After an unnamed man, the son of a Jewish mother and Egyptian father, uttered the name of Hashem as a curse, he was brought to Moses; the man was then detained until Hashem would reveal his fate to the prophet and leader. Hashem ultimately told Moses that this blasphemer was subject to the death penalty: specifically, he should be taken outside of the camp and the entire nation should stone him. In the passage describing the Israelites executing Hashem’s instructions (Leviticus 24:10-23), the verb regimah is used for stoning a person to death. This essay seeks to determine what, if anything, is the difference between regimah and the more common word for the same act, sekilah. Are they interchangeable, or is there something more to the story?
Let’s begin with the word sekilah. Its root is the triliteral samech-kuf-lammed, and inflections of this root that refer to stoning someone or something to death appear 20 times in the Bible. It is the prescribed punishment for one who approaches Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:13); for an ox who kills a person (21:28-29, 21:32); for an idolator (Deuteronomy 17:5) or one who incites other to commit idolatry (13:11); and for both the betrothed virgin who commits adultery and her paramour (22:21, 22:24).
The term sekilah also appears when Moses refused Pharaoh’s offer to bring sacrifices to Hashem in Egypt in lieu of allowing the nation to leave. Moses claims that the Egyptians would not tolerate the Jews slaughtering their gods and would “stone” the Jews. Similarly, when the Jews complained to Moses that there was no water in the desert, Moses cried out to Hashem claiming, “just a little bit more and they will stone me” (Exodus 17:4). The term sekilah was also used when a similar sentiment was expressed by King David (I Samuel 30:6); and at another point he actually was pelted with stones and cursed by Shimi ben Geira, but he was not killed in that stoning (16:6, 16:13).
The term sekilah also appears in two instances of men who were stoned to death: Achan, who illegally took the spoils of war from Jericho (Joshua 7:25); and Naboth, against whom Jezebel and Ahab conspired to take his vineyard (I Kings 23:10-15).
Sekilah appears more than a dozen times in the Mishna in the context of “stoning” a person or animal to death, but it also appears in references to “stoning” a dead person’s coffin (Eduyot 5:6).
When discussing the root samech-kuf-lammed in Machberet Menachem, early lexicographer Menachem Ibn Saruk (920-970) lists “stoning” and “clearing” or “cleaning” as two unrelated meanings. On the other hand, Ibn Janach (990-1050) and Radak (1160-1234) in their respective Sefer HaShorashim see the two meanings of this root as related – in the sense that they mean the exact opposite of each other.
It is a well-established phenomenon in the Hebrew language that a given root might be a self-antonym, and this case is an example: one meaning of the samech-kuf-lammed root refers to using stones, while the other meaning refers to getting rid of them.
Derivatives of the root samech-kuf-lammed appear two more times in the Bible, but in the sense of clearing or removing stones rather than stoning somebody. Isaiah famously spoke about the future redemption and urged the Jewish People to saklu m’even (“remove the stones”) that may impede its arrival (Isaiah 62:10). In a parable about planting a vineyard, Isaiah again uses the word sakel to refer to clearing out rocks that could be detrimental to the cultivation of grapevines (5:2). This agricultural usage of the term also appears in the Mishna (Sheviit 3:7, 2:3).
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) bridges the gap between these two meanings of sekilah by explaining that both refer to the act of “throwing” rocks, but the first meaning refers to throwing rocks at a person while the second meaning refers to clearing an area of the rocks by throwing those rocks elsewhere.
Alternatively, Rabbi Moshe Tedeschi-Ashkenazi (1821-1898) in his work Otzar Nirdafim explains the root samech-kuf-lammed as referring to the “amassing of a large quantity” – in this case, a large quantity of stones. The first step towards stoning an individual is to gather a bunch of stones to be used in the act, and likewise when one clears one’s field or vineyard of rocks, one amasses a quantity of such stones.
The root reish-gimmel-mem appears 16 times throughout the Bible in reference to stoning someone to death. Besides the four instances where it appears in connection with the blasphemer in this week’s Torah portion, regimah was meted out to the man who publicly desecrated Shabbos (Numbers 15:35-36). It is also the prescribed punishment for one who offers their child to Molech (Leviticus 20:2), one who consults with necromancers like Ov and Yidoni (20:27), and the rebellious son (Deuteronomy 21:21).
Additionally, regimah was what the Jews wanted to do to Joshua and Caleb when they rejected the other spies’ negative report of the Holy Land (Numbers 14:10); what they actually did do to King Rehoboam’s tax-collector (I Kings 12:18, II Chronicles 10:18); and what the idolatrous Jews in the times of King Joash did to kohen gadol and prophet Zecharia ben Yehoyada (24:21). Ezekiel also foretold that regimah will be the fate of the Jewish People, whose idolatry can be likened to adultery (Ezekiel 16:40, 23:47). Finally, when it comes to the aforementioned story of Achan, the Bible (Joshua 7:25) actually uses both regimah and sekilah.
The term regimah also appears twice in the Mishna. After a certain Sadducean kohen failed to perform the Libation of Water ceremony on Sukkot in the proper way, the nation “pelted him” (ragmuhu) with their etrogim (Sukkah 4:9). Similarly, if a sinner sentenced to sekilah survives being pushed off a high platform and having a large boulder placed on his heart, then the Jews in attendance should regimato, “stone him” (Sanhedrin 6:4).
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Exodus 26:1) sees a connection between regimah (reish-gimmel-mem) and rikmah (reish-kuf-mem), meaning “embroidery,” via the interchangeability of the letters gimmel and kuf. Just as the former involves piling stones on top of a person, so does the latter involve sewing a special picture or shape on top of a pre-existing fabric, he writes.
The 18th-century grammarian and dayan Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Carpentras writes in Ohalei Yehuda that regimah is related to regev (Job 21:33, 38:38), which means “clump of dirt.” He notes that both refer to a “collection” or “gathering” of smaller individual part, and they are related due to the interchangeability of the letters mem and bet. This explanation is similar to Rabbi Moshe Tedeschi’s way of explaining sekilah mentioned above.
Rabbi Pappenheim sees the letter mem of regimah as unessential to its core root, allowing him to trace the etymology of regimah to the two-letter root reish-gimmel (“subduing”): a stoned person is overwhelmed and subdued by the quantity of stones thrown at him, which limit his ability to continue functioning. Other words derived from this root include harigah (“killing,” because when one “kills” another, he has subdued them and put them to rest in the most absolute way possible) and arigah (“weaving,” because threads in a fabric are so tightly woven together, that they appear “subdued” when rendered immobile in place.)
(To be continued)