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Cherem (or ḥērem חרם), is the highest ecclesiastical censure in the Jewish community. It is the total exclusion of a person from the Jewish community. It is a form of shunning, and is similar to excommunication in the Catholic Church. Cognate terms in other Semitic languages include the Arabic term ḥarām (forbidden, taboo, off-limits, sacred or immoral), and the Ethiopic `irm (meaning accursed).
The most famous case of a cherem is that of Spinoza, a seventeenth century philosopher.
Although developed from the Biblical ban, excommunication, as employed by the Rabbis during Talmudic times and during the Middle Ages, it became a rabbinic institution, the object of which was to preserve Jewish solidarity. A system of laws was gradually developed by Rabbis, by means of which this power was limited, so that it became one of the modes of legal punishment by rabbinic courts. While it did not entirely lose its arbitrary character, since individuals were allowed to pronounce the ban of excommunication on particular occasions, it became chiefly a legal measure resorted to by a judicial court for certain prescribed offenses.
Cherem in Tanakh
The Talmudic form of cherem must be distinguished from that described in the Tanakh in the time of Joshua and the early Hebrew monarchy, which was the practice of consecration by total annihilation at the command of God carried out against peoples such as the Midianites, the Amalekites, and the entire population of Jericho. The neglect of Saul to carry out such a command as delivered by Samuel resulted in the selection of David as his replacement.
In the Talmud
The Talmud speaks of twenty-four offenses that, in theory, were punishable by a form of niddui or temporary excommunication. Maimonides (as well as later authorities) enumerates the twenty-four as follows: Template:Incoherent
- insulting a learned man, even after his death;
- insulting a messenger of the court;
- calling an Israelite "slave";
- refusing to appear before the court at the appointed time;
- dealing lightly with any of the rabbinic or Mosaic precepts;
- refusing to abide by the decision of the court;
- keeping in one's possession an animal or an object that may prove injurious to others, such as a savage dog or a broken ladder;
- selling one's real estate to a non-Jew without assuming the responsibility for any injury that the non-Jew may cause his neighbors;
- testifying against one's Jewish neighbor in a non-Jewish court, through which the Jew is involved in a loss of money to which he would not have been condemned by a Jewish court;
- appropriation by a priest whose business is the selling of meat, of the priestly portions of all the animals for himself;
- violating the second day of a holiday, even though its observance is only a custom;
- performing work on the afternoon of the day preceding Passover;
- taking the name of God in vain;
- causing others to profane the name of God;
- causing others to eat holy meat outside of Jerusalem;
- making calculations for the calendar, and establishing festivals accordingly, outside of Israel;
- putting a stumbling-block in the way of the blind, that is to say, tempting one to sin (Lifnei iver);
- preventing the community from performing some religious act;
- selling forbidden ("terefah") meat as permitted meat ("kosher");
- omission by a "shohet" (ritual slaughterer) to show his knife to the rabbi for examination;
- masturbation, also considered a mortal sin in Christianity;
- engaging in business intercourse with one's divorced wife;
- being made the subject of scandal (in the case of a rabbi);
- excommunicating one unjustly.
For all practical purposes, most of these conditions no longer were considered as grounds for a ban since the end of the Talmudic era, around 600 CE.
The "niddui" ban was usually imposed for a period of seven days (in Israel thirty days). If inflicted on account of money matters, the offender was first publicly warned ("hatra'ah") three times, on Monday, Thursday, and Monday successively, at the regular service in the synagogue. During the period of niddui, no one except the members of his immediate household was permitted to associate with the offender, or to sit within four cubits of him, or to eat in his company. He was expected to go into mourning and to refrain from bathing, cutting his hair, and wearing shoes, and he had to observe all the laws that pertained to a mourner. He could not be counted in the number necessary for the performance of a public religious function. If he died, a stone was placed on his hearse, and the relatives were not obliged to observe the ceremonies customary at the death of a kinsman, such as the tearing of garments, etc.
It was in the power of the court to lessen or increase the severity of the niddui. The court might even reduce or increase the number of days, forbid all intercourse with the offender, and exclude his children from the schools and his wife from the synagogue, until he became humbled and willing to repent and obey the court's mandates. According to one opinion, the apprehension that the offender might leave the Jewish fold on account of the severity of the excommunication did not prevent the court from adding rigor to its punishments so as to maintain its dignity and authority (Shulkhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah, 334, 1, Rama's gloss, citing Sefer Agudah). This opinion is vehemently contested by the Taz (ibid.), who cites earlier authorities of the same opinion (Maharshal; Maharam; Mahari Mintz) and presents proof of his position from the Talmud. Additionally, the Taz notes that his edition of the Sefer Agudah does not contain the cited position.
If the offense was in reference to monetary matters, or if the punishment was inflicted by an individual, the laws were more lenient, the chief punishment being that men might not associate with the offender. At the expiration of the period the ban was raised by the court. If, however, the excommunicate showed no sign of penitence or remorse, the niddui might be renewed once and again, and finally the "cherem," the most rigorous form of excommunication, might be pronounced. This extended for an indefinite period, and no one was permitted to teach the offender or work for him, or benefit him in any way, except when he was in need of the bare necessities of life.
A milder form than either niddui or cherem was the "nezifah" ban. This ban generally only lasted one day. During this time the offender dared not appear before him whom he had displeased. He had to retire to his house, speak little, refrain from business and pleasure, and manifest his regret and remorse. He was not required, however, to separate himself from society, nor was he obliged to apologize to the man whom he had insulted; for his conduct on the day of nezifah was sufficient apology. But when a scholar or prominent man actually pronounced the formal niddui on one who had slighted him, all the laws of niddui applied. This procedure was, however, much discouraged by the sages, so that it was a matter of proper pride for a rabbi to be able to say that he had never pronounced the ban of excommunication. Maimonides concludes with these words the chapter on the laws of excommunication:(Mishneh Torah, Talmud Torah, vii. 13).
- "Although the power is given to the scholar to excommunicate a man who has slighted him, it is not praiseworthy for him to employ this means too frequently. He should rather shut his ears to the words of the ignorant and pay no attention to them, as Solomon, in his wisdom, said, 'Also take no heed unto all words that are spoken' (Eccl. vii. 21). This was the custom of the early pious men, who would not answer when they heard themselves insulted, but would forgive the insolent. . . . But this humility should be practised only when the insult occurs in private; when the scholar is publicly 'insulted, he dares not forgive; and if he forgive he should be punished, for then it is an insult to the Torah that he must revenge until the offender humbly apologizes"
Since the Enlightenment
Except in rare cases in the Haredi and Chassidic communities, cherem stopped existing after The Enlightenment, when local Jewish communities lost their political autonomy, and Jews were integrated into the greater gentile nations in which they lived.
As distinct from Catholic Church excommunication
Although there are similarities between cherem and excommunication, there are also significant differences. While cherem in judaism can sometimes be a form of shunning, excommunication is anything but. Usually, excommunications are only reserved for major heretics, schismatics, apostates and defilers of sacraments, and they can never be done arbitrarily, for example in the case of purely secular crimes such as racism and drug/sex abuse. The closest thing to Cherem in terms of excommunications is Vitandus, which has not been in use since the Second Vatican Council.
- Pulsa diNura
- Banishment in the Bible
- Jewish Encyclopedia 1901: Anathema
- Jewish Encyclopedia 1901: Ban
- South African High Court upholds Jewish right to pronounce cheremja:聖絶pt:Chérem