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The Torah's Weekly Portions
Deuteronomy/Dvarim - Re'eh
"Ir Hanidachat"

Posted 2008 - Contributed by Asher ben Shimon
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This week's Torah portion, Re'ei, teaches us the laws of the Ir Hanidachat. An Ir Hanidachat is a city where the majority of the grown men actively involve in idol worship. Once it has been established that a city has fallen into this category, the entire families of the sinners are put to death by beheading and all possessions of both sinners and non sinners are burned publicly. Then the entire city needs to be destroyed never to be rebuilt.

There is an opinion in the Talmud that such a city never existed and never will exist but that the sole purpose of the Torah teaching us the laws of Ir Hanidachat is to increase the merit of Torah study for those who learn about it.

Therefore let's take a closer look at some of the laws.

In general repentance only affects a verdict made in the heavenly court. Once someone has sinned and a rabbinical court issued a verdict, repentance doesn't help to change that. G-d will only forgive that person after he receives his earthly punishment. The simple reason for this difference is that human judges do not read minds. Maybe the sinner truly feels remorse for his misdeed, but it may be that the worry about undergoing his punishment spurs his claims of repentance. G-d on the other hand knows what goes on in people's minds and hearts. If He sees that someone truly repented, He can forgive him for his sins.

The Rambam rules that if the sinners in an Ir Hanidachat repent before the verdict has been executed, it can be overturned. If part of the city repents and the non-sinners regain their majority status, the city will be spared.

According to the above rule that only heavenly punishments can be cancelled, this law of the Rambam needs to be clarified.

The Kesef Mishna offers the following explanation.
In order for a court to punish someone, he needs to be warned about the severity of the sin before he does it. This needs to be done by two kosher witnesses.

The Ir Hanidachat does not have a specific warning. Each individual needs to be warned that idol worship is a sin. In order for an individual to be punished for idol worship a warning will suffice. But the Ir Hanidachat status and its consequences is a result of a combination of many individuals deciding to sin. Therefore, since no warning can be issued to an Ir Hanidachat, the verdict can be revoked if enough people repent to make the sinners a minority.

Our original question however still remains. Although we understand that there is a difference between individuals and a city, which allows room for changing a verdict, we still don't have a good reason to say that in this case human judges know if the repentance is sincere.

The Tsofnat Paneach explains that Rambam never meant to say that the actual sinners can get off the hook by proclaiming they repented after the verdict has been issued.

The sin of an Ir Hanidachat is so severe that even the innocent wives and children of the sinners are put to death. In addition, all the physical belongings of all inhabitants are publicly burned as mentioned above. Rambam's rule applies to the women and children and the belongings. If the husbands claim to have repented they lose the status of an Ir Hanidachat thereby saving their families and everyone's possessions. They themselves will still be put to death for their earlier actions.

This explanation still has the same problem as before though.

If the rule is that human judges can not change a verdict based on a sinner's claimed repentance, why is this case different. At the end of the day we still change the status of the city as a result of the 'repentance'.

What does the Rambam base his ruling on?

According to the Tsofnat Paneach this can be learned from the city of Sedom. The city that was destroyed by Hashem in the times of Avraham.

Although we all know the stories about the wicked characters of the sodomites, this was not enough of a reason to kill them all. Our sages explain that the reason why the city was destroyed is because of idol worship, thereby rendering it an Ir Hanidachat.

On the verse which tells us that Hashem says He is going to take a look to see what really is going on in Sedom, the Targum translates/explains "if they repent I will not punish them"

This teaches us that it is possible for an Ir Hanidachat to repent and change its status.

The Talmud Yerushalmi teaches us another law based on the Sedom story. Avraham's nephew Lot was considered righteous enough to be saved. His belongings had to stay behind though and they were destroyed together with the entire city. From here we know that even the belongings of the righteous in an Ir Hanidachat have to be burned.

These two teachings we learn from Sedom are very interesting and make good speech material. There is however a slight problem.

We have a rule that we do not derive any laws from occurrences that took place before the Torah was given even when they are mentioned in the Torah. For instance we do not circumcise our children because Avraham was instructed to do so. His descendents till the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai did so because of that instruction. We do it because we were given a mitzvah to be circumcised on the 8th day. The action is the same, the commandment a different one.

Since the story of the destruction of Sedom took place long before the Torah was given, how to we derive laws from it?

Another rule.
Torah law knows four types of capital punishment. When someone is found guilty of several sins punishable by different types of death, the law is that he is given the most severe type of punishment.

Idol worship is punishable by death by stoning which is considered a harsh death.

The sinners in an Ir Hanidachat are put to death by beheading. This is a relatively smooth procedure. Much less painful, emotionally ad physically, than stoning.

Based on the rule that when one deserves various death types he is given the harshest one, it would follow that the inhabitants of an Ir Hanidachat should be stoned.

In general this law needs clarification. We said that if a city does not have a majority of sinners, everyone gets convicted to death by stoning. Once there is a majority this becomes the lesser punishment of beheading!

Let's say a city has 100 people of which 50 worship idols. One person is debating whether to join his righteous neighbors or his idolatrous neighbors. Finally the sinners win him over to their side. By doing so he lessens their punishment!!

This seems to indicate that an Ir Hanidachat is not a collection of individual sinners but rather a new entity. An Ir Hanidachat. This city needs to be dealt with in a certain way. Every sinner living there is killed by the sword and all its possessions are burned. If the sinner would retain his original identity, his upgrade to Ir Hanidachat member would have to lead to a more severe punishment. By looking at all the members of the Ir Hanidachat as people living in a doomed city, this problem is resolved.

It also explains why the innocent women and children are killed. This does not come as a result of an action they did, because they did not sin. It is a result of them living in a city of which all women and children need to be put to death. The same applies to the possessions of the righteous people of the Ir Hanidachat.

The city is doomed. The righteous people living there are not considered part of the doomed city. Their belongings are. Therefore they survive but their belongings don't v Where do we know this difference from?

That we derive from the story of Sedom.

Sedom doesn't teach us the law that we burn the material possessions of the non-sinners. It teaches us that it is considered part of the city. For if not Hashem would not have destroyed it.

In other words, the law that we destroy an Ir Hanidachat is based on what we were told on Mt Sinai. What is considered part of the city we learn from an earlier story. This is not a contradiction to the rule that we do not base a law on something that happened before the Torah was given. The law is written in the Torah as a mitzvah. Where this law does not apply we derive from a story that took place earlier.

Similarly when the Rambam ruled that repentance would help in the case of an Ir Hanidachat he did not rule that they were changing their punishment. That would contradict the law that once a verdict has been issued it can not be changed. Rather it allows the sinners to change the status of the city they live in. That this will impact the type of punishment they will receive as well as the fate of their wives and children and the physical belongings of the righteous people does not matter.

They do not change their individual punishment, they change their status from 'individual' to 'member of a city that deserves collective punishment'.

That this is possible we also derive from the Sedom story as mentioned before. Here too we do not teach a law but rather clarify what is considered a doomed city.

That a city with a population of which the majority worships idols is doomed is written as a mitzvah. That this majority status does not apply when people repent we learn from a story that took place before the Torah was given.

Our first question still remains though.

How do the human judges know that some people truly repented, thereby changing the status of the city?

Maybe we should redefine the reason why repentance only works for spiritual punishments meted out by the heavenly court but not for verdicts issued by human courts.

The reason why a human judge can only rule based on what he sees with his own physical eyes is because he only punishes for physical deeds.

The heavenly court punishes for thoughts and feelings too, so they have to know what goes on inside the heart and mind of the sinner and later repentant.

When a human judge finds out that someone performed an action of idol worship, denying G-d's existence, he needs to punish that person with the appropriate punishment regardless of the sinners intentions. Intentions are not his territory.

The upgrade to Ir Hanidachat status is different.

Only Jewish people are considered a Tzibur, a community. When ten Jews gather they form a minyan. This minyan can be comprised of all kinds of people. The word tzibur is an acronym for the words Tzadikim,Benonim,Reshaim. Righteous,average and wicked people. They are all one because they all have a neshama, a spark of G-d, inside. Since G-d is One all Jews are also one. They form a community. Not only the soul is Jewish, the entire person is. The perfectly righteous is obviously tuned in to his souls messages. But even the average person and the sinner are still called Jewish. In the case of the Ir Hanidachat we even extend this G-dly communal bond to all their possessions.

How can this G-dly connection be expressed in case of denial of G-d such as the Ir Hanidachat?

A computer will never rebel against its programmer. It may stop functioning if there is a technical problem but it will never perform actions it wasn't programmed to do.

G-d is more than a computer programmer. He is omnipotent. He is so powerful that he can even create a being that He allows to rebel against Him. The power to sin is a G-dly one.

Therefore even in the case of an Ir Hanidachat we apply the G-dly power that unites all Jews to upgrade them to a community of sinners with all consequences thereof.

This explains why repentance can be accepted by human judges in this case.

In general G-d gave the judgment of inner feelings to the heavenly court and the judgment of physical actions to a human court. The human judge is not required to take anything past the physical deed into consideration regardless of his ability to read minds.

Although the sinner may claim he repented this is not enough to rectify his sin. His sin was performed on an outward level with his physical body so it needs to be punished with a physical punishment.

The Ir Hanidachat status is established by an inner power. That the outward appearance is affected by this is also a result of this inner power as opposed to a regular individual sinner who sins with his outer appearance only.

So as soon as the sinners declare that they repent, they indicate that they did not sin with this inner power that renders them a community and they return to the status of individual sinners for which the human judge can give a rectifying punishment.

May reading about Teshuva inspire us to do Teshuva so we can merit the coming of Moshiach now.


Translations in Torah Portions of the week are partially taken from the ArtScroll Stone Edition Chumash and from Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch Chumash

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