Ir Nidachat: A City Removed
Rabbanit Michal Tikochinsky
The subject of ir nidachat, a city that must be destroyed because all its residents have turned to idolatry, is a fascinating subject that brings up weighty disputes concerning how we should relate to communities that sin. A study of the discourse surrounding this subject reveals the different halachic values and priorities that are considered when determining such laws.
In Chazal there are two opposing opinions on how much effort should be put in to bring the people of this city to justice. For example, there are two vastly different midrashei halacha on the verse "and you should gather all its belongings to its rechov (open place in the city, like a town square)." What happens to a city that does not have a rechov?
“The Rabbis taught in a braita: If it does not have a rechov it cannot be made into an ir nidachat- this is the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael.
Rabbi Akiva says: If it doesn’t have a rechov- make it a rechov!”
(T.B. Sanhedrin 112a; Rabbi Akiva’s stricter opinion is brought in the original language of the mishnah, and Rabbi Yishmael’s disputing opinion is not: Sanhedrin Chapter 10 Mishnah 6)
Both Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yishmael agree that an ir nidachat must have a rechov, otherwise it would be impossible to follow the instruction of the Torah and gather all the possessions in the city into the rechov. According to Rabbi Yishmael if there is no rechov then there is no way to implement the strict sentence of the ir nidachat, which includes burning everything contained in the city, and killing the men, women, and children who live there. Rabbi Akiva’s dissenting opinion is that there is no room for leniency just because this town does not have a town square. So Rabbi Akiva would have the public works department come and construct the rechov so the belongings could be gathered there to be burned along with the town and all that is in it- the newly built rechov and any and all other infrastructure, shops and houses- all destroyed.
A similar discussion is brought in relation to the burning of the city and all it contains. Here to there are two midrashei halacha at odds with each other. On one hand we’re told:
“’Its belongings,’ and not the belongings of Heaven. From here they said the hekdesh (sanctified items) in it are redeemed, the trumah should rot, maaser sheini and holy writings are buried, ‘completely to the Lord, your God.’” (Mishnah, ibid)
This understanding assumes that anything that does not belong to the people of the city but rather belongs to God, like trumah and maaser, can’t be burned. Therefore the mishnah instructs us to wait until the trumah rots on its own and ceases to be sanctified, the holy books are buried, and all hekdesh (sanctified as holy) items are redeemed. Yet the opposite opinion interperts the verse in a different way that teaches us a leniency:
“As it says in a braita: Rabbi Eliezer says: Every city that has even one mezuzah cannot be made into an ir nidachat. What is the reason? The verse says, ‘And gather all its belongings into its rechov and burn it with fire.’ And since there is a mezuzah there this is not possible, as it says, ‘You shall not do these things to the Lord, your God.’” (T.B. Sanhedrin 91a)
According to Rabbi Eliezer one of the consequences of the prohibition against burning sanctified objects, which is learned from the verse, “You shall not do these things to the Lord, your God," means that if a city contains objects dedicated to heaven it is protected from the status of an ir nidachat. (The context of the verse in Devarim 12, 4 is a commandment to destroy idolatrous altars and other pagan objects, which is followed by the commandment not to do the same to anything pertaining to the worship of God.) The mere existence of such objects in the city prevents the entire judgment of an ir nidachat from being carried out.
One could suggest that the two approaches and the differences between them stem from a deeper dispute over how zealous the People of Israel are meant to be when trying to purge themselves of fringe groups. One approach says that justice should be pursued at any cost, no exceptions, no survivors. The other approach believes in restraint and tolerance, it tells us to look for anything positive or good in order to avoid such a harsh judgment.
This discussion reflects a deeper philosophical dispute concerning an ir nidachat. Both of these opinions agree that to be designated an ir nidachat a city must have a rechov and can't contain any sanctified objects. Yet the way each approach interprets the significance of a lack of a rechov or the presence of sanctified objects is very different. The stricter opinion sees these things as technical legal conditions that are easily resolved, procedures that must be fulfilled and no more than that.
Conversely the more forgiving opinion thinks that a city is not a city unless it contains a rechov- a large public space designated for gatherings and marketplaces. Anything less is not a real city, it is just a negligible hamlet, or poor, low class outpost of no real significance. According to the same approach the existence of a mezuza or trumah and maaser in the city proves that the city’s degeneration is still under control and that there is still a spark of hope that they can change course and improve. The diseased mindset that has taken hold of the city is not terminal.
There is fascinating support for this approach in another halachic limitation which determines that border cities cannot be designated as an ir nidachat.
"We do not make an ir nidachat on the periphery. Why not?
The Torah says, 'From your midst,' and not from the periphery." (T.B. Sanhedrin 16b)
This midrash halacha teaches that if the city is located on the borders of the Land of Israel it cannot be designated as nidachat. The verse expressly states that the city must be "from [within] your midst." It seems unnecessary to state that this midrash halacha is based on a certain ideology. People who live on the border, in the periphery, are not part of the nerve center of the nation. They are a marginal population and tend to be marginalized. Even though their divergence is a troubling phenomenon it does not represent the entire nation, nor does it endanger them. Even today cities located on the border or in the periphery often have similar problems and are rarely viewed or treated the same as those in the center.
But according to Rabbi Shimon, who sides with the stricter opinion, this discussion highlights a different concern. He believes that a city on the border cannot be designated as an ir nidachat because the punishment poses a risk to national security. The destruction of a city on the border enables enemies to infiltrate the land and control it, as he says, "And close to the border- not even one can be made. What is the reason? Lest gentiles hear and destroy the Land of Israel." (ibid.)
In contrast to the more forgiving and understanding approach the strict approach places the needs of the collective, the People of Israel, above the needs of the individual. A city that has gone bad should be burned, the terumah inside shall rot, and the missing rechov will be built and destroyed. All this is done in order to eliminate any phenomenon that threatens the collective and has a chance of spreading. But if the national security of the State of Israel is at risk then the collective concern becomes physical instead of spiritual, and the people of this city are considered an important defense of the state, instead of a threat.
We can also relate this fundamental dispute to the different points of view concerning this section of the Torah. On the one hand Rabbi Shimon see the punishment meted out to the ir nidachat as a very real, and possibly even desired, possibility. It is a values statement that presents a clear religious ethos. This is reflected in the use of the word "klil" completely, which is used to describe how the belongings of an ir nidachat are burned, but is more typically used in the coontext of burning sacrifices.
"Rabbi Shimon said: The Holy One blessed be He said, 'If you mete out justice in an ir nidachat then I will attribute it to you as if you are offering a burnt-offering to me." (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10, 6)
On the other hand, The Tosefta states that such a city never existed and will never exist:
There has never been an ir nidachat and there never will be. So then why was it written? To say expound upon it and recieve reward. (Sanhedrin 14, 1)
Based on what we have seen so far the reason for this statement seems obvious. The laws connect the events in the city to the conditions of how such events came to be. In essence, the description of this city is a paradox- a city with all services and ammenities, in the center of the country, that dwells quietly and peacefully, and yet does not have even one mezuzah. This is not reality, this is science-fiction.
So if this law was only written so that we could expound upon it and recieve reward then it seems as though this is just as relevant in our time. Perhaps there should be a special mitzvah to expound upon the subject of cities on the border or the periphery and the relationship between them and the center of the country- and the nation. The value of these cities to the defense of the rest of the country is clearer than ever. In the past few years the south of the country has faced continual threats and attacks, and their strong and faithful stand is inspiring. The center has a duty to support them and invest in their physical and spiritual and educational development, both for their sake and for our own sake.