Murder, Foul and Not So Foul

Daniel J. Kevles tells us that poison has been a historically popular means of murder for women1:

Whether or not Lucrezia Borgia used poison, the weapon was a great equalizer. Murder required administering a poison in repeated or large doses, tasks that women could conveniently perform since they were trusted with the preparation of food and the administration of medicines. As a group, women had plenty of reasons to commit murder, too—lack of economic opportunity, limited property rights, and difficulty in escaping the marriage bond. In his recent book Elements of Murder: A History of Poison, John Emsley describes multiple cases of women who killed to gain courtly power, get rid of husbands, collect insurance, cover up swindling and theft during domestic employment, and receive inheritances.

Rav Ya’akov Castro writes:2:

אשה שרצתה להאכיל את בעלה סם המות ונתברר בירור גמור בעדים שקנתה אותו בפועל וגמרה בדעתה להאכילו ולא לתשמיש אחר, חמירא סכנתא מאיסורא ועדיף מזינתה, ואין לה כתובה ולא תנאיה כי אם בלאותיה הקיימים, ובית דין מפרידים ביניהם כדי שלא תצא מחשבתה לפועל, ומעשיה הרעים גרמו לה כנ”ל, כל שלא גרם הוא במעשיה [ו]ראוי לכך

Rav Castro’s concluding phrase, כל שלא גרם הוא במעשיה [ו]ראוי לכך, is most pregnant, albeit enigmatic; he is apparently implying that some husbands deserve to be poisoned, and that their wives are not to be penalized for attempting their murder! Perhaps he has in mind something akin to the Battered Woman Defense:

The battered woman defense is a legal defense representing that the person accused of an assault or murder was suffering from battered person syndrome at the material time. Because the defence is almost invariably invoked by women, it is usually characterised in court as battered woman syndrome or battered wife syndrome. Although the medical condition is not gender specific, the law has been persuaded to remedy perceived gender bias in the operation of the defence of self-defence by admitting evidence of the medical condition. …

The courts in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and United States have accepted the extensive and growing body of research showing that battered partners can use force to defend themselves and sometimes kill their abusers because of the abusive and sometimes life-threatening situation in which they find themselves, acting in the firm belief that there is no other way than to kill for self-preservation. The courts have recognised that this evidence may support a variety of defences to a charge of murder or to mitigate the sentence if convicted of lesser offences. Battered Women syndrome may legally constitute:

  • Self-defence when using a reasonable and proportionate degree of violence in response to the abuse might appear the most appropriate defence but, until recently, it almost never succeeded. Research in 1996 in England found no case in which a battered woman successfully pleaded self-defence (see Noonan at p198). After analysing 239 appellate decisions on trials of women who killed in self-defence in the U.S., Maguigan (1991) argues that self-defence is gender biased both in its nature and in the way it is applied by trial judges;
  • self-defence where the battered person was justified in acting in self-defence but used excessive force;
  • provocation;
  • insanity (usually within the meaning of the M’Naghten Rules); and
  • diminished responsibility.

The cited passage of the ערך לחם appears verbatim in the Hagahos of Rav Avraham Azulai to the Levush, which have been printed in the Zichron Aharon edition of the Levush (Yerushalayim 5760, ‘corrected’ edition 5764)3. There is no attribution to the ערך לחם, and moreover, a cursory analysis indicates that most of Rav Azulai’s Hagahos are excerpts of the aforementioned work, with Rav Castro only occasionally credited. In fact, the previously quoted passage is only a part of a single note of Rav Azulai, the entirety of which is found verbatim in the ערך לחם! The inconsistency of Rav Azulai’s citations is most manifest in those notes where he cites multifarious passages from the ערך לחם, but only credits him on some of the material, e.g.4:

או הוברר (שזינתה) [שזממה] והכינה להורגו, ועיין סימן צ”א דין מנהג דמשק, הריק”ש. זינתה בשוגג וסבורה שהיא בעלה מותר, ואם שגגה שלא ידעה שיש איסור בדבר, אסורה.

This entire passage is in the ערך לחם5, but perhaps Rav Azulai only cites Rav Castro in connection with the first part since the second part is not an innovation of Rav Castro, but merely a citation by him of rulings of the Rambam and the Maharik (also cited by the Rema6). Indeed, a further, albeit still cursory, analysis of Rav Azulai’s Hagahos corroborates the thesis that he only provides an attribution to Rav Castro when he is citing novellae of his, but not when he is merely reproducing his citations of earlier authorities. Nevertheless, Rav Azulai’s failure to attribute the original passage of אשה שרצתה להאכיל את בעלה סם המות to Rav Castro is quite odd, since the brief passage of הוברר (שזינתה) [שזממה] והכינה להורגו, which he does attribute to him, seems to merely be a summary of the earlier, lengthier one!

Apropos of Jewish Borgias, we must mention the lurid incident of a woman who, in 1863, apparently successfully conspired with her paramour to kill her husband with poison. The victim’s brother asked the Maharam Shik about the desirability of avenging his death7:

ע”ד עובדא ביש שאירע שאחיו המנוח המופלא מוה’ מרדכי ז”ל מת באסרו חג של פסח תרכ”ג מיתה פתאומיות ר”ל ונחשדת אשת אחיו שהיא נתנה לבעלה סם המוות ויש כמה אומדנות על זה וקצת הודאה וגם היא נחשדת מאיש אחר אשר לפי הנראה הוא היה בעצה הרעה הזאת עמה וכתב מעכ”ת נ”י שגאוני מדינתינו כתבו לו שתמוה גדולה אצלם על כבוד אביו הגאון הצדיק נ”י דמה זו שתיקה ושלדעתם מצוה לבער הרע ושלא לחפות עליה ועל הנחשד ונפש תחת נפש כתיב ושופך דם האדם באדם דמו ישפך עכ”ל הצריך: …

[ועיין שם בדבריו, וצידד שיש מקום להקל על פי הסוגיא דבבא מציעא דף פ”ג ע”ב דרבי אלעזר ברבי שמעון הוה תפיס גנבי ומוסרם למלכות והיו נהרגים, אבל העלה:] אמנם כל זה לדינא אבל מהתם עצמו מוכח דלכל הפחות אין לגדולי ישראל להתאמץ ולהשתדל וכמו שכתב הרשב”א בתשובה הנ”ל המובאת בבית יוסף סימן שפ”ח … ולכך נהי דאין למחות לאחרינא ומאן דעביד ומשתדל כדין עביד דיש לו הרבה פוסקים לסמוך עליהם. מכל מקום על כל פנים אין לגדולי ישראל להשתדל בזה אלא להיות בשב ואל תעשה וכמו שאמר שמעון בן שטח ומה אעשה שאין דמך מסור בידי … והמקום יפרע מהם וד’ יגזור פרצות עמו בני ישראל ברחמים דברי ידידו הדו”ש הק’ משה שיק מברעזאווע:

Note that we have discussed the Halachic perspective on the desirability of avenging murders here.

A comprehensive discussion of the legitimacy of cooperation with the secular criminal justice system toward the punishment of Jewish offenders is beyond the scope of this post as well as against this blog’s policy, but here are some sources for further reading:

  • The Sugya in Bava Mezia cited by Maharam Shik8
  • Various responsa of Rashba9
  • An essay by Rabbi J. David Bleich, in Contemporary Halachic Problems10
  • An article by Rabbi Michael J. Broyde, Informing on Others for Violating American Law: A Jewish Law View11
  • קונטרוס “דם רעיך”: בענין דיווח לרשויות במקרים של התעוללות בילדים, in Yeshurun – rulings and analysis by Rabbis Y. S. Elyashiv (in response to queries from Rav Feivel Cohen), Zalman Nehemiah Goldberg, Yehudah Silman, Asher Weiss, and Moshe Halberstam.12
  • A valuable article by Rabbi Avraham Noach Taplin in Kovetz Nehorai13

There is also an important responsum of Rav Hai Gaon on this topic:

ושאלת איש שהעידו עליו עדים שהם היו שוכבים ועמדו ומצאו אותו ובידיו סכין וראובן מוטל הרוג, אמרו לו מי הרגו את ההרוג הזה? אמר להם אני, ונלקח ונמסר לסולטאן והושם בכלא ונתחייב מיתה בדיני הגוים. האם מותר לבר ישראל לחלצו מן הסולטאן? או מפני שזה טיבו דינו מן השמים להימסר למלכות, נשאיר אותו במצבו, מפני שאנו לא התרנו למסור אותו לסולטאן אלא בנו של ההרוג מסרו אליו. יודיענו אדוננו מה הדין בזה?

התשובה: אתה, יעזור ה’ לך, יודע שלא הותר להרוג את המחויב מיתה אלא לסנהדרין שיש לה תנאים מיוחדים, ולאחר שיהיו בה מחייבין ומזכין, שאפילו אם הסכימו כולם לחייבו לא יותר להם להרגו, ואיך יחויב אדם זה למיתה? והודאתו אינה מפשיעתו בזה כלל, כי המעשה (תלוי) בדברי שני עדים. ואתה יודע כי העדות הזאת הנזכרת לא תועיל כלום, ויודע אתה את דבריהם: “כיזצד מאימין על עידי נפשות” (סנהדרין ל”ז). ושהם ממה שנאמר להם: “שמא תאמרו מאומד ומשמועה עד מפי עד אדם נאמן שמענו’ (שם). ונתפרש: “כאיזצד מאומד שמה כך ראיתם אדם שרץ אחר חבירו להרגו ורצתם אחריו ומצאתם סייף בידו ודם מטפטף והרוג מפרפר אם כך ראיתם לא ראיתם כלום” (שם ל”ז ע,ב). ואתה יודע מה סיפר שמעון בן שטח בזה,

ולכן אסור למי שיכול לחלץ את האיש הזה מן המלכות להימנע מכך. ובאשר לדבריהם: מי שנתחייב הריגה נמסר למלכות, זה בידי ה’ יתעלה, כך שלא ימצא מי שיכול לחלצו. ואתה הרי יודע שבגלות לא נהרג מי שנתחייב מיתה, אלא עושים את כל הניתן לעשות כדי לחלצו כמו (שנזכר) בתלמוד: “כיהא דבר חמא קטל נפשא אמ’ ליה ראש גלותא לרב אחא פוק עיין במילתיה או ודאי קטל איכחייה אתו שהדי אשהידו ביה דודאי קטל’ (שם כ”ז ע”א). ולא דן אותו למיתה (בגלל) שהוא הרג, אלא “איכחייה”, וכאשר בא מי שמסר עדות על העדים שהם גנבו והחליש בכך את עדותם, ובזה נחלקו ר’ מאיר ור’ יוסי, אשר נהג בחמלה וחילץ אותו מפני שלולי זאת לא היה מקבל ממנו מה שהוא קיבל בשבילו, ואלו דבריהם: “קם בר חמא נשקיה אכראעיה וקבליה לאכרגיה דכוליהי שנייה’ (שם).

This responsum, along with five others from the same Philadelphia manuscript, were recently published for the first time by Dr. Yehezkel David in Kovetz Al Yad14. My friend Yisroel brought the ruling to my attention15, and he observes that while Professor David states that:

דברי הגאון כאן מתאימים לדברי אביו רש”ג שהשיב: “ההורג את הנפש בזמן הזה אין בידינו לעשות לו מאומה לא להורגו ולא לחובטו ולא להגלותו אלא לימנע ממנו שלא להתערב עמו ואסור להתפלל עמו ולהסתכל בדמותו שכן אמרו חכמים אסור להסתכל בדמות אדם רשע ופסול לכל העדות שבעולם”.

Rav Hai is actually issuing a ruling of immensely greater import; while the father states merely that we may not punish the murderer, the son goes much further and rules that anyone who can save the criminal is forbidden to refrain from doing so!

Yisroel argues that the stringent view of Rav Hai may call into question the various lenient opinions of the Poskim, since none of them had seen this responsum; while I am not sure that I would go that far, this is certainly a crucial addition to the Halachic literature on this topic. [I am aware that my use of the terminology of stringency and leniency in this context is debatable, as in the famous bon mot attributed to Rav Haim Soloveitchik about Pikuah Nefesh trumping other Halachos.]

  1. A History of Poison, originally published on Slate, and also available at the History News Network (where I originally saw it). []
  2. ערך לחם אה”ע ריש סימן קט”ו []
  3. שם ריש הסימן []
  4. שם אות ה []
  5. שם סעיף ה []
  6. אה”ע סימן קע”ח סעיף ג []
  7. שו”ת מהר”ם שיק חו”מ סימן נ []
  8. בבא מציעא דף פ”ג ע”ב []
  9. שו”ת הרשב”א החדשות מכת”י סימן שמ”ה, הובא בבית יוסף חו”מ סוף סימן שפ”ח, והיא המובאת בתשובת מהר”ם שי”ק הנ”ל. שם חלק ג’ סימן שצ”ג, הובא בבית יוסף שם סימן ב’ מחודש ב. שם חלק ה’ סימן רל”ח []
  10. Volume IV p. 62 []
  11. Available online from Jlaw. The article appears to be a slightly expanded version of Chapter Eleven, “Prosecuting Criminals”, of his book The Pursuit of Justice and Jewish Law []
  12. קובץ ט”ו עמוד תרל”ד []
  13. תשס”ז עמוד תתכ”ב []
  14. י”ט [כ”ט] ירושלים, תשס”ו עמוד ל”ד []
  15. he also pointed me in the direction of the notion of Battered Woman Syndrome, and he actually was an inspiration for this post itself, not by his example, but by a suggestion that I write about the passage in the Erech Lehem with its provocative implications. []
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6 Responses to Murder, Foul and Not So Foul

  1. Great post – also there is another celebrated case of poison, that is discussed in Stanislwaski’s book http://seforim.blogspot.com/2007/04/review-of-dr-michael-stanislawski.html

  2. andy says:

    R’ Hai’s teshuvah does not address what would appear to be the more relevant sugyot on this question, particularly the one in Niddah daf 61.

  3. Milhouse says:

    Rav Castro’s concluding phrase, כל שלא גרם הוא במעשיה [ו]ראוי לכך, is most pregnant, albeit enigmatic; he is apparently implying that some husbands deserve to be poisoned, and that their wives are not to be penalized for attempting their murder! Perhaps he has in mind something akin to the Battered Woman Defense:

    I don’t think we need to go there. It seems to me you’re confusing criminal law with civil law. In our case we are not trying this woman for attempted murder, and coming up with possible defenses for her crime. Our concern is in dinei momonos: must the husband fulfill his contract and pay her the penalty he accepted for divorcing her.

    There is a strong presumption that a divorcing husband must pay the ketuba; a strong case must be made to exempt him from this obligation. Almost the only grounds for such an exemption are if the divorce was entirely her fault — he didn’t want to divorce her, but was forced to by her actions. If a husband finds out that his wife has cheated on him, he has no choice; even if he would rather forgive her and remain married, he must divorce her. In such a case it would be unfair to make him pay the ketuba.

    In our case, once again it’s her actions that compel him to divorce her, and he should not be made to pay. But what if he is also at fault? Regardless of how wrong she was to try to kill him, and how quickly she would be convicted in a criminal court, what if he drove her to it? In such a case, can he really claim that he should be released from his contractual obligation to pay the ketuba? As a matter of dinei momonos RIKAS suggests that perhaps he can not.

  4. Yitzhak says:

    I don’t think we need to go there. It seems to me you’re confusing criminal law with civil law. In our case we are not trying this woman for attempted murder, and coming up with possible defenses for her crime. Our concern is in dinei momonos: must the husband fulfill his contract and pay her the penalty he accepted for divorcing her.

    I agree; this is an important distinction.

    There is a strong presumption that a divorcing husband must pay the ketuba; a strong case must be made to exempt him from this obligation. Almost the only grounds for such an exemption are if the divorce was entirely her fault — he didn’t want to divorce her, but was forced to by her actions. If a husband finds out that his wife has cheated on him, he has no choice; even if he would rather forgive her and remain married, he must divorce her. In such a case it would be unfair to make him pay the ketuba.

    This is misleading; the Halachah does not require that one divorce an עוברת על דת, even one whose violations are in areas of צניעות, and there may be some who do not even consider it a Mizvah (see Shulhan Aruch 115:4, Helkas Mehokek 18 and Beis Shmuel 19), but she nevertheless forfeits the Kesuvah. It follows that the justification for denying her the Kesuvah is not necessarily that the husband must divorce her, but that he may claim that her behavior is intolerable.

    In our case, once again it’s her actions that compel him to divorce her, and he should not be made to pay. But what if he is also at fault? Regardless of how wrong she was to try to kill him, and how quickly she would be convicted in a criminal court, what if he drove her to it? In such a case, can he really claim that he should be released from his contractual obligation to pay the ketuba? As a matter of dinei momonos RIKAS suggests that perhaps he can not.

    I agree that the level of provocation required to reinstate his obligation to pay the Kesuvah may be lower than the level required to acquit her of criminal charges, although as I pointed out above, the husband’s release from his Kesuvah obligation does not require that he be involuntarily compelled to divorce his wife, but merely that her behavior be deemed intolerable. I therefore still think that Rav Castro is implying a substantial Hiddush by his suggestion that justifiable attempted homicide is insufficient grounds for forfeiture of the Kesuvah, although I agree that your point is well taken.

  5. Pingback: בין דין לדין » Blog Archive » Potions, Philtres and Poisons

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