Traditional ban separating a person from the rest of the community.

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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.

Rules & Regulations

According to the Talmud (Moed Katan 16a) the first stage was for the offender to be placed under a minor form of the ban for 30 days. If he persisted in his error he was banned for another 30 days. If he still persisted the full herem was imposed on him. A man under herem had to observe the laws of mourning as if a near relative of his had died. He was not allowed, for instance, to wear shoes and bathe his whole body. Apart from the immediate members of his family, no one was allowed to come within four cubits of him and those who did became themselves liable to the herem.

He was not to be taught the Torah but was allowed to study on his own. He could no longer qualify to make up a minyan, the quorum of ten required for prayer. If he died while under the ban his coffin was to be stoned but this was understood to mean that a stone was placed symbolically on the coffin. In extreme cases, the herem was pronounced in the synagogue, where black candles were kindled, the Ark opened, the shofar sounded, and the offender solemnly cursed.

In modern times the whole institution of the herem has largely fallen into desuetude. On the threshold of the modern period, Moses Mendelssohn, on grounds of religious tolerance, expressed his opposition to the right of the Rabbis to impose the herem. In many European communities, the governments declared the imposition of the herem to be illegal and Jews obeyed the laws of the countries in which they resided. Excessive resort to the herem was, in any event, self-defeating.

When herem met with counter-herem, it often happened that so many people were under the ban that it became totally unenforceable, nothing more than an expression of strong disapproval. The sporadic attempts, nowadays, to impose a herem are treated as something of a joke.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.