The Stoning

62”x53” oil on canvas 2000

In biblical times, witches were punished by being stoned to death, as seen in the large panel of this painting.

The subject of the lunette is taken from the Talmud which tells of the simultaneous hanging of 80 witches of the city of Ashkelon, in ancient Palestine.

Rabbi Shimon Ben Shetach, who lived in the first Century BCE when the Jewish lands were under Roman rule, was the head of the great assembly of judges. Depraved sorcery and witchcraft were prevalent at the time and the Rabbi was determined to rid the city of such practices. He engineered a plan to trick the witches of Ashkelon into admitting into their caves 80 of his disciples who pretended to be magicians. They each took hold of a witch, saying they would dance with them and then lifted the witches off the ground, which rendered them powerless, and carried them to the gallows that had been prepared in advance. Thus, eighty witches were hung in one day.

This action by Shimon Ben Shetach was highly irregular, in that the normal judicial process of investigation, warning, and the testimony of witnesses was ignored. Moreover, it was illegal to judge more than one capital case in one day, and in any case the punishment for witchcraft was stoning, not hanging.

Many important Talmudic scholars have frequently commented upon this extraordinary event, justifying the action as necessary to end dangerous witchcraft and to avoid rescue of the witches by their relatives. It is difficult for us today, however, not to impose our judgement on this event, especially in light of the hundreds of innocent women throughout history who were executed for what their contemporaries perceived as their partnership with the devil and their powers of witchcraft.

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