Capital Punishment on Purim?
Purim, on the one hand, is an easy holiday to love. There are costumes, hamentashen, a fun story and songs; we are obligated to have a good time. On the other hand, Purim is also controversial—and one such area worth highlighting is the role of capital punishment in the Purim narrative. Since the era of rabbinic Judaism, capital punishment has been practically impossible under Jewish law, and Reform Jews have long formally opposed the death penalty, “believing that, there is no crime for which the taking of human life by society is justified.” But on Purim, we come across the death penalty several times as we read the Megillah.
Early in the story, Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman, citing a religious objection to the practice. Haman, of course, was “full of wrath” (Esther 3:5). He used his position to ensure that both Mordecai and his people would “be destroyed” (Esther 3:9).
Later, upon learning the plight of her people, Esther risks death by going to the king. Everyone knows, she says, that “whosoever, whether man or woman, shall come unto the king into the inner court, who is not called, there is one law for him, that he be put to death” (Esther 4:11). But, ultimately, she decides that, “If I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16), and after fasting goes to the King to plead her people’s case.
And at the end of the Purim story, the death penalty is actually carried out. Haman is hanged on the gallows he had constructed for Mordecai, along with his sons.
These uses of the death penalty clash with our ethical sensibilities, but they do serve to illustrate a few key points. For instance, it is vital that a punishment match the crime, but in several cases here—Mordechai’s refusal to bow to Haman and Achashverus’s law mandating the death penalty for unwanted visitors—the overuse of the death penalty actually serves to ridicule the two policies: the fact that refusing to bow to Haman or entering Achashverus’s chamber unbidden carries a penalty of death makes the two figures out to be absurd. In any society, the rule of law is vital, and the arbitrariness of these two policies undermines it.
Moreover, the hanging of Haman is clearly an instance of overzealous vengeance. While it is easy to get excited about Haman being hanged on his own gallows, in truth this action serves little real purpose. Haman may have been a wicked, wicked man, but the prophets remind us, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11). Our imperative to preserve life should override any desire to exert vengeance. The Shulchan Aruch similarly tells us, “If someone attacks another, the second is innocent of any responsibility for injury caused to the first, since he has a right to defend himself, but if he was able to use less force but caused greater injury then he is guilty.” Carrying out such excessive punishment for Haman and his sons is clearly an instance of causing “greater injury” than necessary. While Haman was so evil that we continue to blot out his name when we read the Megillah, our mandate to preserve life means that even he should have been spared this ultimate punishment.
Purim is not simply the happy holiday it appears on the surface. In many areas, including the crucial one of capital punishment, the holiday’s narrative is controversial, and the role of the death penalty throughout the story serves to remind us of the finality of this cruel form of punishment.