Declaring cherem in the ancient world was serious business. Any person or living thing subject to cherem was irredeemably doomed to utter annihilation. Any object declared cherem was the property of God and could never be redeemed.
In the Bible, cherem’s narrative locus classicus is the story in the book of Joshua concerning Jericho and the violation of the cherem by Achan. The key flashpoints of that story are the following:
Joshua declares the city of Jericho cherem (6:17-19):
ו:יז וְהָיְתָ֨ה הָעִ֥יר חֵ֛רֶם הִ֥יא וְכָל אֲשֶׁר בָּ֖הּ לַֽי-הֹוָ֑ה… ו:יח וְרַק אַתֶּם֙ שִׁמְר֣וּ מִן הַחֵ֔רֶם פֶּֽן תַּחֲרִ֖ימוּ וּלְקַחְתֶּ֣ם מִן הַחֵ֑רֶם וְשַׂמְתֶּ֞ם אֶת מַחֲנֵ֤ה יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לְחֵ֔רֶם וַעֲכַרְתֶּ֖ם אוֹתֽוֹ: ו:יט וְכֹ֣ל׀ כֶּ֣סֶף וְזָהָ֗ב וּכְלֵ֤י נְחֹ֙שֶׁת֙ וּבַרְזֶ֔ל קֹ֥דֶשׁ ה֖וּא לַֽי-הֹוָ֑ה אוֹצַ֥ר יְ-הֹוָ֖ה יָבֽוֹא:
6:17 The city and everything in it are to be made cherem for Yhwh… 6:18 But you must beware of that which is cherem, or else you will be cherem: if you take anything from that which is cherem, you will cause the camp of Israel to be cherem; you will bring calamity upon it. 6:19 All the silver and gold and objects of copper and iron are consecrated to Yhwh; they must go into the treasury of Yhwh.”
Almost all of the the people then carry out the command to the letter:
ו:כא וַֽיַּחֲרִ֙ימוּ֙ אֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר בָּעִ֔יר מֵאִישׁ֙ וְעַד־אִשָּׁ֔ה מִנַּ֖עַר וְעַד־זָקֵ֑ן וְעַ֨ד שׁ֥וֹר וָשֶׂ֛ה וַחֲמ֖וֹר לְפִי־ חָֽרֶב… ו:כד וְהָעִ֛יר שָׂרְפ֥וּ בָאֵ֖שׁ וְכָל־אֲשֶׁר־בָּ֑הּ רַ֣ק׀ הַכֶּ֣סֶף וְהַזָּהָ֗ב וּכְלֵ֤י הַנְּחֹ֙שֶׁת֙ וְהַבַּרְזֶ֔ל נָתְנ֖וּ אוֹצַ֥ר בֵּית־ יְ-הֹוָֽה:6:21
They exterminated everything in the city with the sword: man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and ass…. 6:24 They burned down the city and everything in it. But the silver and gold and the objects of copper and iron were deposited in the treasury of the House of Yhwh.
One person named Achan, however, violated the ban and took some precious metals and cloth (Josh 7:1, 21). God tells Joshua what must be done.
ז:יג …חֵ֤רֶם בְּקִרְבְּךָ֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לֹ֣א תוּכַ֗ל לָקוּם֙ לִפְנֵ֣י אֹיְבֶ֔יךָ עַד־הֲסִירְכֶ֥ם הַחֵ֖רֶם מִֽקִּרְבְּכֶֽם…. ז:טווְהָיָה֙ הַנִּלְכָּ֣ד בַּחֵ֔רֶם יִשָּׂרֵ֣ף בָּאֵ֔שׁ אֹת֖וֹ וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־ל֑וֹ….
7:13 Cherem is in your midst O Israel and you will not be able to stand up to your enemies until you have purged the cherem…. 7:15 He who is caught up in the cherem and all that is his shall be burned in the fire….
Joshua and Israel comply with the command.
ז:כד וַיִּקַּ֣ח יְהוֹשֻׁ֣עַ אֶת־עָכָ֣ן בֶּן־זֶ֡רַח וְאֶת־הַכֶּ֣סֶף וְאֶת־הָאַדֶּ֣רֶת וְֽאֶת־לְשׁ֣וֹן הַזָּהָ֡ב וְֽאֶת־בָּנָ֡יו וְֽאֶת־ בְּנֹתָ֡יו וְאֶת־שׁוֹרוֹ֩ וְאֶת־חֲמֹר֨וֹ וְאֶת־צֹאנ֤וֹ וְאֶֽת־ אָהֳלוֹ֙ וְאֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר־ל֔וֹ וְכָל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עִמּ֑וֹ….ז:כה …וַיִּרְגְּמ֨וּ אֹת֤וֹ כָל־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ אֶ֔בֶן וַיִּשְׂרְפ֤וּ אֹתָם֙ בָּאֵ֔שׁ וַיִּסְקְל֥וּ אֹתָ֖ם בָּאֲבָנִֽים:
7:24 Then Joshua and all Israel with him took Achan son of Zerah and the mantle and the gold bar and his sons and his daughters and his ox and his ass and his flock and his tent and all his belongings…. 7:25 all Israel pelted him with stones and burned them in the fire and stoned them with stones
The Moabite Mesha Stele (ca. 840 BCE) provides an important parallel to the cherem law, even using that exact word. This evidence is particularly important because it is from one of Israel’s closest geographical neighbors, and is from the biblical period itself:
And Kemosh [the Moabite high god] said to me ‘Go take Nebo from Israel!’ So I went by night and fought against it from morning till afternoon. I took it and slayed all seven thousand men, boys, women, girls and maid-servants for I had made them cherem to Ashtar Kemosh (lns 14-17, trans. based on Pritchard and Stern).
Thus, cherem in the ancient Levant meant the slaughter of enemies (including their wives, children, slaves, and animals), who were deemed “opponents” of a god. This was perpetrated on behalf of that god (e.g. Yhwh or Kemosh), and therefore what was killed or associated with those cheremed was dedicated to that god.
The Power of Cherem
What sustained cherem was the belief system underpinning it. In the story of Achan above, the phrase, “You will not be able to stand up to your enemies” tells us that the effects of cherem were believed to be inescapable.
Second, we learn that ‘purging the cherem’ did not involve merely retrieving the stolen mantle, silver and gold (see Josh 7:21), nor the thief Achan alone. Instead, the ‘purge’ extended to his animals and to his guiltless children–obviously not as punishment for wrongdoing, but as the inexorable result of a quality inherent in cherem that had nothing to do with culpability or innocence. Woe betide anyone who fell intocherem’s pitiless grasp!
Cherem in the Priestly Tradition
Deuteronomy 20:16-18 legislates the cherem law, stating that all members of the seven indigenous nations in Canaan must be annihilated, man, woman, and child. It does not describe what is to happen with the booty, though other Deuteronomic texts like the Jericho story (discussed above) or the story of Saul and the Amalekites (1 Sam 15) make it clear that no Israelite could take from it.
The Priestly Torah (P), though apparently less enamored with the concept, still has four references to cherem, one in Numbers and three in Leviticus. At Num 18:14, Aaron is told, “Every cherem in Israel shall be yours.” The remaining three occur in the same section of Parashat Bechukotai (Lev. 27):
וְאִם־לֹ֤א יִגְאַל֙ אֶת־הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה וְאִם־מָכַ֥ר אֶת־הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה לְאִ֣ישׁ אַחֵ֑ר לֹ֥א יִגָּאֵ֖ל עֽוֹד: וְהָיָ֨ה הַשָּׂדֶ֜ה בְּצֵאת֣וֹ בַיֹּבֵ֗ל קֹ֛דֶשׁ לַֽי-הֹוָ֖ה כִּשְׂדֵ֣ה הַחֵ֑רֶם…:
If he does not redeem the field but sells the field to another, it can no longer be redeemed. When the field reverts in the Jubilee it shall be holy unto Yhwh like acherem field…. (vv. 20-21).
אַךְ־כָּל־חֵ֡רֶם אֲשֶׁ֣ר יַחֲרִם֩ אִ֨ישׁ לַֽי-הֹוָ֜ה מִכָּל־אֲשֶׁר־ל֗וֹ מֵאָדָ֤ם וּבְהֵמָה֙ וּמִשְּׂדֵ֣ה אֲחֻזָּת֔וֹ לֹ֥א יִמָּכֵ֖ר וְלֹ֣א יִגָּאֵ֑ל כָּל־חֵ֕רֶם קֹֽדֶשׁ־קָֽדָשִׁ֥ים ה֖וּא לַי-הֹוָֽה:
But any cherem that a person declarescherem to Yhwh from his property whether of humans or a beast or of his ancestral field it shall be neither sold nor redeemed; all cherem is holy of holies unto Yhwh (v. 28).
כָּל־חֵ֗רֶם אֲשֶׁ֧ר יָחֳרַ֛ם מִן־הָאָדָ֖ם לֹ֣א יִפָּדֶ֑ה מ֖וֹת יוּמָֽת:
Every human cherem that is declared cherem shall not be redeemed; he shall be put to death (v. 29).
Verse 29 is quite stunning. Although it is written in the same matter-of-fact style as the rest of the chapter, it essentially states that a human being may be declared cherem, and that said human cannot be redeemed but must be executed. The verse does not clarify when such a person can be declared cherem or by whom. Can a parent declare it about a child? A master about a slave? Does it apply to Israelites or maybe only to captives?
Be that as it may, the verse takes for granted that some people can be dedicated through cherem, and that such people must be killed to fulfill that vow. Although this is not exactly human sacrifice, such fine distinctions would hardly be a consolation to the victim! Knowing that such a law existed, at least on the books, stories such as the binding of Isaac (Gen 22), Samuel’s hacking of Agag before the Lord in Gilgal (1 Sam 15), or the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter (Judg 11) suddenly gain context.
Adding a Moral Dimension to Cherem – Rabbinic Tradition
The rabbis had no use for a supernal power that was both amoral and at some tension with strict monotheism—cherem seems to carry its own power or potency—so they set out to invest biblical cherem with a moral dimension.
Achan in Rabbinic Tradition
The rabbis search for a moral explanation for why Achan was executed, implying that the stated reasons in the Bible are insufficient (b. San. 44a):
עכן מאי טעמא איענוש?
Why was Achan punished?
…מלמד שעבר עכן על חמשה חומשי תורה…
…Achan transgressed all five books of the Torah…
…עכן מושך בערלתו היה….
…Achan was an epispastic.…
…מלמד שבעל עכן נערה המאורסה…
…Achan committed adultery with a betrothed maiden…
…אם הוא חטא – בניו ובנותיו מה חטאו?
…If he [Achan] sinned, of what sin were his sons and daughters guilty?
…To chastise them.
In short, according to the rabbis, if Achan was put to death he must have perpetrated a mortal sin, not merely the felony of pinching a gold nugget and a dressing gown – and certainly not because someone had decided to pronounce him cherem. In addition, the rabbis could not accept that his entire family was executed. Instead, they reinterpret the verse to mean that the family was brought to watch and learn, not that they were killed.
Dealing with the Human Victim of Cherem in Bechukotai
All this radical reinterpreting of cherem shows the rabbis’ discomfiture with it. And if they went to such lengths to blur Achan’s cherem, one could easily imagine their perplexity in the face of Lev 27:29 which seems to actually prescribe the killing of innocent persons merely because they were ‘hexed’ by a third party. As it happens, there is no need to tax our imagination; the rabbis have boldly bequeathed us their transformatory interpretations of the verse:
מנין היוצא ליהרג ואמר ערכי עלי שלא אמר כלום? ת”ל: כל חרם לא יפדה….
If a person sentenced to death says ‘I pledge my erekh’ how do we know his pledge is void? Because it says (Lev 27:29) ‘cheremhe shall not be redeemed’ [i.e. he has no monetary value since he is ‘on death row’]….
רבי ישמעאל בנו של רבי יוחנן בן ברוקה אומר: לפי שמצינו למומתים בידי שמים שנותנין ממון ומתכפר להם… יכול אף בידי אדם כן? תלמוד לומר: כל חרם לא יפדה…
R. Ishmael son of R. Yohanan ben Beroqa says ‘ We find that those who are liable to death at the hands of Heaven can have their sentence commuted by paying a ransom… Could a person sentenced at the hands of a human tribunal similarly buy himself off? No; because it says (Lev 27:29) ‘cherem [i.e. sentenced to death for a capital crime] shall not be redeemed [but shall surely die]’.
So while the anonymous tanna and R. Ishmael disagree as to the exact law to be extracted from Lev 27:29, they share the premise that the cherem of this verse denotes a death sentence imposed by a court after a trial rather than as a consequence of being declared cherem by another person. Thus, the text has been expurgated of the ancient cherem.
Peshat and Derash in Rabbinic Thinking
Did the rabbis think that such interpretations of theirs represented Scripture’s original intent? It is certainly difficult to imagine someone reading Lev 27:29 and thinking that it means what the rabbis suggest it does. On the other hand, the Rabbis were hardly post-modernists for whom literature has no authoritative ‘original’ meaning. Instead, I believe it was their conviction that drove them to divert texts away from their literal sense when they believed a higher Torah value dictated it. The rabbis understood the Torah to have hierarchized its laws, making some less negotiable than others.
The Death of Cherem’s Powers
Once upon a time, cherem posed a threat as real as a force of nature; it could not be trifled with but was feared like fire or earthquakes or planetary eclipses. To ignore cherem would allegedly endanger the entire community.
But by the time of the rabbis, cherem lost its hold. Henceforth, killing people on its behalf would involve superstition and murder. So in order to uphold the Torah’s own value system—that condoned neither paganism nor murder—the rabbis deconstructed cherem. A similar pattern is discernible in their treatment of other problematic texts – all of which they could no more scrap than they could leave untamed.
Rabbi Akiva’s parable sums it up. A Roman called Turnos Rufos had challenged R. Akiva on the propriety of helping those whom God had chosen to afflict. If a king locked someone up in jail and another of his subjects went and freed that prisoner would such flouting of the king’s words not constitute treason, argued the Roman official. But R. Akiva responded with his audacious counter parable. A king was angry with his son and ordered him to be jailed and deprived of food and drink. One of his subjects disobeyed and took food and drink to the prince. “When the king heard don’t you think he would lavish gifts on the fellow who came to his son’s rescue?”
The parable’s king stands for God, and R. Akiva’s point is presumably that once God revealed the thirteen divine attributes to Moses (see Exod 34:6-7), God’s higher purpose became clear. Thereafter, humans must think twice before going along too literally with angry utterances – even if those utterances derive from the most kingly of kings.
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Dr. Hacham Isaac S. D. Sassoon is a rabbi and educator and a founding member of the ITJ. He studied under his father, Rabbi Solomon Sassoon, Hacham Yosef Doury, Gateshead Yeshivah and received his semicha from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. He holds a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Lisbon. He is the author of The Status of Women in Jewish Tradition (Cambridge University Press 2011), a commentary on chumash called Destination Torah (Ktav 2001), and most recently the co-editor with Rabbi Steven H. Golden of the Siddur 'Alats Libbi (Ktav 2020).
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