A Brother’s Bloods: Cain, Deon Kay, and the Sanhedrin

Rereading For Joint Liberation is back. And back at the beginning. The weekly reading cycle of the Jewish calendar begins anew this week, with Genesis 1:1 – 6:8, the portion known as “Breishit” [“In the beginning”].

This is an eventful portion: Creation, from “wild and waste” or “unformed and void” to “heaven and earth were finished,” followed by the first Sabbath (1:1 – 2:4); the Garden of Eden, the Tree and the Serpent, followed by expulsion and then births; the start of the lineage of Eve and Adam, followed by an odd period when divine beings took wives from among the daughters of earthlings and there were Nephilim [Giants?]. In between, we witness the first fratricide (4:3-16):

“Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him” (4:8).

God asks Cain where his brother is, and Cain and God have the following exchange:

Cain: “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (4:9).

God: “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!”

— Genesis 4:8-9 (“New” [1999] Jewish Publication Society translation)

The story itself and the image of blood crying out from the ground has been the source of much commentary, over the centuries. In addition, Jews often focus on an oddity of the Hebrew for “your brother’s blood [ק֚וֹל דְּמֵ֣י אָחִ֔יךָ]“: The word for blood here, “d’mei,” is plural [singular: dam]. So, as far back as the Mishnaic period (first two centuries CE), rabbis have made special meaning from that plural “bloods.”

Cain and Considering Capital Cases

The bloods are brought into the conversation as rabbis discuss the weightiness of trying a capital case. Specifically a witness is warned about offering false testimony:

In capital cases, he is responsible for the blood [of the accused] and for the blood of his descendants until the end of time. For this we find in the case of Cain, who killed his brother, that it is written: “The bloods of your brother cry out to me.” Not the blood of your brother, but the bloods of your brother, that is his blood and the blood of his potential descendants. (Alternatively: the bloods of your brother teaches that his blood was splattered on the trees and the stones.)

— B. Sanhedrin 37a

This passage continues with the powerful, and oft-cited, teaching that destroying a single soul is accounted as destroying an entire world, and anyone who saves a single life is accounted as though saving an entire world.

Further discussion in this same section details care that must be taken in capital cases. Witnesses and their reports must be carefully evaluated. Opportunities to acquit must be pursued. One procedure involves adjourning for the night before making any final decision: The panel of judges is to drink no wine, to eat in moderation, and to spend the night considering the case before re-assembling in the morning. (B. San 40a)

Capital Cases and Police Killings

In another section of the Talmud considering capital cases, we read:

A Sanhedrin that effects an execution once in seven years is characterized as ‘destructive.’ Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says: “Once in seventy years.”

— B. Makkot 7a

The word here rendered “destructive” (chovlanit [חוֹבְלָנִית]) — is also translated as “tyrannical,” or “one not sparing human life” (Jastrow dictionary); occasionally: “blood-thirsty.”

In sum:

  • A government agency is called “destructive” for putting one person to death in seventy years… or even one death in seven years;
  • That agency is warned to carefully examine any witnesses and their reports and to consider acquittal;
  • The same agency is also bound to lengthy, careful, and sober deliberations before taking final steps toward any execution.

With this in mind:

  • What do we call an agency that has been involved in multiple killings in seven years?
  • What do we make of police insisting that their young target was known to them and yet they chose to follow a car in which he was riding, based on some social media postings, instead of seeking some kind of careful, sober meeting?
  • Is “destructive” the right word for an agency that allows the fatal shooting of a teenager just a few seconds after encountering him? Is there a word for community members who accept this kind of thing as the cost (to some communities) of policing?

…a few questions that cry out to me from this week’s Torah portion and from the case of Deon Kay, just barely 18, shot to death by MPD just seconds after the encountered him on September 2.

Some Background

Some news about Deon Kay:

Washington Informer and Washington City Paper (solid local reporting, with no paywall). Also: Washington City Paper “What Deon Kay’s Mentors Want You to Know…”

Statements from DC Police Reform Commission, an official body of the DC Council, and these from ACLU of DC and DC Action for Children. See also information and demands from Stop Police Terror DC and BLM DC.

For more on the details of this case, see We Act Radio’s October 7 “Community thru Covid.”

Police Reform Legislation in DC:

Committee hearing on October 15; testimony due by October 23.

If you seek help preparing testimony, check out these workshops — bit.ly/mpdreform

For more DC-specific information about police-related issues, visit DC Justice Lab.

Black Lives Matter DC joins with Stop Police Terror Project DC in specific demands around the Deon Kay case (see link above), and both — along with DC Justice Lab and others — call for an end to “Stop and Frisk.”


See also Movement for Black Lives. #8toAbolition.

Jews and Policing, Related Topics

Is Our Blood Redder? on synagogue police contains several links to other pieces.

See also “Jews say: Black Lives Matter

Published by vspatz

Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages WeLuvBooks.org, blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at songeveryday.org and Rereading4Liberation.com

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