldst have saved thyself32  at the cost of one of his limbs!' 'I could not do that,' [he answered]. 'If thou couldst aim exactly at his fifth rib, couldst thou not have prevailed against him by [wounding] one of his limbs?'

'To speak with him ba-sheli [quietly]:' Rab Judah said in Rab's name: [He spoke to him] concerning the putting off [of the shoe].33  'And smote him there at the waist:' R. Johanan said: At the fifth rib, where the gall-bladder and liver are suspended.34

And the Lord will return his [Joab's] blood upon his own head because he fell upon two men more righteous and better than he.35  'Better,' because they interpreted aright [the particles] 'ak and rak,36  whilst he did not;37  'More righteous,' because they were instructed verbally,38  yet did not obey, whereas he was instructed in a letter,39  and nevertheless carried it out.

But Amasa did not beware of the sword that was in Joab's hand.40  Rab said: That was because he did not suspect him. And he was buried in his own house in the wilderness.41  But was his house a wilderness?42  — Rab Judah said in Rab's name: It was like a wilderness, just as a wilderness is free to all, so was Joab's house free to all.43  Alternatively: 'Like a wilderness' means, just as a wilderness is free from robbery and licentiousness,44  so was Joab's house free from robbery and licentiousness.

And Joab kept alive45  the rest of the city:46  R. Judah said: Even fish broth and hashed fish he would merely taste and then distribute to the poor.47

To Part b

Original footnotes renumbered.
  1. For, as in this case, the curses always recoil on oneself or on one's descendants.
  2. This is a continuation of the narrative commenced on 48b, which was interrupted to shew that all David's curses were fulfilled upon his descendants.
  3. Cf. II Sam. III, 27.
  4. Joab's brother, who pursued Abner when he fled for his life, after having been defeated by Joab at Gibeon whilst fighting for Ishbosheth, Saul's surviving son, v. II Sam. II, 23.
  5. Cf. Num. XXXV, 19.
  6. I.e., Abner, seeing his life in danger, killed him in self-defence. Cf. II Sam. II, 8-32.
  7. And so incapacitate him, instead of inflicting a mortal wound. V. infra 74a: If one can injure his adversary in self-defence, but kills him instead, he is guilty of murder.
  8. II Sam. II, 23 [H] 'loins', 'waist', means also 'fifth'. Hence R. Johanan's interpretation.
  9. Son of Abigail, King David's sister, who commanded the rebel army of Absalom. Subsequently he was pardoned by David and given the command of the army when the rebellion of Shebah broke out (II Sam. XX). On that account Joab saw a dangerous rival in him. II Sam. XVII, 25; XIX, 14.
  10. Lit., 'he rebelled against the throne.' This was punishable by death.
  11. [H], 'but'; [H], 'only', both denoting limitation.
  12. The men of Judah.
  13. Josh. I, 18.
  14. Rak intimating a limitation. Hence the duty to fulfil the King's command does not apply where one is engaged in the study of the Law, According to the view held by Amasa, God's Law seemed more important to him than the will of the King, and no transgression was involved in waiting until they had finished their study.
  15. Lit., 'that man.'
  16. Of Solomon's ascent to the throne.
  17. I Kings II, 28.
  18. For the information that he did not turn after Absalom seems superfluous at this point.
  19. Lit., 'moisture'. But as soon as David became feeble he inclined after Adonijah.
  20. [H] (astrological power), symbol of his mighty men upon whom he placed reliance in war, and who led him to victories.
  21. V. nn. 4-5, supra p. 114.
  22. Who studied the Torah continuously.
  23. Lit., 'waged'.
  24. II Sam, VIII, 15-16.
  25. I.e., why was he successful in war?
  26. Ibid. III, 26.
  27. [H] 'well', hence container of water, a pitcher.
  28. [H] a thorn-bush.
  29. The explanation of this statement is found in J. Sotah I, where one of the reasons given for Abner's death was his indifference to the effecting of a reconciliation between Saul and David, instead of seeking which, he rather endeavoured to increase their hatred. He did not take advantage of the following two occasions when he might have brought about the reconciliation: One, when Saul entered the cave of En-Gedi where David and his band were hidden, and the latter, though he could have destroyed his pursuer, contented himself with merely cutting off the skirt of his robe (I Sam. XXIV, 4). The second time, in the wilderness of Ziph, when David found Saul sleeping and took the spear and jug of water from beside his head (ibid. XXIV, 12ff), subsequently reproaching Abner for not watching better over the King. Abner, however, made nought of this generous treatment of Saul by David, contending that the jug of water might have been given to David by one of the servants, whilst the skirt of the robe might have been torn away by a thorn-bush, and left hanging. These two incidents are hinted at in the words Bor (well, i.e., a jug of water), and Sira (a thorn-bush).
  30. II Sam. III, 27.
  31. This is inferred from the word 'gate', frequently denoting 'court'; cf. Deut. XXI, 19.
  32. Lit., 'him', i.e., save the pursuer from committing a crime, v. supra p. 326, n 8.
  33. The word [H] is here derived from [H] to draw or pull off. Joab is supposed to have inquired from Abner in what way a one-armed woman would loosen the shoe in the ceremony of halizah (v. Deut. XXV, 9). On his replying that she would do it with her teeth (cf. Yeb 105a), he asked him to demonstrate it, and as he stooped low to do so, he smote him. This incident is hinted at in David's words of farewell to Solomon: He (sc. Joab) shed the blood of war in peace, — and put the blood of war in the shoes that were on his feet (I Kings II, 5).
  34. V. p. 326, n. 9.
  35. And slew them with the sword. I Kings II, 32.
  36. Signifying limitation. v. p. 326, n. 12. According to this, the king's orders were not to be obeyed where they involved serious transgressions; v. p. 327 n. 2, with reference to Amasa, Abner's attitude is intimated in a reference to the murder of the Priests of Nob (v. I Sam. XXII, 17). And the King said unto the guard that stood about him, turn and slay the Priests of the Lord, but the servants of the king would not put forth their hand to fall upon the Priests of the Lord. Cf. also supra 20a, where, according to R. Isaac, Abner tried to restrain the king from committing a murder, but without avail.
  37. When the king directed him to expose Uriah the Hittite to the enemy in such a manner as to ensure his destruction. V. II Sam. XI, 14ff.
  38. To kill the priests of Nob.
  39. Ibid. XI, 14. And a verbal command by the king is stronger than a mere written order.
  40. II Sam. XX, 10.
  41. I Kings II, 34.
  42. Regarding 'in' as indicating apposition: i.e.,'in his own house,' viz. 'the wilderness.'
  43. I.e., Everyone was sure to find hospitality there.
  44. Because it it not inhabited by men.
  45. [H] lit., 'made alive,' (E.V.: repaired) i.e., fed.
  46. I Chron. XI, 8.
  47. I.e., even his smallest meal he would share with the poor.
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Sanhedrin 49b



GEMARA. Raba said in the name of R. Sehora in the name of Rab: Whatever the Sages taught by number is in no particular order, excepting the [Mishnah of] the seven substances. For we learnt: Seven substances are applied to the stain, viz., tasteless saliva,4  the liquid exuded by crushed beans, urine, natron,5 lye,6  Cimolian earth7  and ashleg.8  Now, the latter clause [of that Mishnah] states: If they were not applied in this order, or if they were all applied simultaneously,9  the test is inconclusive. R. Papa the Elder said in Rab's name: The same [exception] applies to 'FOUR DEATHS etc'; for, since R. Simeon disputes the order, it is to be inferred that it is exact. But the other?10  — He does not refer to cases [where the order] is disputed. R. Papa said: The order of Service on the Day of Atonement is also exactly taught, for we learnt: All the rites of the Day of Atonement which are prescribed in a particular order, if one was performed out of its turn, it is invalid. But the other?11  — That law is merely one of added stringency.12  R. Huna, the son of R. Joshua said: The order of the Tamid13  is also exact, for in connection therewith we have learnt: This is the order of the Tamid.14  But the other?15  — That [Mishnah] merely teaches that the precept of the Tamid is best carried out in this order.16

[Now reverting to Raba's statement] this ['whatever etc.'] is intended to exclude the precept of halizah17  [from the need of a particular order in its procedure], for we have learnt: the precept of halizah is thus carried out: — He [the deceased man's brother] and his sister-in-law come before Beth din, who counsel him in a manner fitting for him,18  as it is written. Then the elders of his city shall call him, and speak unto him.19  Then she declares: My husband's brother refuseth etc.,20  whilst he states: I like not to take her.21 The members of Beth din thereupon announce in Hebrew:22  Then shall his brother's wife come unto him in the presence of the elders, and remove his shoe from off his foot, and spit in his sight23  — the spittle was to be visible to the judges — Then shall she answer and say, So shall it be done unto that man etc. … And his name shall be called in Israel etc. Now Rab Judah said: The precept of halizah is carried out thus: [First] she declares [My husband's brother refuseth etc.]; then he declares [I like not to take her]; then she removes his shoe and spits in his presence, and then she again declares [So shall it be done etc.]. But we pondered thereon: What does Rab Judah teach us? Is this not stated in the Mishnah? — Rab Judah teaches us this: The precept is best carried out thus; but if the order was changed, it does not matter. It has been taught likewise: Whether the halizah was performed before the spitting or the reverse, the ceremony is efficacious.

Raba's statement above is also intended to exclude that which we learnt: The High Priest officiates [in the Temple] wearing eight garments, but the ordinary priest wears only four, viz., tunic, breeches, mitre and girdle; to which the High Priest adds the breast plate, ephod, robe24  and head plate. Now it has been taught: Whence do we know that nothing must be donned before the breeches? From the verse: [He shall put on the holy linen tunic,] and the linen breeches shall [already] be upon his flesh.25  But why does the Tanna give precedence [in this enumeration] to the tunic? — Because it is given precedence in Scripture;26  and why does Scripture do this? — Because it prefers to state first that which covers the whole body.27


Stoning is severer than burning, since thus the blasphemer28  and the idol-worshipper are executed.29  Wherein lies the particular enormity of these offences? — Because they constitute an attack upon the fundamental belief of Judaism.30  On the contrary, is not burning more severe, since that is the punishment of a priest's adulterous daughter; and wherein lies the greater enormity of her offence: in that she profanes her father?31

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Original footnotes renumbered.
  1. The enumeration is in descending order of severity.
  2. The Gemara discusses the consequences of this dispute.
  3. This refers to the directions given in the Mishnah on 45a.
  4. I.e., the saliva of one who had not eaten that day. Nid. 62a.
  5. Nether ([G]) is correctly translated 'nitre' in Jer. II, 22, where it signifies carbonate of soda, a cleansing agent. But by a transference of terms 'natron' has been adopted to denote carbonate of soda; whilst 'nitre' now denotes saltpetre, which has no washing properties.
  6. A sort of soap.
  7. A clay used in cleaning clothes.
  8. A kind of alkali, or mineral used as soap. These materials were applied to a red stain on a woman s garments, to ascertain whether it is blood or a dye. If the stain disappears, it is blood; otherwise it is a dye.
  9. And the suspicion of blood is attached to the stain.
  10. Raba, why did he not cite our Mishnah as an exception?
  11. R. Papa the Elder, why does he not include this latter Mishnah among the exceptions?
  12. I.e., Scripture, in insisting on a certain order of ceremonial on the Day of Atonement, did not thereby ascribe greater sanctity to any particular rite, but decreed the order merely as a matter of greater stringency. having regard to the solemnity of the Day. But in those cases cited as exceptions, the order is intimately bound up with the effectiveness or importance of the things mentioned. E.g., in our Mishnah the order of deaths is in descending severity; in the Mishnah treating of the test applied to a stain, these materials, if applied in a different order, are actually ineffective.
  13. The daily burnt offering.
  14. Tamid VII, 3; the preceding Mishnah enumerated its rites: this Mishnah states that they must be performed in the order taught.
  15. R. Papa, why does he not cite this too as an exception?
  16. Yet if the order was not adhered to, the service is valid.
  17. Lit. 'drawing off', sc. 'the shoe'. The ceremony is referred to in the text. By this act the widow is freed from the obligation of Levirate marriage.
  18. If, e.g., he is an old man, whilst his widowed sister-in-law is a young woman, or vice versa, they advise him to repudiate the marriage.
  19. Deut. XXV, 8. 'Speak unto him' is interpreted as meaning to advise him.
  20. Ibid. 7.
  21. Ibid. 8.
  22. Lit., 'The Holy Language'. By this is meant the actual Biblical text; v. M. H. Segal, Mishnaic Hebrew Grammar, p. 2.
  23. Ibid. 9.
  24. Worn over the tunic.
  25. Lev. XVI, the inserted 'already' is implied in the use of the verb 'to be', [H].
  26. Ibid.
  27. Thus we see that the enumeration of the Tanna is not according to the order in which the garments are donned.
  28. Lev. XXIV. 14-16.
  29. Deut. XVII, 2-5, i.e., a Jew who committed idol worship. In this discussion on the relative severity of the different modes of execution the painfulness of the deaths is not taken into account, but merely the gravity of the offences for which they are imposed.
  30. Since both are virtually a denial of the existence of the true God. This is undoubtedly an assertion that the confession of God is the cardinal tenet of Judaism — a dogma, in fact. Notwithstanding the controversies that have arisen on the questions whether Judaism contains any dogmas, there can be no doubt that the rejection of idolatry is a sine qua non of Judaism. V. Schechter, Studies in Judaism: The Dogmas of Judaism. Cf. also Y. D. 268, 2, on the admission of proselytes, of whom is demanded the profession of belief in God and the rejection of idolatry.
  31. V. infra 52b. This discussion, though refuted at a later stage, is interesting as shewing the eminently practical character of Judaism. Though adultery does not undermine the essential basis of Judaism, it is nevertheless suggested that it is to be regarded as a greater offence than idolatry, particularly where its results extend beyond the person of the offender.
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