he steals (Exod. xxi. 16). Likewise he who is found breaking into a house is prepared for murder (ibid. xxii. 1), as our Sages stated. These three, the rebellious and disobedient son, he who steals and sells a human being, and he who breaks into a house, become murderers in the course of time, as is well known. Capital punishment is only decreed for these serious crimes, and in no other case. Not all forbidden sexual intercourse is visited with the penalty of death, but only in those cases in which the criminal act can easily be done, is of frequent occurrence, is base and disgraceful, and of a tempting character; otherwise excision is the punishment. Likewise not all kinds of idolatry are capital crimes, but only the principal acts of idolatry, such as praying to an idol, prophesying in its name, passing a child through the fire, consulting with familiar spirits, and acting as a wizard or witch.
As punishments and judgments are evidently indispensable, it was necessary to appoint judges throughout the country in every town; witnesses must be heard; and a king is required whom all fear and respect, who is able to restrain the people by various means, and who can strengthen and support the authority of the judges. Although I have shown the reason of an the laws contained in "the Section of Judges" (Sefer Shofetim), I find it necessary, in accordance with the object of this treatise, to explain a few of these laws, e.g., the laws concerning a rebellious elder.
God knew that the judgments of the Law will always require an extension in some cases and curtailment in others, according to the variety of places, events, and circumstances. He therefore cautioned against such increase and diminution, and commanded, "Thou shalt not add thereto nor diminish from it" (Deut. xiii. 1); for constant changes would tend to disturb the whole system of the Law, and would lead people to believe that the Law is not of Divine origin. But permission is at the same time given to the wise men, i.e., the great court (Synhedrion) of every generation to make fences round the judgments of the Law for their protection, and to introduce bye-laws (fences) in order to ensure the keeping of the Law. Such fences once erected remain in force for ever. The Mishnah therefore teaches: "And make a fence round the Law" (Abot i. 1). In the same manner they have the power temporarily to dispense with some religious act prescribed in the Law, or to allow that which is forbidden, if exceptional circumstances and events require it; but none of the laws can be abrogated permanently, as has been explained by us in the Introduction to the Commentary on the Mishnah in treating of temporary legislation. By this method the Law will remain perpetually the same, and will yet admit at all times and under an circumstances such temporary modifications as are indispensable. If every scholar had the power to make such modifications, the multitude of disputes and differences of opinion would have produced an injurious effect. Therefore it was commanded that of the Sages only the great Synhedrion, and none else, should have this power; and whoever would oppose their decision should be killed. For if any critic were allowed to dispute the decision of the Synhedrion, the object of this law would not be attained; it would be useless.
Transgressions may be divided into four classes, viz.--(1) involuntary transgressions, (2) sins committed in ignorance, (3) sins done knowingly, and (4) sins done spitefully. He who sins involuntarily is, according to the distinct declaration of the Law, exempt from punishment, and free from all blame;