Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Herem is a ban imposed on an individual to separate him from the other members of the community. The Hebrew word herem denotes a setting-apart for a particular purpose, when, for instance, property is devoted for Temple use. In Arabic the harem is the place set aside for the women. When Joshua destroyed the city of Jericho, he pronounced a herem on anything appertaining to the city and when Achan took of that which was proscribed he was severely punished for his disobedience of the ban (Joshua 6-7).
In the book of Ezra the herem takes the form of confiscation of property and exclusion from the community: “Then a proclamation was issued in Judah and Jerusalem that all who had returned from the exile should assemble in Jerusalem, and that anyone who did not come in three days would, by decision of the officers and elders, have his property confiscated and himself excluded from the congregation of the returning exiles” (Ezra 10:7-8).
In the Talmud, these verses are used in support of the right of a court to confiscate property where this is seen as necessary for the preservation of communal life but the herem proper applied only to excommunication of the person, with no confiscation of his property.
In the Middle Ages, among the offences for which the herem was invoked were: disobedience to court orders; refusal to pay damages; insulting an official of the court; reviling scholars; and preventing the community from discharging its duties. The herem was thus an effective method of maintaining communal cohesion and authority.
There are rare instances of a herem imposed on an individual for his heretical views, of which the best-known instance is the ban on Spinoza by the court in Amsterdam. The ban on polygamy attributed to Rabbenu Gershom of Mayyence became known as the herem of Rabbenu Gershom, although there is no evidence that this enactment took the form of a herem.
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