Dear Rabbi Fried,
I have been wondering about the status of someone like Hitler who did not actually kill the 6 million with his own hands, but ordered it done by his emissaries. Does murder by his agents put him into the category of a mass murderer for all those they killed? Or does that just make him evil? Since the ones who perpetrated the murders were also men of free will, perhaps only they are actually considered “murderers” while their Fuhrer is technically exonerated from those acts? Just wondering.
You are asking a dual question: Firstly, what is the culpability of one who hires or orders one to do a sin? — in this case, murder; secondly, if the director of the act is culpable, does that release his messengers from their responsibility of murder and all the blame goes to him?
The opinion of Shamai is that if one sends an agent to murder someone, the agent is considered the murderer and not the one who sent him. The majority opinion, however, disagrees with Shamai and holds that the dispatcher is a murderer (Talmud, Kiddushin 43a).
Maimonides, when codifying this law, writes: “…one who hires a killer to murder another, or sent his slave to do so … he is a spiller of blood and the sin of murder is on his hands; he deserves the punishment of ‘death by Heaven’ but he does not receive the death penalty by a court of Jewish law…” (Yad, Laws of Murder 2:2). We see clearly that according to Jewish law one who hires or orders another to murder is considered a murderer himself. This is one of a number of examples where, due to the lack of a clear action, one is considered a murderer in the “heavenly court” although a death penalty could not be meted out by a beit din or Jewish court; it is left to the “heavenly court” to exact justice upon him. We similarly find that King Saul was considered a murderer for sending his army to kill the inhabitants of Nov, the city of the priests (see 2 Samuel Ch. 21:1, Rashi loc. cit., and verses 1-10).
The above exoneration from the death penalty in a Jewish court is built upon the halachic precept “ain shaliach l’devar aveirah,” or “there is no messenger to one to perpetrate a sin for another.” There is a question in Jewish law if this applies to Gentiles. Consequently, it is possible that a Gentile would be liable even for the death penalty for sending a messenger to murder (Minchas Chinuch 34:8 s.v. Gam).
The question still remains as to the responsibility of the messenger who actually perpetrated the murder; does the culpability of the dispatcher release him from blame?
Maharal says that when Esau was coming to kill Jacob, not only he but all his 400 warriors were liable for the death penalty. Although the 400 were coming by force of their king and commander, Esau, since they had free will they should have chosen their own deaths at the hand of Esau rather than submit themselves to his will that they kill Jacob and family. Because murder is one of the three cardinal sins, one is obligated to forfeit their own life rather than murder another. The fact that Esau would kill them if they did not carry out his command is therefore not an excuse which would release his men from blame (Gur Aryeh, Beresheet 32:8).
All this, and other sources beyond the scope of this column, show clearly that Hitler was not only evil, but a mass murderer, personally responsible for the murders of every one of the 6 million kedoshim as well as those of many millions of Gentiles. His henchmen who carried out his evil will remain fully responsible as well; the “Fuhrer’s” command does not exonerate them from full personal culpability.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.
Dear Rabbi Fried,