By Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
August 18, 2023
Some commands in the Torah were understood so narrowly by the Sages that they were rendered almost inapplicable. One example is the ir ha-nidachat, the city led astray into idolatry, about which the Torah states that “you shall put the inhabitants of that town to the sword.” (Deut. 13:16) Another is the ben sorer umoreh, the stubborn and rebellious child, brought by his parents to the court and, if found guilty, put to death. (Deut. 21:18-21)
In both cases, some Sages then interpreted the law so restrictively that they said “there never was and never will be” a case in which the law was applied. (Sanhedrin 71a) As for the condemned city, Rabbi Eliezer said that if it contained a single mezuzah, the law was not enforced (ibid.). In the case of the rebellious child, R. Yehuda taught that if the mother and father did not sound or look alike, the law did not apply (ibid.). According to these interpretations, the two laws were never meant to be put into practice but were written solely “so that we should expound them and receive reward.” They had only an educational — not a legal — function.