Excommunication- the biblical origins of a medieval punishment

Excommunication- the biblical origins of a medieval punishment

In the Middle Ages, excommunication, the cutting off of an offender from the religious community, was a severe and fearsome punishment. In the Catholic church an offender was cast out in a ceremony involving twelve priests and a bishop, each holding a lighted candle. A bell was rung and a decree of anathema pronounced, condemning the reprobate to the devil and eternal fire, at least until he repented. After the curse was pronounced, the candles were extinguished.  

A similar ritual was performed in the synagogue for the most severe cases of excommunication. A Torah scroll was taken, the participants in the ceremony held candles, a shofar was blown, curses pronounced and the candles extinguished. This ceremony was known as placing someone under the ḥerem; it was the ultimate sanction in an increasingly stringent series of bans placed on a recalcitrant who refused to repent his offence against the community.

The Bible knows nothing of these ceremonies, and is almost completely silent on the subject of excommunication. It does mention something called ḥerem but the context does not really make clear what it means.

Leviticus 27,28 declares that something which is ḥerem, whether human, animal or property may not be sold or redeemed; it is wholly consecrated to God. The next verse seems to contradict this, saying that a person who is ḥerem may not be ransomed, they must be put to death.But neither verse explains how something, or someone, becomes ḥerem.

Exodus 22,19 states that someone who sacrifices to idols is made ḥerem and both Numbers (21,2-3) and various verses in Deuteronomy discuss the imposition of ḥerem upon enemy cities and their inhabitants. The clearest indication of what this entails comes from Deuteronomy 13, which commands that should an Israelite city be seduced into idolatry, it is to be declared ḥerem; all its inhabitants and their cattle are to be slaughtered and all its goods and possessions burnt. (This leads the Talmud to declare that there never was and never will be such a thing, to which Rabbi Yonatan replies, ‘yes there was, and I sat on its ruins’).

The biblical term ḥerem therefore seems to imply something either devoted to God and therefore removed from use, or an influence so antithetic to the nation’s values that it has to be destroyed. When the Israelite soldier Achan steals some of the loot from Jericho, a city that Joshua (6,18) has declared ḥerem, he is put to death. He is not excommunicated. But when Ezra summons the people to Jerusalem, he warns that anyone who doesn’t turn up will be declared ḥerem by having his possessions confiscated and his forced separation from the community. This is the first and only biblical indication that the word ḥerem has evolved from its original sense of consecrated or subject to destruction. It now implies some sort of excommunication.

The idea of ḥerem evolved further in medieval times. Often this was as a result of Christian influence, as the similar excommunication ceremonies attest. But it also became a device used by Jewish courts to exert authority over their communities. An offender who refused to submit to the punishment of the court might be placed into ḥerem. A communal court which declared itself operating under the ‘ḥerem of the High Court (ḥerem bet din gadol) had the authority to summon defendants even when they came from a different community and were not technically under its authority. A village or community had the right to exclude undesirable people from taking up residence by declaring themselves a ḥerem yishuv. A ḥerem was placed on Spain after the 1492 expulsion of Jews (contrary to rumour, no ḥerem was ever placed on the city of York).

Today the practice is largely unknown, except possibly within a few small, closed, zealous communities. There is even a prohibition in the Israeli Criminal Code against those who might set up an ad hoc court, unjustly conspiring to impose ḥerem,with all its severe economic and social consequences, upon a rival or someone they don’t like. Ḥerem, whether biblical or medieval, has become, to all practical purposes, a thing of the past.

© 2020 Harry Freedman Books