Project Genesis

The Jewish Legal System

Criminal Law

No Death Sentence for Cain

Since God required from the beginning that life be taken for life why wasn’t Cain given the same sentence? He was merely exiled – a punishment totally inconsistent with the rest of the Torah. Why?

Thank you very much for your very interesting question. As I’m sure you realize, it is impossible to say unequivocally why G-d would have chosen not to kill Cain, as is prescribed in the laws of the Torah. However, I would just like to share the following thoughts with you:

As my wife pointed out, when I shared your question with her, the Torah only says that a person may be killed when found guilty in a human Bais Din (court). As a matter of fact, we do not allow any testimony that is metaphysical, i.e. through prophecy or miraculous signs. Therefore, there was simply no one to try Cain, as all mankind was either his parents or his siblings. Relatives may not serve as judges or witnesses.

Additionally, Jewish law prescribes that death is only warranted when there is warning by witnesses (Hasra’ah) before the act to the perpetrator as to what punishment he will incur if he carries through his intentions. This is to insure that the murder is actually premeditated, and deserving of the death penalty. A careful reading of the verse in Beraishis/ Genesis 4:8 indicates that the murder was spontaneous and was not at all premeditated.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch OB”M in his commentary on verses 13-14 points out that the punishment actually given to Cain is quite similar to the punishment imposed by the Torah for careless manslaughter. He must go into exile, and be in constant fear of his life, just as someone who murders carelessly must fear the the relatives will kill him if he should venture forth from his exile.

Take care,

Rabbi Aaron Tendler

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