Ir HaNidachat by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Few Mitzvot in the Torah seem as violent as the rules set forth in Devarim Perek 13 regarding the Ir HaNidachat, a city in which a majority of the inhabitants serve Avodah Zarah (idolatry). The Torah demands that we kill all of the city’s inhabitants (even the minority who did not serve Avodah Zarah) and burn all of their possessions.

The Challenge

While it is understood that morality requires good people to eliminate evil[1], the administration of the death penalty to an entire city seems brutal and incongruent with Sefer Mishlei’s (3:17) characterization of the Torah: “Deracheha Darchei No’am VeChol Netivotehah Shalom,” “its ways are pleasant and all its path are peaceful.” Thus, we are challenged to find an explanation for why Hashem includes this rule in the Torah.

A Question that Might Unlock the Message

A clue to unlocking this mystery lies in the surprising phrase presented in Devarim 13:18 in the context of Ir HaNidachat, “VeNatan Lecha Rachamim,” meaning that Hashem should bestow mercy upon us. This phrase’s appearance after the Torah’s describing a Mitzvah to kill all of the inhabitants of a city is astonishing. The concept of Rachamim appears to be starkly out of place when discussing the rules of an Ir HaNidachat. How do we explain the promise of mercy in the context of a Mitzvah that requires violent action?

Three Classic Answers

Ramban (Devarim 13:16) explains that the mercy element in the Ir HaNidachat teaches us to spare the children from punishment[2]. In a variation on this theme, Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, in his Oznayim LaTorah, explains that mercy is required to adopt the orphaned children of an Ir HaNidachat[3].

The Netziv[4], in his HaAmeik Davar, explains that the Torah is concerned that engaging in violent activity, even when it is necessary to do so, will negatively transform people into violent individuals[5]. Thus, those who administered the death penalty to the residents of an Ir HaNidachat are in need of Hashem’s gift of mercy so that their justified, yet violent, actions do not transform them into violent people.

A Different Approach, Based on the Lubavitcher Rebbe

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 71b) presents an opinion that an Ir HaNidachat would never occur. The Gemara explains that since the Torah requires that everything in an Ir HaNidachat be burned, an Ir HaNidachat cannot be destroyed, so long as it contains even a single Mezuzah. Since a Mezuzah contains Hashem’s name, it cannot be destroyed; its destruction would violate the prohibition of erasing Hashem’s name (Devarim 12:4, with Rashi’s comments)[6].

This idea has profound implications. One tiny Mezuzah can spare an entire city from the status of an Ir HaNidachat! This teaches that a drop of positive energy has the power and potential to counter much negativity. The Kabbalah expresses this idea in its statement that a little bit of light can dispel much darkness[7].

One may ask, though, what would happen if a city met the requirements of an Ir HaNidachat and contained not a single Mezuzah. How can the opinion presented by the Gemara claim that an Ir HaNidachat is an impossibility if there is a distinct possibility that the Jews in the city have strayed so far from Judaism to the extent that there remains not even a single Mezuzah?

We may answer based on Rashi (Devarim 31:21 s.v. Ki Lo Tishachach MiPi Zar’o), who states that “the Torah has promised that the Torah will never be completely forgotten by the Jewish People.” Thus, asserting that an Ir HaNidachat is an impossibility affirms faith in the Jewish People and in the belief that there will never be a city among our people where the inhabitants have strayed to the extent that there is not even one Mezuzah in the town[8].

Another answer is based on a story told about the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Lubavitcher Rebbe is reported to have remarked that if he heard that a city was about to be declared an Ir HaNidachat, he would arise at two in the morning and affix a Mezuzah to a home in that city. In other words, were a city to be devoid of any authentic Jewish influence and presence, the Lubavitcher Rebbe would create an authentic center of Jewish life. As is well known, this was not a passing sentiment of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, but rather a life’s mission for himself and his followers. An examination of leads one to marvel at the hundreds of centers of Jewish life established by followers of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in almost every corner of the globe, especially in areas which had a dearth of Jewish life. These efforts are part of the happy story of the resurgence and revitalization of Orthodox Judaism in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

The Challenge of the Ir HaNidachat

Thus, we argue that the Torah never intended for us to implement the rules of Ir HaNidachat. Rather, it is a call and challenge to the Jewish People to ensure that a Jewish community never becomes an Ir HaNidachat. For this reason, we suggest that the term “mercy” perfectly suits the idea of an Ir HaNidachat. The presence of this word in the Torah’s presenting the rules of the Ir HaNidachat is a signal that an Ir HaNidachat should be interpreted and implemented in a merciful manner. The concept of an Ir HaNidachat is a call for us to take responsibility for each other’s spiritual welfare and not a summons to violent action.

Support from Ramban Regarding a Kahal Shogeig

Support for this contention may be drawn from Ramban’s comments to BeMidbar 15:22. Ramban asserts that if an entire community does not observe the Torah, its members (not its leaders) are considered to be sinning BeShogeig, inadvertently, since they are merely swept up by the current of the time. Support for this surprising assertion of a Kahal Shogeig (the inadvertent community) may be drawn from a nearby Pasuk (15:26) that states, “VeNislach Lechol Adat Benei Yisrael….Ki LeChol HaAm BiShegagah,” meaning that Hashem forgives the entire Jewish people since the communal sin is regarded as unintentional. The importance of this principle is evident from the fact that we recite this Pasuk no less than three times at the conclusion of Kol Nidrei, on the onset of Yom Kippur.

Ramban’s “Kahal Shogeig principle,” however, seems to run counter to the principle of an Ir HaNidachat, where the death penalty is administered to an entire community for worshipping Avodah Zarah. While inadvertent sinners are not absolved of guilt, they nonetheless hardly deserve the death penalty. According to Ramban, why should the members of an Ir HaNidachat deserve the death penalty?

We may answer that in practice, the death penalty is not administered to the residents of an Ir HaNidachat, since the Torah challenges us to make sure that a spiritually lacking city does not become an Ir HaNidachat. The Torah does not intend to punish the residents of an Ir HaNidachat, but it rather challenges the Jewish People to mercifully intervene and strengthen the Jewish identity of a wayward community.


“HaTzur Tamim Pa’olo Ki Chol Derachav Mishpat,” “Hashem’s work is perfect, for all his ways are just”; “Keil Emunah VeEin Avel, Tzaddik VeYashar Hu,” “a trustworthy God without impropriety, righteous and fair is He” (Devarim 32:4). Far from being a brutal and unforgiving Halachah, the Ir HaNidachat is, in practice, a law of mercy and kind intervention. It constitutes a Torah mandate that has been fulfilled not only by members of the Lubavitch community, but by many other groups of Jews as well – ranging from the Orthodox Union’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth and Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, to the Aish HaTorah network of institutions, to the Torah Links organizations established in many communities – that serve as beacons of Torah light in otherwise dark places, thereby becoming the solitary Mezuzah in an Ir HaNidachat.

What we have discovered regarding the Ir HaNidachat is true of everything in the Torah. What might appear to be unfair at first glance is, in reality, fair and just. We are challenged to take a deeper look at and properly analyze passages that we might find incompatible with our moral intuitions in order to discover the true meaning and implementation of the Torah’s rules. With proper investigation and analysis, we can discover that all of the ways of the Torah are “Darchei No’am” and represent “Netivot Shalom” (Mishlei 3:17).

[1] This is why the Torah issues a death penalty for violations of severe transgressions. However, as is well known, Batei Din very rarely administered the death penalty (Makkot 7a).

[2] See, however, Rambam’s comments in Hilchot Avodah Zarah (4:6).

[3] Be’eir Yosef (Parashat VaYishlach) similarly interprets Targum Yonatan ben Uzziel (Shemot 13:18) as teaching that each family that left Mitzrayim adopted the children of the many assimilated Jews that died (according to Chazal, cited by Rashi ad loc. s.v. VaChamushim) during Makkat Choshech.

[4] The Or HaChayim presents a similar approach.

[5] Therapists throughout the civilized world often endeavor to ensure that military veterans are not negatively impacted by their combat experiences, even after fighting a morally justified war. The Netziv similarly explains that Pinechas required a Berit Shalom (covenant of peace, BeMidbar 25:12) lest his necessary violent actions against Zimri ben Salu and Kozbi bat Tzur negatively impact his personality. The story presented in Sefer Yehoshua (Perek 22), in which Pinechas acts as a peacemaker, demonstrates that Pinechas successfully met this challenge.

[6] Torah Academy of Bergen County alumnus Avi Eserner (’04) pointed out (during our Shiur in 2003) that this rule would apply even if the solitary Mezuzah was Pesulah (invalid), since it still contains Hashem’s name.

[7] This is one of the many rich themes expressed by our Chanukah candles. It is also expressed in Avraham Avinu’s Tefillah that the presence of ten Tzaddikim could spare Sedom from destruction.

[8] Rav Soloveitchik, in a number of his Shiurim, emphasizes the importance of maintaining faith not only in Hashem, but in the Jewish People as well. For example, Rambam (Hilchot Teshuvah 7:5) rules in accordance with the opinion of Rabi Eli’ezer that the Jewish People will be redeemed only if they repent. Thus, Rambam’s principle of faith that one must have belief in the arrival of the Mashiach includes a belief that the Jewish People will eventually repent, since Mashiach cannot come otherwise.

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