EXCOMMUNICATION (Hebrew, "niddui," "ḥerem"):

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The highest ecclesiastical censure, the exclusion of a person from the religious community, which among the Jews meant a practical prohibition of all intercourse with society. For the etymology of the Hebrew terms used in this connection and for a clear exposition of the historical development and of the ethical significance of this institution see Anathema and Ban.

Although developed from the Biblical ban, excommunication, as employed by the Rabbis during Talmudic times and during the Middle Ages, is really a rabbinic institution, its object being to preserve the solidarity of the nation and strengthen the authority of the Synagogue by enforcing obedience to its mandates. Still, the legal instinct of the Rabbis here, as elsewhere, made it impossible for such an arbitrary institution to become dangerous, and a whole system of laws was gradually developed, by means of which this power was hedged in and controlled, so that it practically became one of the modes of legal punishment by the court. 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.

Chirograph Containing an Agreement Between Isaac of Northampton and Dame Margaret de Huc, 1216.(In the Record Office, London.)Causes of Excommunication.

The Talmud speaks of twenty-four offenses punishable by excommunication (Ber. 19a; Yer. M. Ḳ. iii. 1), a round number which is not to be taken literally.Later authorities enumerate 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 "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 the 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, through which the Jew is involved in a loss of money to which he would not have been condemned by a Jewish court; (10) appropriation by a priest whose business is the selling of meat, of the priestly portions of all the animals for himself; (11) violating the second day of a holiday, even though its observance is only a custom ("minhag"); (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 ("ḥillul hashem"); (15) causing others to eat holy meat outside of Jerusalem; (16) making calculations for the calendar, and establishing festivals accordingly, outside of Palestine; (17) putting a stumbling-block in the way of the blind, that is to say, tempting one to sin; (18) preventing the community from performing some religious act; (19) selling forbidden ("ṭerefah") meat as permitted meat ("kasher"); (20) omission by a "shoḥeṭ." (ritual slaughterer) to show his knife to the rabbi for examination; (21) self-abuse; (22) engaging in business intercourse with one's divorced wife; (23) being made the subject of scandal (in the case of a rabbi); (24) excommunicating one unjustly (Maimonides, "Yad," Talmud Torah, vi. 14; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 334, 43).


While excommunication was pronounced by the court and was considered a legal act, the procedure was not so formal or so rigorous as in other judicial cases. Circumstantial and hearsay evidence and even incompetent witnesses were admitted, thus preserving the arbitrariness of the character of the procedure (Yoreh De'ah, l.c., Isserles' gloss). This characteristic was still further emphasized in the occasional excommunications which were inflicted by individuals. These might be indefinite—as when a man laid the ban upon any one who possessed articles stolen from him (Shulḥan 'Aruk, Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 71, 7), or upon any one who knew of the circumstances of a case in which he was involved and did not come to court to testify (ib. 28, 2)—or definite, upon a particular person, as when a learned man excommunicated one who insulted him (M. Ḳ. 17a), or when a master excommunicated a pupil who decided a law in his presence (Shab. 19a) or asked him ridiculous questions (Men. 37a). Some authorities are of the opinion that a creditor, even though not a scholar, might excommunicate his debtor who refused to pay his debt (notes to Asheri, M. Ḳ. iii. 10; Yoreh De'ah, l.c. 46).

The Niddui.

The "niddui" was usually imposed for a period of seven days (in Palestine thirty days). If it was 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. 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 (Yoreh De'ah, 334, 1, Isserles' gloss; compare Ture Zahab and Pitḥe Teshubah ad loc.).

The Ḥerem.

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 "ḥerem," 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 ḥerem was the "nezifah." When a prominent person, such as the nasi or another learned man, rebuked one with the words, "How insolent this man is!" the latter was required to consider himself excommunicated for one day (in Palestine for seven days). During this time he 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 (M. Ḳ. 16a; Yoreh-De'ah, 334,14). 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 thesages, 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 (M. Ḳ. 17a). Maimonides concludes with these words the chapter on the laws of excommunication:

("Yad," 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"

See Acosta, Uriel; Spinoza, Baruch.

  • Hamburger, R. B. T. s.v. Bann;
  • Duschak, Strafrecht, Vienna, 1869;
  • Mandl, Der Bann, Brunn, 1898;
  • Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, Philadelphia, 1896;
  • J. Wiesner, Der Bann in Seiner Geschichtlichen Entwicklung auf dem Boden des Judenthums, 1869.
S. S. J. H. G.
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