Sodomite, Greek and English Judicial Theories

This post is dedicated to Mississippi Fred MacDowell, for obvious orthographical reasons.

The Gemara relates:

ארבע דייני היו בסדום שקראי ושקרוראי זייפי ומצלי דינא

  • דמחי ליה לאיתתא דחברי’ ומפלא ליה אמרי ליה יהבה ניהליה דניעברה ניהליך
  • דפסיק ליה לאודנא דחמרא דחבריה אמרו ליה הבה ניהליה עד דקדחא
  • דפדע ליה לחבריה אמרי ליה הב ליה אגרא דשקל לך דמא
  • דעבר במברא יהיב ארבעה זוזי דעבר במיא יהיב תמני זוזי

זימנא חדא אתא ההוא כובס איקלע להתם

אמרו ליה הב ד’ זוזי

אמר להו אנא במיא עברי

אמרו ליה א”כ הב תמניא דעברת במיא

לא יהיב פדיוהו אתא לקמיה דדיינא

א”ל הב ליה אגרא דשקיל לך דמא ותמניא זוזי דעברת במיא

אליעזר עבד אברהם איתרמי התם פדיוהי אתא לקמיה דיינא

א”ל הב ליה אגרא דשקל לך דמא

שקל גללא פדיוהי איהו לדיינא

אמר מאי האי

א”ל אגרא דנפק לי מינך הב ניהליה להאי וזוזי דידי כדקיימי קיימי1

The error of the Sodomites is an excessively strict constructionism; alas, they lived too early to benefit from the wisdom of the legendary Commentaries of the great Sir William Blackstone:

IF words happen to be ftill dubious, we may eftablifh their meaning from the context; with which it may be of fingular ufe to compare a word, or a fentence, whenever they are ambiguous, equivocal, or intricate. Thus the proeme, or preamble, is often called in to help the conftruction of an act of parliament. Of the fame nature and ufe is the comparifon of a law with other laws, that are made by the fame legiflator, that have fome affinity with the fubject, or that expreffly relate to the fame point. Thus, when the law of England declares murder to be felony without benefit of clergy, we muft refort to the fame law of England to learn what the benefit of clergy is: and, when the common law cenfures fimoniacal contracts, it affords great light to the fubject to confider what the canon law has adjudged to be fimony.

AS to the fubject matter, words are always to be underftood as having a regard thereto; for that is always fuppofed to be in the eye of the legiflator, and all his expreffions directed to that end. Thus, when a law of our Edward III. forbids all ecclefiaftical perfons to purchafe provifions at Rome, it might feem to prohibit the buying of grain and other victual; but when we confider that the ftatute was made to reprefs the ufurpations of the papal fee, and that the nominations to vacant benefices by the pope were called provifions, we fhall fee that the reftraint is intended to be laid upon fuch provifions only.

AS to the effects and confequence, the rule is, where words bear either none, or a very abfurd fignification, if literally underftood, we muft a little deviate from the received fenfe of them. Therefore the Bolognian law, mentioned by Puffendorf, which enacted “that whoever drew blood in the ftreets fhould be punifhed with the utmoft feverity,” was held after long debate not to extend to the furgeon, who opened the vein of a perfon that fell down in the ftreet with a fit.2

Incidentally, the immediately following passage of the aforementioned Gemara is the famous Talmudic version of the Procrustean Bed anecdote:

הויא להו פורייתא דהוו מגני עלה אורחין כי מאריך גייזי ליה כי גוץ מתחין ליה

אליעזר עבד אברהם אקלע להתם אמרו ליה קום גני אפוריא אמר להון נדרא נדרי מן יומא דמיתת אמא לא גנינא אפוריא

Plutarch’s version:

In Eleusis, moreover, he out-wrestled Cercyon the Arcadian and killed him and going on a little farther, at Erineus, he killed Damastes, surnamed Procrustes, by compelling him to make his own body fit his bed, as he had been wont to do with those of strangers. And he did this in imitation of Heracles. For that hero punished those who offered him violence in the manner in which they had plotted to serve him, and therefore sacrificed Busiris, wrestled Antaeus to death, slew Cycnus in single combat, and killed Termerus by dashing in his skull.

It is from him, indeed, as they say, that the name “Termerian mischief” comes, for Termerus, as it would seem, used to kill those who encountered him by dashing his head against theirs. Thus Theseus also went on his way chastising the wicked, who were visited with the same violence from him which they were visiting upon others, and suffered justice after the manner of their own injustice.3

Update: R. Josh Waxman discusses the Procrustean parallel here (h/t: Wolf2191), and he notes that Bray of Fundie mentioned it in a blog post several years ago.

  1. סנהדרין קט: – קשר []
  2. Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, Introduction – link. Hat tip: Richard Posner. []
  3. Plutarch. Lives Vol. I. Translated by Perrin, Bernadotte. Loeb Classical Library Volume 46. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. London. William Heinemann Ltd. 1914. – link. []
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