#66 - Sanhedrin 44-50
The Hanging of the Witches
Although the Torah laid down rules for the conviction of a sinner and the type of punishment he deserves, the Sanhedrin had emergency powers to punish offenders when it saw a need to provide a deterrent. The classic example of the exercise of this power was the action taken by the sage Shimon ben Shatach who hanged eighty witches in Ashkelon in one day.
These witches were indeed guilty of various forms of sorcery punishable by the death penalty of stoning. Rabbi Eliezer, whose opinion is that all those put to death by stoning were subsequently hanged (not by the neck but momentarily strapped to a pole in the ground) regardless of their gender, challenged the position of the other sages who limited such hanging to men only. The other sages based their ruling on the passage (Devarim 21:22) which stresses that he will be hanged, implying that she will not. Rabbi Eliezer cites the example of the Ashkelon hanging of witches. The response of these sages was that this was an emergency measure to curb the trend towards witchcraft amongst Jewish women at that time.
Their proof that this hanging was not regular judicial procedure is that a court may not try two capital cases in one day if they are not regarding the same sin, since it is too difficult to devote the proper attention to each case. Since the witches in Ashkelon were guilty of different sins of witchcraft (some of conjuring "ov" and others of "yidoni" Rashi) the court of Shimon ben Shatach had no legal mandate to try and execute all of them the same day unless it resorted to emergency powers.
An interesting question regarding this gemara is raised by Rabbi Yacov Ettlinger in his "Oruch Lner" commentary. Were these witches first stoned to death and then hanged in the post-mortem manner of others executed in this way, or were they put to death by hanging? If we posit like the latter then the simple reading of the gemara indicates we face another question. If the sages wished to prove that the hanging of witches was only an emergency measure why did they not simply point to the fact that hanging by the neck is not one of the forms of execution prescribed by the Torah? The author solves this problem by referring to the historical background of that Ashkelon incident (cited at length by Rashi on 44b). That incident shows that the magical powers of those witches made it impossible to execute them in any other way. Therefore, they needed to be put to death in the only way possible, as the gemara rules earlier on this very page.
Who Was the Resurrected Man?
An interesting mystery concerning the identity of a dead man who came to life is introduced to us by our gemara in an effort to find a basis for the statement in our mishna that there were two different graveyards for those executed for capital sins. Those whose sins were of a more serious nature were not buried together with the ones who died for sins of a lesser degree because just as it is improper to bury a sinner next to a righteous man, so too is it wrong to bury a more serious sinner next to a less serious one.
The source for this concept is the incident described in Melachim II (13:20) following the death and burial of the Prophet Elisha. A Moabite band was able to attack a funeral procession of Israelites. Fleeing in panic the pallbearers cast the corpse into the nearest burial cave, which happened to be that of Elisha. As soon as the discarded body of this man came into contact with the bones of Elisha "he came to life and stood on his feet." Rabbi Acha bar Chaninas explanation is that this man was a sinner in his lifetime and it was Divine intervention which made it possible for him to arise so that he would not be buried next to the righteous prophet. "He stood in his feet", adds the sage, but never returned home, remaining alive just long enough to be buried in another grave.
A completely different version of the dead mans identity is found in the Midrash (Pirkei DRebbie Eliezer). There he is identified as a righteous man named Shalum ben Tikvah who was outstanding in his kindness. He would fill up a large container of water and place himself at the entrance to his city in order to offer a refreshing drink to people thirstily arriving from a long journey. The merit of his kindness caused Divine revelation to be bestowed upon his wife, the Prophetess Chulda (Melachim II 22:14). When Shalum passed away all of Israel participated in his funeral. Upon being attacked they quickly buried him in Elishas tomb. Upon contact with the prophet he was resurrected as a fulfillment of the blessing which Elisha had received from his master, the Prophet Eliyahu, that he would have twice his spiritual power (Melachim II 2:9-10). Eliyahu had performed the miracle of resurrection only once (Melachim I 17:22) so that Elisha was entitled to two such feats. In his lifetime, however, Elisha performed only one resurrection (Melachim II 4:35) so that it was necessary for him to perform this posthumous one as well. This Shalum who returned to life went home and even fathered a son, Chananel, who made the famous sale of his field in Anatot to the Prophet Yirmiyahu (32:6).