Ki Killelat Elokim Talui: The Tenuous Role of Hanging in Halakha by Daniel Becker


According to the Oxford Dictionary, hanging is a method of death by suspension of the neck, and has been a capital punishment since ancient times. It is still utilized as a method of execution in numerous countries around the world. 

In Judaism, there are four capital punishments Sekilah: stoning, Sereifah: burning, Chenek: strangulation, and Hereg: cutting off someone’s head. The Rambam holds that these are four different mitzvot, while the Ramban says that none of these are mitzvot.   All maintain that there is no capital punishment of hanging in Judaism, but there is a din of hanging after the death of someone to show that they did something wrong and that no one else should do this or else they will receive the same punishment as explained in the Torah in Sefer Devarim, 21:22-23.


These Pesukim go on to say that after this man who sinned was killed, then hanged on a ‘tree’,  that we must take him down before nightfall because he should be buried on the same day he was executed. If you leave him hanging overnight, you violate a lav of “Lo Talin”.

What is the problem of leaving the body unburied overnight, and why do you violate a Lav for doing this?  The Pasuk continues, “Ki Kilelat Elokim Talui,” a hanging person is an insult of God, and  “VeLo Titamei Et Admat’cha”, you should not make the land impure, which Hashem, your God gives you. These Pesukim are somewhat ambiguous, but the main question we are going to focus on is what is “Ki Kilelat Elokim Talui;” what does this phrase really mean, and how does it connect to the phrase after it, “VeLo Titamei Et Admat’cha”?

Targum Onkelos translates “Ki Kilelat Elokim Talui” as a Chiyuv or a sin before Hashem. Meaning that this sin, which was committed, is more offensive before Hashem. The Sifrei takes a similar approach and says that “Ki Kilelat Elokim Talui” means that someone who curses Hashem is hanged. The Sifrei then records a Machlocket between Rabi Eliezer and the Chachamim regarding one who is hanged after being stoned: the Chachamim say only one who worships idols and one who curses Hashem (Megadef) is hanged after being stoned. Rabi Eliezer, in contrast, maintains that any person who is stoned also is hung.  Once again, these opinions seem to place the primary focus on Kevod Shamayim.

Rashi takes a slightly different approach, he explains “Ki Kilelat Elokim Talui” as referring to the hanging body being a degradation to Hashem, as He created all of humanity in His image. Rashi presents a mashal of a pair of twins who look very similar. One becomes a king and one becomes a thief; the thief is eventually caught, executed and hung. People see the robber hanging, who looks like the king and  proclaim ‘the King has been hung’. This would be an embarrassment to the king that his brother who looks like him is hung. So too in our case, people would see this Jewish man being hanged, and since Jews are considered the children of Hashem (parallel to brothers in the analogy), and we are created in Hashem’s image, this would be an embarrassment to Hashem. Rashi, subtly differentiating himself from the aforementioned views of Targum Onkelos and the Sifrei, links Kavod HaAdam and Kavod Shamayim: Man is created in the Divine Image of Hashem. If he is degraded, then it is a degradation or a Chilul Hashem to God, Himself.

The Rashbam takes a fundamentally different approach to the enigmatic words “Ki Kilelat Elokim Talui”.  Rashbam notes that Kelala means to curse, but it’s not a curse on Hashem. He explains that when people walk by a hanged body, they may curse the Beit Din.  Rashbam brings an example of the Mekoshesh Eitzim-- even though he did what many may perceive of as a small Aveirah, he was stoned, leading to the cursing of the Beit Din[1]

Ibn Ezra, eschewing the approach of Kavod Shamayim endorsed by Rashi, Onkelos, and Sifrei, as well as the Kevod Beit Din approach of Rashbam, cultivates his own perspective in interpreting the first clause,   “Ki Kilelat Elokim Talui,” in light of the second clause in the pasuk, “VeLo Titamei Et Admat’cha.”  The Ibn Ezra says that we are not doing this for Kevod HaAdam, but rather for Kedushat Eretz Yisrael, protecting the holiness of the land.   In this manner, Ibn Ezra cites the incident from Sefer Yehoshua pertaining to Yehoshua’s insistence that even the bodies of the five gentile kings who had allied in an attempt to destroy the city of Givon must be taken down prior to sunset as evidence that the impetus for this halakha is kevod ha-aretz.

Ramban, characteristically, synthesizes aspects of Rashi and the Ibn Ezra together but takes Kedushat Haaretz a step further as he enumerates an additional lav if one leaves over a body in the land of Israel.   Also, he takes components from Rashi by talking about how degrading hanging  is. He also says that you are only obligated to bring in the body if you hang the person. Ramban, at great length, analyzes the story of the Givonites hanging Shaul’s grandchildren. After the destruction of Nov, the Givonites were furious with Shaul and wanted revenge. After three years of famine, David asked Hashem how he could stop the famine, and Hashem answered that he must appease the Givonites. David asked the Givonites what they wanted, and they answered that they wanted to kill seven of Shaul’s children. David tried to appease them with something else, but they did not accept. David gave over seven grandchildren of Shaul, and the Givonites hanged them, and left them there in order to publicize their revenge. Ritzpah, the mother of two of these grandchildren, took care of the bodies for around seven months. Later on, David made a decree that the Givonites could not marry Jews anymore because they lacked the attribute of mercy, as they refused to take anything except for the death of Shaul’s grandchildren. This shows how bad leaving the bodies of hanged people is, as it brought the Givonites to be excluded from the community. In addition, we see how Ritzpah prevented the recreation of the case of the Sar Haophim, by protecting the bodies from degradation, not allowing birds and other animals to come and eat the flesh of the bodies. The Ramban says that David wasn’t obligated to bury the seven grandchildren because he didn’t hang them, but he did so out of respect for Shaul’s royalty.

Rambam takes a different approach and says that this is all about Kevod Shamayim. It’s a disgrace to Hashem when the body is still hanging because of what people will talk about, they will discuss the cursing of Hashem which led to this hanging and thereby lead to further decrease in Kevod Shamayim . He also has some aspects of Kevod HaAdam as he says that “Meit Mitzvah” is a Mitzvah Deoraita, showing how important burying a person is; meaning that David was actually obligated to bury the seven grandchildren of Shaul, unlike the Ramban’s opinion. Also, in contrast to the Ramban, the Rambam has no mentioning of Kedushat Ha’Aretz, while the Ibn Ezra and Ramban placed major emphasis on it.

The great precision with which the Din of Teliyah must be implemented reflects the importance, on the one hand, of stigmatizing the most serious of Aveirot (be it idolatry or blasphemy), while maintaining great sensitivity to Kevod Shamayim, Kevod Ha’Adam, and Kedushat Ha’Aretz.  As always, the Torah sought to calibrate an exquisite balance in protecting the ultimate form of sanctity, Kedushat Hashem, which is so brazenly assaulted by the Oveid Avodah Zarah or the Megadef, while ensuring that other forms of sanctity, such as Kedushat HaAdam and Kedushat Ha’Aretz, or sacred institutions, such as are not undermined in the process.

[1] Implicit in Rashbam’s approach is the fact that the Torah utilizes precisely the same word for the Divine and for judges, which itself is a fundamental lesson concerning the significance of Beit Din in halakha.  Countless rabbinic statements testify to the manner in which judges who judge accurately bring the presence of Hashem into this world.

Charging Interest by Akiva Sturm

The Fear of Berachot by Eitan Leff