Jonathan’s Death Sentence

Every Motza’ei Shabbos, many kehillos recite V’yiten Lechoh, a compendium of verses that discuss the blessings and prosperity of Klal Yisroel. Towards the end, Vayiten Lecha touches on a mysterious episode that happened during a battle against the Plishtim when Shaul abjured the people to eat nothing until they had completely routed the enemy. When Yonasan inadvertently transgressed the oath by eating some honeycomb, Shaul said to him, You must surely die, Yonasan. To this the Jewish people protested, Shall Yonasan die who did this great salvation in Yisroel? Heaven forefend, as Hashem lives, no one hair of his head shall fall to the ground, for he acted together with G-d this day. The verse concludes that the people saved Yonasan and he did not die (I Shmuel 14:45).

The question is, why would violating an oath make Yonasan liable for the death penalty? And if Yonasan was liable, how did the people’s protest override this?


Yonasan’s Private Victory

The story begins (Shmuel I chapter 14) with the Plishtim gathering thirty thousand chariots, six thousand cavalry, and men numerous as the sand of the sea to attack Yisroel. Shaul goes out to attack them with six hundred men armed with agricultural pitchforks, ox goads, and axes, for the Plishtim have banned metal smiths throughout the land to deprive the Jews of swords, bows, and spears. Only Shaul and Yonasan have proper arms.

Before the battle, Yonasan and his arms bearer leave Shaul’s army to attack the stronghold of Michmosh that lies about eight miles from Yerushalayim in the region of the tribe of Binyomin. Reaching the garrison via a steep hill, Yonasan and his companion kill about twenty men. This miraculously sets off a wave of terror among the Plishtim and their whole army flees.

Urging the people to pursue the fleeing enemy, Shaul adjures them, “Cursed be the man who eats bread until the evening, [until] I have taken vengeance against my enemies.” But ignorant of his father’s oath, Yonasan dips his staff into a honeycomb and tastes a small amount of honey. Later, when Shaul asks the Urim Vetumim whether he should continue pursuing the Plishtim at night he gets no answer, and suspecting that someone has transgressed his oath he searches for the culprit with the Urim and Tumim, and discovers that Yonasan has eaten and must die.

At this point, the people protest, Shall Yonasan die who did this great salvation in Yisroel? Heaven forefend, as Hashem lives, no one hair of his head shall fall to the ground, for he acted together with G-d this day. The verse concludes, And the people saved Yonasan and he did not die.

As mentioned earlier, this story raises two questions. First, what authority did Shaul have to pronounce an oath that bore the death penalty? Secondly, if Yonasan was indeed liable, how did the people’s argument save his life?

The Ramban deals with these questions in his Torah commentary (Vayikra 27:29). He begins with a similar case where not one person, but a huge number of people, were deemed liable for the death penalty for failing to observe an oath. This happened when the Jews decided to attack the tribe of Binyomin after the episode of the Pilegesh BeGivah and declared that anyone who failed to come to Mitzpeh to prepare for the battle shall surely be put to death (Shoftim 21:5). Failing to arrive, the people of Yoveish Gilod were deemed liable for the death penalty.

Commenting on this episode, the medrash says, “It was taught in a beraisa, Rabbi Akiva said: A cherem is an oath and an oath is a cherem. The men of Yavesh transgressed a cherem and were liable for the death penalty.”

From this hint, the Ramban derives that Shaul’s authority to adjure the people to the point of death comes from the verse, Any cherem (vow) which one is adjured by a person, he shall not be redeemed, he shall surely die (Vayikra 27:29). From here we learn, he says, “that any king of Yisroel or great Sanhedrin in the presence of all Yisroel that has judicial authorization, if they make a cherem to fight against a town, or if they make a cherem against anything, if someone transgresses he is liable for death. This is why the people of Yoveish, and Yonasan were liable.”

At this point, most texts of the Ramban add that this was the basis of Yiftach’s mistake regarding his daughter. He thought this rule also covered the oath he made to sacrifice whatever came first out of his door if he defeated the Ammonites, even though the first to come out was his own daughter (Shoftim 11).

It is intriguing that the stories of Shaul and Yiftach have many parallels. In both incidents a military leader makes an oath, in both a child has to pay the price of the oath, and in both, the child humbly accepts his or her fate. The difference is that Yonasan is saved by the people, while Yiftach’s daughter is left to her fate.

In his sefer discussing the laws of charamim, Mishpat Hacherem, the Ramban lists four general rules of any cherem: First, it obligates even people who did not answer amein, second, it obligates people who were not there, third, if the cherem was made by a king or Sanhedrin, it bears the death penalty, and fourth, a cherem applies even to future generations. The last rule, the Ramban writes, helps us explain Yehoshua’s cherem against building Yericho when he adjured: Cursed be the man before Hashem, who rises up and builds this city, Yericho: he shall lay its foundation with his firstborn, and with his youngest son shall he set up its gates (Yehoshua 6:26). This decree was fulfilled generations later in the days of Achov when the verse reports:

In his days, Chiel of Betel built Yericho: he laid its foundation with Aviram his firstborn, and set its gates with his youngest son Segiv, according to the word of Hashem, which he spoke by Yehoshua bin Nun (I Kings 16:33).


How was Yonasan Saved?

If Yonasan deserved death for transgressing his father’s cherem, how did the people save him? What was their debate with Shaul? The Ramban (Mishpetei Hacherem) writes that Shaul was certain that Yonasan had not acted inadvertently. He thought it was impossible that Yonasan had heard nothing of the cherem when the whole nation was fasting, and therefore Yonasan deserved the death penalty.

How did the people save him? By annulling the cherem as if it never existed.

“The cherem has a leniency that does not exist with oaths and nedorim,” the Ramban explains. “If the person who transgressed repented and came to beis din or the town elders in the presence of the townspeople, they themselves can release him… and so a king of Yisroel or the Sanhedrin… And so the verse says, The people redeemed Yehonasan and he did not die.”

In his Torah commentary, the Ramban offers another explanation of what the people meant when they argued: Shall Yonasan die who did this great salvation in Yisroel? Heaven forefend, as Hashem lives, no one hair of his head shall fall to the ground, for he acted together with G-d this day.

“Because a miracle happened through him they knew he had acted inadvertently,” he writes. “This is the meaning of the words, who did this great salvation in Yisroel. And so translates Yonasan ben Uziel, For it was revealed to Hashem that he acted inadvertently this day, and the nation saved Yonasan.” In Mishpat Hacherem the Ramban adds, “Because a miracle was done through him, it was obvious that this happened to him by mistake for the Holy One does not do miracles through wicked people who disobey a cherem.

The Medrash Yilmedenu (cited by the Malbim) mentions three other reasons why Yehonasan was spared. According to one answer the people redeemed him by giving his weight in gold, Rabbi Yochanan says that Shaul adjured that the people should not eat bread, and Yonasan ate honey, while Reish Lakish argues that Yonasan never ate the honey but only tasted it.


The Second Battle of Michmosh

We discussed earlier how Yehonasan and his arms bearer set off alone to conquer the Philistine garrison of Michmosh. In his book, The Romance of the Last Crusade; With Allenby to Jerusalem, Major Vivian Gilbert describes how he relived the 3,000 year old story when the British were battling towards Yericho during World War I.

On the night of February 18th, 1918, Gilbert was sitting in his tent searching through his Bible with the light of a candle. His brigade had received orders to sieze the Arab village of Michmosh that stood on a rocky hill on the other side of a deep valley. Figuring it might be profitable to benefit by Yonasan’s experience, the major examined the relevant pesukim (I Shmuel chapter 13) and read how Yonasan and his arms bearer scaled the cliff, passed between two sharp rocks, the name of the one was Bozez and the name of other Seneh, reached half an acre of land, which a yoke of oxen might plow, and then killed twenty Philistines, leading to a miraculous rout of the enemy. Perhaps he too could instigate a smaller version of what the Tanach describes: There was a great trembling in the [Philistine] camp, in the field and among the whole people… And the watchers of Shaul in the Hill of Binyomin saw, and behold, the multitude melted away and went while beating each other.

Gilbert woke his commander and the two men carefully read through the pesukim to determine exactly what to look for. Patrols set out to find the place, located a small pass that led through two jagged rocks and found a small flat field lying beyond, just as the pesukim relate. A company of soldiers scaled the cliffs and overcame the small group of Turks guarding the field on top. Next morning, the Turks in the town thought they were being surrounded by Allenby’s army and fled in disorder. All were killed or taken prisoner.

“And so,” Gilbert concluded, “after thousands of years British troops successfully copied the tactics of Saul and Jonathan.”

(Source: Moshe Yosef HaLevi Miller, Mishpat Hamelachim BeTanach, Yerushalayim, 5752. Vivian Gilbert, The Romance of the Last Crusade; With Allenby to Jerusalem, New York: D. Appleton and Co.,,1928. as retold in: Werner Keller, The Bible As History; Second Revised Edition, Hodder and Stroughton, 1965.)

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