Enticing People to Alien Worship as a Crime Against the Memory of the Exodus

Seventeen Nisan

Like yesterday’s mitzvot, there would be plenty of reason to prohibit a מסית, mesit, a Jew who tries to entice another Jew to עבודה זרה, worship alien to the service of Hashem, without mentioning the Exodus. But the Torah does, so let’s see what that tells us about the mitzvah, and about the role the Exodus plays in our non-Pesach lives.

To get at that, I want to start in another place, the amount of attention the Torah gives this situation, and the level of negativity attached to it. From there, I think we’ll come to a better understanding of what a mesit was, and might be today.

So Many Prohibitions

Devarim 13;17-12 assumes a mesit will act in private, with someone with whom s/he is close, and warns that person not to listen and not to continue to love or like the inciter. In fact, (as Rashi notes and as Rambam includes in the Sefer haMitzvot), halachah understands the Torah to obligate the target of the incitement to hate the inciter, prohibits that person from saving the inciter should his/her life be in danger, prohibits the target/victim from offering reasons to absolve the inciter of his or her crimes, and obligates that victim to bring forward any damning evidence he or she knows. In all, Rambam counts six prohibitions, close to two percent of the prohibitions in the Torah.

Remember that the target will have been a close friend or relative of the mesit, but the Torah obligates him/her to bring this close friend or relative to court, stay silent about exculpatory aspects of the case, offer all incriminating ones, and, if the court found the person liable,take the lead in administering the death penalty. And there’s more.

Subtracting Compassion

Based on the Torah’s telling us not to be enamored of nor have compassion for the inciter, Sifrei contrasts the court’s conduct in these cases to the usual obligation to love our fellow Jews. Other Jews don’t lose their hold on our halachic affections when they commit serious sins, but the Torah tells us we must stop loving the inciter. That reveals itself in several oddities in the court procedure for judging a מסית, an inciter

Ordinary defendantsc an expect judges in בתי דין, halachic courts, to seek out any avenue of leniency in their case (that’s why such courts traditionally didn’t allow lawyers; it was the judges’ obligation to find the truth, and all feasible roads to exculpation). Sanhedrin 29a offers a teaching of R. Chiyya b. Abba’s—reported by R. Chama bar Chanina— that the court does not do that for an inciter.

Further, similar to double jeopardy, halachic courts do not generally reopen acquittals. Sanhedrin 33b tells us we would reopen a conviction, even if the defendant was on the way to execution; the possibility of avoiding killing an innocent person always leads us to reopen the case. For a מסית, the reverse is true; once convicted, we don’t reopen the case, and we’ll reopen an acquittal if new evidence comes to light.

Sanhedrin 36b tells us that the elderly, eunuchs (who cannot marry), and the childless cannot sit on courts, seemingly because we lack confidence that they will bring the proper compassion and empathy to the proceedings. There may be many elderly and childless people who are highly empathetic, perhaps more than all those who are young and have children, but the Gemara thought it was enough of a possibility that it disqualified judges.They can, and are perhaps encouraged to, sit on the court of an inciter.

For a last example, Sanhedrin 85b notes that children are ordinarily not allowed to serve as the court’s agents to administer punishments to their parents. A man may deserve lashes or even death, but his son cannot be the one to give that proper punishment. Unless the parent is a מסית.

All the Rigor

That is not to say we rush to convict an accused inciter—in terms of testing the witnesses, verifying the facts, being sure of the crime, all the usual strictures apply. One exception is that we dispense with the requirement to warn the inciter of the consequences of what he or she is about to do, but that seems to be for technical reasons too involved to discuss here.

The inciter also might not know he or she was recommending alien worship-- today, many Jews deny that certain religions, philosophies, or worldviews count as עבודה זרה, even if halachah says they do. I don’t think we would put such an inciter to death.

All that being true, we still treat this sinner differently from all others, bringing to bear remarkably few of the usual ways we have to help defendants avoid the most severe punishments instituted by the Torah. Why is the מסיתso much worse?

The Closeness of the Relationship

I think the answer lies in the relationship that lays the groundwork for the inciting. Devarim13;7speaks of a brother, son, daughter, wife (who rests in your bosom, is the Torah’s phrase— a wife with whom we’re close, whom we love), or close friend (“who is like your soul”) approaching us with the idea of adopting alien worship.

Remember that in the Torah’s time, as in ours, many people were comfortable acting within multiple traditions—they might have a serious Shabbat observance and then a serious Ba’al observance (or, today, would respectfully join Buddhist, Catholic, and Jewish ceremonies, seeing them all as good and uplifting).

The incitement, in other words, did not have to ask us to abandon Judaism or Hashem. It could ask us to understand that worshipping Markolis by throwing stones aligned us better with the forces of war, or that setting up our furniture according to the dictates of Feng Shui allows the spirit of the universe to bring us success.

Our Susceptibility to Basing Right and Wrong on Our Emotions

Recent decades give us a demonstration of how our closeness with others can lead us to accept a point of view. In just the last few years, more than one public figure has announced that their position on abortion or euthanasia or homosexual activity changed once they knew someone involved in any of those.

In moral and philosophical terms, that should be irrelevant. All of us act wrongly, so the fact that someone near and dear to us is wrong (or that we are wrong), even deeply wrong, cannot be a surprise. Yet many people let seeing those closest to them act a certain way, and yet still be largely the people they know and love, to lead them to rethinking their view. If the sin doesn’t turn their loved one into a monster, how bad could it be?

To me, that’s part of the vigilance the Torah urged. It is relatively easy to reject a straightforward call to abandon deeply held beliefs and commitments. But if a close friend or relative invites us to join in an idolatrous practice (and certainly a wrong practice that isn’t quite idolatrous), that’s harder.

Communities and societies do not always change their moralities by reasoning their way to a well-considered decision. We sometimes abandon our moral standards because we are unwilling to look loved ones in the eye and say, “You’re wrong; so wrong that I am, sadly, going to have to bring you to court and take a leading role in seeing that you are prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

Difficult as it is, that’s our obligation in these cases.


If you’re like me, you haven’t noticed anything missing in this conversation. Yet in verse 10, the Torah says the reason to stone this close relative to death is that they tried to draw us away from Hashem,Who took us out of Egypt. Would it not have been enough had this person tried to draw us away from the Master of the Universe or Hashem Who gave the Torah at Sinai?

Samson Raphael Hirsch answers—similar to what we said about a false prophet-- that the Exodus was supposed to forever preclude being drawn in by such people. Were someone to suggest that we engage in alien worship, R. Hirsch would say that we shouldn’t respond only “that’s prohibited,” or “Hashem told us not to,” but “how could I possibly worship anything other than Hashem, when I know Hashem is the sole power in the Universe, since Hashem took us out of Egypt?”

In other words, one more element of the Exodus that is supposed to be with all of us at all times is its fully and permanently discrediting the possibility of other powers being worthy of any sort of worship. That awareness is supposed to be so alive within each of us that we would react with the Torah-mandated hatred and lack of compassion to any person, no matter how close to us, who sought to lead us to worship anything other than Hashem.

It’s not an easy standard, and it’s not one we ever hope to put into practice, but I believe it reminds us of just how much the Exodus was supposed to shape our worldview, how alive it was supposed to be for us, how central to who we are as people and as a people.