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Parashat Ki Tetzei

09/07/2014 08:16:18 AM


What's At Stake?

Understanding the Prohibition of Leaving A Corpse on the Stake

by Charles Shenitz


At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion Ki Teitsei, we find the prohibition against leaving a body hanging overnight: 

If a man is guilty of a capital offense and is put to death, you must not let his corpse remain on the stake overnight . . . for an impaled body is an affront to God. (Deut. 21:22)  

Let's focus on the last words of the verse - "affront to God" - which in the Hebrew read: 

כִּי קִלְלַת אֱלֹהִים תָּלוּי

The translation used above, from the Jewish Publication Society, understands these words as meaning that a hanging corpse is like cursing God. But is that the only meaning possible? 

The pivotal word here for our initial discussion is "Elohim" or "Elokim," taken to mean God (substituting the "h" for the "k", of course, reflects a different meaning of the Hebrew word). 

As we know from other places in the Bible, the word "Elohim" can have an entirely different meaning, referring to human judges. So the question is whether - in our verse - it is to be taken as a reference to God, or as a reference to secular authority? 

The great medieval commentator from France, Rashi, assigns the first interpretation to the text, that is, that the hanging body is an affront to God, “Elokim” (substituting the ‘k’ sound when not praying or reading the Torah helps separate the different points of the present discussion). That interpretation is straightforward, and, as is usually the case, most English translations follow Rashi’s interpretation. 

But two generations later we find our first alternative interpretation. Rashbam, the grandson of Rashi, asserts that the word in the text should be construed as ‘elohim’, or judges, and thus, decidedly ordinary or secular, as opposed to the usual Divine meaning of the Hebrew word. In Rashbam's own words: 

When passers-by view the corpse of a person who has been hanged they are in the habit of cursing the judge who decreed this penalty, or the relatives of the victim curse the judges accusing them of handing down a harsh verdict for a“minor” offence, such as the collecting of kindling on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:33). If the Torah considered it as necessary to warn the people against cursing their judges (“elohim lo tikalel”, Exodus 22:27) [the secular use of‘elohim’ in the Exodus verse] …..”,the body must not be left hanging overnight but must be taken down, as our cited passage in this week’s portion prescribes.

Note that this interpretation changes the whole meaning of the hanging body to being NOT an affront to God but to being an insult to the judges!

The divergence of opinion continues a few centuries later, as we read the commentator Seforno who  construes the meaning of ‘elohim’ here to be the same as the generally accepted interpretation of the word and description in a very strange incident recorded in the First Book of Samuel, Chapter 28. This is where King Saul in disguise persuades a medium (a diviner of spirits, a “witch”) to call upon the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel. The text there describes the medium (the Witch of Endor) as seeing an ‘elohim’ rising, typically translated as “spirit”. So we have our third interpretation here. 

Finally, some commentators of more recent centuries, among them Samson Raphael Hirsch and Ohr Hachaim, express what might be considered an amalgam of an insult to the Divine and to mankind. The person in life is imbued with a godly soul (as seen from early passages in Genesis), and even in death, the body must be respectfully treated as (having been a) representative of that combination of a Divine and physical being. This latter point seems to be keeping with the long-time practice (mentioned in the Talmud), if not the impetus, for avoiding a delay, to the greatest extent possible, in burying our deceased. Also, Nachmanides concurs with  this last view of seeing an insult to the Divine component of a person.  As an example, we can read Rabbi Hirsh's concluding comment:

Yea, an unburied corpse is to be considered as a disgrace and degradation to all living people, whose conception of the true worth of all human beings suffers at the sight of a dead body.

The Torah is said to bear 70 facets with each word; therefore, divergence of opinions among the learned as we have seen above can be very much respected and revered as a source of inspiration in many ways. 


Shabbat Shalom.

Wed, August 10 2022 13 Av 5782