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Herem (censure)

Herem (or Chērem 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 vitandus 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).

Arguably the most famous case of a herem is that of Spinoza, the seventeenth century philosopher.[1][2]

Other famous subjects of a herem were early Russian communists Leon Trotsky and Grigory Zinoviev. Sometime in 1918, while Ukraine was under German occupation, the rabbis of Odessa pronounced herem against Trotsky, Zinoviev, and other Jewish Bolshevik leaders in the synagogue.[3]


  • Summary 1
  • Etymology and cognate terms 2
  • Offenses 3
  • The niddui 4
  • The herem 5
  • The nezifah 6
  • Since the Enlightenment 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10


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.

Etymology and cognate terms

The three terms herem (censure), excommunication, herem (war or property) the devotion of enemies by annihilation in the Tanakh, and herem (priestly gift) the devotion of property to a kohen, are all three variant English transliterations of the same Hebrew noun. This noun comes from the semitic root Ḥ-R-M.

There is also an identically spelled (homonym) Hebrew noun herem, fisherman's net, which appears 9 times in the masoretic text of the Tanakh but has no etymological connection to herem as devoted objects.[4]

The Talmudic usage of herem, for excommunication, can be distinguished from the usage of herem described in the Tanakh in the time of Joshua and the early Hebrew monarchy, which was the practice of consecration by total annihilation[5] 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.


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:

  1. insulting a learned man, even after his death;
  2. insulting a messenger of the court;
  3. calling an Israelite a "slave";
  4. refusing to appear before the court at the appointed time;
  5. dealing lightly with any of the rabbinic or Mosaic precepts;
  6. refusing to abide by a decision of the court;
  7. 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;
  8. selling one's real estate to a non-Jew without assuming the responsibility for any injury that the non-Jew may cause his neighbors;
  9. testifying against one's Jewish neighbor in a non-Jewish court, and thereby causing that neighbor to lose money which he would not have lost had the case been decided in a Jewish court;
  10. a Kohen shochet (butcher) (all the more so an Israelite[6]) who refuses to give the foreleg, cheeks and abomasum of kosher-slaughtered livestock to another Kohen;
  11. violating the second day of a holiday, even though its observance is only a custom;
  12. performing work on the afternoon of the day preceding Passover;
  13. taking the name of God in vain;
  14. causing others to profane the name of God;
  15. causing others to eat holy meat outside of Jerusalem;
  16. making calculations for the calendar, and establishing festivals accordingly, outside of Israel;
  17. putting a stumbling-block in the way of the blind, that is to say, tempting another to sin (Lifnei iver);
  18. preventing the community from performing some religious act;
  19. selling forbidden ("terefah") meat as permitted meat ("kosher");
  20. failure by a "shochet" (ritual slaughterer) to show his knife to the rabbi for examination;
  21. masturbation;
  22. engaging in intercourse with one's divorced wife;
  23. being made the subject of scandal (in the case of a rabbi);
  24. declaring an unjustified excommunication.

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

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 quorum 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.

The herem

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 "herem," 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.

The nezifah

A milder form than either niddui or herem was the "nezifah" ban. (In modern Hebrew, "nezifah" generally means "a dressing-down" or "reading (someone) the riot act", i.e., a stern verbal rebuke.) 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, herem stopped existing after The Enlightenment, when local Jewish communities lost their political autonomy, and Jews were integrated into the gentile nations in which they lived. In 1918, the Rabbinical Council of Odessa, declared herem on Leon Trotsky and several other Jewish members of the Bolshevik movement.

In 2004, the High Court of South Africa upheld a herem against a Johannesburg businessman because he refused to pay his former wife alimony as ordered by a beth din.[7][8]

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ Zinoviev cynically referred to this in his eulogy of Uritsky (the chief of the Petrograd Cheka, assassinated on August 30, 1918): "When we read that in Odessa, under Skoropadsky, the rabbis assembled in special council, and there these representatives of the rich Jews, officially, before the entire world, excommunicated from the Jewish community such Jews as Trotsky and me, your obedient servant, and others - no single hair of any of us has turned gray because of grief"; Zinoviev, Sochineniia, 16:224, quoted in Bezbozhnik [The godless], no. 20 (12 September 1938).
  4. ^ Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew Lexicon, entries herem 1, herem 2
  5. ^
  6. ^ Raaviah to Chullin chap. 1225, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg responsa 7 (mossad horav kook vol. 2 p. 11
  7. ^
  8. ^

External links

  • Jewish Encyclopedia 1901: Anathema
  • Jewish Encyclopedia 1901: Ban
  • South African High Court upholds Jewish right to pronounce herem
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