Heresy in Judaism

Jewish heretics (Hebrew minim, מינים) are Jewish individuals (often historically, philosophers) whose works have, in part or in whole, been condemned as heretical by significant persons or groups in the larger Jewish community based on the classical teachings of Rabbinic Judaism and derived from halakha (Jewish religious law).

Rabbinic definition of heresyEdit

Talmudic eraEdit

The Greek term for heresy, αἵρεσις, originally denoted "division," "sect," "religious" or "philosophical party," is applied by Josephus to the three Jewish sects—Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes.[1] In the sense of a schism to be deprecated, the word occurs in 1 Corinthians 11:19, Galatians 5:20, and particularly in 2 Peter 2:1; hence αἱρετικὸς ("heretic") in the sense of "factious" (Titus 2:10).

The specific rabbinical term for heresies, or religious divisions due to an unlawful spirit, is minim (lit. "kinds [of belief]"; the singular "min," for "heretic" or "Gnostic," is coined idiomatically, like "goy" and am ha'aretz; see Gnosticism). The law "You shall not cut yourselves" (לא תתגדדו)[2] is interpreted by the Rabbis: "You shall not form divisions [לא תעשו אגודות אגודות], but shall form one bond" (after Amos 9:6, A. V. "troop").[3] Besides the term "min" (מין) for "heretic," the Talmud uses the words "ḥitzonim" (outsiders), "apikoros," and "kofer ba-Torah",[4] or "kofer ba-ikkar" (he who denies the fundamentals of faith);[5] also "poresh mi-darke tzibbur" (he who deviates from the customs of the community).[6] It is said that all these groups are consigned to Gehinnom for all eternity.[7]

The Mishnah[8] says the following have no share in the world to come: "He who denies that the Torah is divinely revealed [lit. "comes from Heaven"], and the apiḳoros." Rabbi Akiva says, "also he who reads heretical books" ("sefarim ḥitzonim"). This is explained in the Talmud[9] to mean "sifrei tzedukim" (Sadducean writings); but this is an alteration by the censor of "sifre ha-Minim" (books of the Gnostics or heretics). The Biblical verse, "That you seek not after your own heart"[10] is explained as "You shall not turn to heretic views ["minut"] which lead your heart away from God".[11]

The Birkat haMinim is a malediction on heretics. The belief that the curse was directed at Christians was sometimes cause for persecution of Jews. Modern scholarship has generally evaluated that the Birkat haMinim probably did originally include Jewish Christians before Christianity became markedly a gentile religion.[12]

Medieval eraEdit

In summarizing the Talmudic statements concerning heretics in Sanhedrin 90-103, Maimonides says:[13]

The following have no share in the world to come, but are cut off, and perish, and receive their punishment for all time for their great sin: the minim, the apikoresim, they that deny the belief in the Torah, they that deny the belief in resurrection of the dead and in the coming of the Redeemer, the apostates, they that lead many to sin, they that turn away from the ways of the [Jewish] community. Five are called 'minim': (1) he who says there is no God and the world has no leader; (2) he who says the world has more than one leader; (3) he who ascribes to the Lord of the Universe a body and a figure; (4) he who says that God was not alone and Creator of all things at the world's beginning; (5) he who worships some star or constellation as an intermediating power between himself and the Lord of the World.

The following three classes are called 'apiḳoresim': (1) he who says there was no prophecy nor was there any wisdom that came from God and which was attained by the heart of man; (2) he who denies the prophetic power of Moses our master; (3) he who says that God has no knowledge concerning the doings of men.

The following three are called 'koferim ba-Torah': (1) he who says the Torah is not from God: he is a kofer even if he says a single verse or letter thereof was said by Moses of his own accord; (2) he who denies the traditional interpretation of the Torah and opposes those authorities who declare it to be tradition, as did Zadok and Boethus; and (3) he who says, as do the Nazarenes and the Mohammedans, that the Lord has given a new dispensation instead of the old, and that he has abolished the Law, though it was originally divine.

However, Abraham ben David, in his critical notes, objects to Maimonides characterizing as heretics all those who attribute corporeality to God, and he insinuates that the Kabbalists are not heretics. In the same sense all Biblical critics who, like ibn Ezra in his notes on Deuteronomy 1:2, doubt or deny the Mosaic origin of every portion of the Pentateuch, would protest against the Maimonidean (or Talmudic; see Sanh. 99a) conception of heresy.

Legal status of hereticsEdit

The status of heretics in Jewish law is not clearly defined. While there are certain regulations scattered throughout the Talmud concerning the minim, the nearest approach to the English term "heretic," these are mostly of an aggadic nature, the codes taking little cognizance of them. The governing bodies of the Synagogue frequently exercised, from motives of self-defense, their power of excommunication against heretics. The heretic was theoretically excluded from a portion in the world to come;[14] he was consigned to Gehenna, to eternal punishment,[15] but the Jewish courts of justice never attended to cases of heresy; they were left to the judgment of the community.

There are, however, in the rabbinic codes, laws and regulations concerning the relation of the Jew to the heretic. The sentiment against the heretic was much stronger than that against the pagan. While the pagan brought his offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem and the priests accepted them, the sacrifices of the heretic were not accepted.[16] The relatives of the heretic did not observe the laws of mourning after his death, but donned festive garments, and ate and drank and rejoiced.[17] Torah scrolls, tefillin, and mezuzot written by a heretic were burned;[18] and an animal slaughtered by a heretic was forbidden food.[19] Books written by heretics did not render the hands impure;[20] they might not be saved from fire on the Sabbath.[21] A heretic's testimony was not admitted in evidence in Jewish courts;[22] and if an Israelite found an object belonging to a heretic, he was forbidden to return it to him.[23]

Rejection of Jewish practiceEdit

A Jew who rejected Jewish practice could receive a status similar to one who rejected Jewish belief. The "mumar le-hachis" (one who transgresses out of anger), as opposed to the "mumar le'teavon" (one who transgresses to indulge), was placed by some of the Rabbis in the same category as the minim.[24] Even if he habitually transgressed one law only (for example, if he defiantly violated one of the dietary laws), he was not allowed to perform any religious function,[25] nor could he testify in a Jewish court.[26] One who violated the Sabbath publicly or worshiped idols could not participate in the "eruv chazerot",[27] nor could he write a bill of divorce.[28]

One who would not permit himself to be circumcised could not perform the ceremony on another.[29] While the court could not compel the mumar to divorce his wife, even though she demanded it, it compelled him to support her and her children and to pay her an allowance until he agreed to a divorce.[30] At his death, those who are present need not tear their garments.[31] The mumar who repented and desired readmittance into the community was obliged to take a ritual bath, the same as the convert.[32] If he claimed to be a good Jew, although he was alleged to have worshiped idols in another town, he was believed when no benefit could have accrued to him from such a course.[33]

Jews accused of heresyEdit

The present section lists individuals who have been declared heretical, independent of the particular criteria applied in the assessment. The list below is intended to be inclusive, and thus contains both individuals who have been fully excommunicated, as well as those whose works alone have been condemned as heretical. (The list is in chronological order.)

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ B. J. ii. 8, § 1, and elsewhere; compare Acts 5:17, Acts 26:5, and, with reference to the Christian sect, the αἵρεσις of the Nazarenes, Acts 24:5,24:14, 28:22.
  2. ^ Deuteronomy 14:1
  3. ^ Sifre, Deuteronomy 96
  4. ^ Rosh Hashana 17a
  5. ^ Pesachim 24 168b
  6. ^ Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:5; Rosh Hashana 17a
  7. ^ Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:5; compare ib. 12:9, apparently belonging to 13:5: "He who casts off the yoke [of the Law], and he who severs the Abrahamic covenant; he who interprets the Torah against the halakhic tradition, and he who pronounces in full the Ineffable Name—all these have no share in the world to come"
  8. ^ Sanhedrin 10:1
  9. ^ Sanhedrin 100b
  10. ^ Numbers 15:39
  11. ^ Sifre, Numbers 115; Berachot 12b; see Mishneh Torah Hilchot Akkum 2:3
  12. ^ The Cambridge History of Judaism: The late Roman-Rabbinic period pp291-292 ed. William David Davies, Louis Finkelstein, Steven T. Katz - 2006
  13. ^ Mishneh Torah Hilchot Teshuvah 3:6-8
  14. ^ Mishneh Torah Hilchot Teshuvah 3:6-14
  15. ^ Rosh Hashana 17a; compare Exodus Rabbah 19:5; compare D. Hoffmann, Der Schulchan Aruch und die Rabbinen über das Verhältnis der Juden zu Andersgläubigen, 2d ed., Berlin, 1894
  16. ^ Hullin 13b, et al.
  17. ^ Semachot 2:10; Mishneh Torah Hilchot Evel 1:5,6; Yoreh De'ah 345:5
  18. ^ Gittin 45b; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Hayyim 39:1; Yoreh De'ah 281:1
  19. ^ Hullin 13a; Yoreh De'ah 2:5
  20. ^ Mishneh Torah She'ar Avot haTumot 9:10; compare Mishneh Torah 4:6; see Tumah
  21. ^ Shabbat 116a; Orach Hayyim 334:21; see Gilyonim
  22. ^ Hoshen Mishpaṭ 34:22; see Be'er ha-Golah ad loc.
  23. ^ Hoshen Mishpat 266:2
  24. ^ Avodah Zarah 26a; Horayot 11a
  25. ^ Yoreh Deah, 2, 5; SHaKh and Pitchei Teshuvah, ad loc.
  26. ^ Sanhedrin 27a; Mishneh Torah Hilchot Edut 10:3; Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 34, 2
  27. ^ Eruvin 69a; Mishneh Torah Eruvin 2:16; Orach Hayyim 385:3
  28. ^ Shulchan Aruch Even haEzer 123:2
  29. ^ Yoreh De'ah 264:1, Rema
  30. ^ Even haEzer 154:1; Pitchei Teshuvah ad loc.
  31. ^ Yoreh De'ah 340:5 and Pitchei Teshuvah ad loc.
  32. ^ Yoreh De'ah 268:12, Rema ad loc., Pitchei Teshuvah ad loc.; compare Sefer Hasidim, ed. Wistinetzki, §§ 200-209
  33. ^ Yoreh De'ah 119:11, Pitchei Teshuvah ad loc.
  34. ^

  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSinger, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "Heresy and Heretics". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.

The JE cites the following sources:

  • Krauss, Begriff und Form der Häresic nach Talmud und Midraschim, Hamburg, 1896;
  • Goldfahn, Ueber den Ursprung und die Bedeutung des Ausdruckes, in Monatsschrift, 1870.