Kiddushin 43

Who killed Uriah?

We read in 2 Samuel 11 that one night, as King David was walking on his roof, he spied Bathsheba, wife of Uriah, taking a bath on her roof. Smitten, he immediately sent for her, slept with her and she conceived a child. The problem, beyond issues of consent and adultery, was that Uriah was off fighting in the war against the Ammonites, and so it would be pretty obvious that he wasn’t the father of Bathsheba’s baby. 

To cover the crime, David summoned Uriah back to Jerusalem in the hopes that he would sleep with his wife and therefore plausibly appear to be the father of her child. Uriah, however, nobly refused to leave his comrades-in-arms to seek the comfort of his wife, insisting on sleeping with the troops stationed in Jerusalem. Now desperate, King David turned to plan B, and sent Uriah back to the front with a letter to his general, Yoav: “Place Uriah in the front line where the fighting is fiercest; then fall back so that he may be killed.” As David hoped, Uriah was killed, and no one was left to testify that Bathsheba’s child was not her husband’s. 

The Bible finds David’s behavior unconscionable, and we read that God dispatched the prophet Nathan to chastise David for the twin crimes of adultery and murder and to inform him of his heavy punishment. Medieval and modern readers have likewise done a lot of thinking about what David did, as it relates to questions of ethics, justice and the kind of behavior we deserve from our leadership. 

Today’s daf digs into one particular part of the account — the use of Yoav as an agentof destruction for David. This is part of its continuing discussion of the kinds of actions that one can designate to an agent and who is ultimately responsible for those actions. The Talmud asks: Who was responsible for the death of Uriah? David, who planned and ordered it? Or Yoav, who enacted it? (Note that no one suggests that it could have been the Ammonites, who, in context, did the actual killing.)

One who says to his agent: Go kill a person, he (the agent) is liable, and the one who appointed him is exempt.

Shammai the Elder says in the name of Haggai the prophet: The one who appointed him is liable, as it is stated about David: “Him you have slain with the sword of the children of Ammon.” (2 Samuel 12:9)

This tradition presents two opinions: The first anonymous opinion states that the actual killer is the one responsible for the sin. Shammai’s opinion, on the other hand, points to the one who commissions the crime, like David, whom God blames for killing Uriah, even though Yoav actually stationed Uriah in the most dangerous position at the front lines of the battle. 

Through a close reading of the biblical verses, the Gemara is going to offer two distinct readings of this tradition, both of which moderate Shammai’s opinion. According to one reading, it is possible that Shammai actually agrees that the agent(here Yoav) is indeed liable for the crime according to rabbinic law. But that doesn’t absolve David of his own guilt: 

He (David) is liable according to the laws of Heaven.

Given their laws, a court could not convict David, but God still finds him guilty for the crime, and enacts God’s own punishment.

The Gemara accepts this interpretation of Shammai’s position, but then asks how we should understand the first anonymous interpretation in light of this reading. 

Rather, the difference between them is a great judgment and a small judgment. 

According to this nuance, everyone agrees that David was not liable in human court, and that God would hold David liable instead, but they disagree about how severe God finds David’s crime.

The Gemara next offers another reading, which even further limits Shammai’s position. While Shammai’s original statement makes it sound like anyone who appoints an agent to commit a crime is still liable for the crime (in court), and the Gemara’s first interpretation suggests that they aren’t liable in court but they are still liable in Heaven, this second interpretation reads Shammai as saying that only David is liable for appointing someone to kill someone else. In all other cases, only the actual killer is responsible. Why?

There it is different, since the Merciful One reveals: “Him you have slain with the sword of the children of Ammon.”

The Talmud suggests that, maybe, in this case, and in this case only, David is responsible because God specifically tells us so. Otherwise, those who commission crimes don’t share blame with those who carry them out.

The rabbis will also explore the possibility that Uriah’s death was justified, and no one is liable for the crime. But let’s stop here and understand what the rabbis are doing specifically with the tradition attributed to Shammai. Shammai’s original statement found David liable for the death of Uriah, and by extension, anyone who orders the death of someone else. But the Talmud progressively shifts the blame from the one who ordered the death to the one who pulled the proverbial trigger, in accordance with the first anonymous position in the mishnah. Perhaps the Talmud is genuinely trying to articulate who can be found criminally liable for murder. But perhaps the Talmud is also trying to remind us that when people in power tell us to do something evil, we need to have the courage and conviction to say no, and to deal with the consequences. At the end of the day, we are responsible for our own actions.

Read all of Kiddushin 43 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 25th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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