Excommunication was commonly referred to in the Torah as herem. The biblical form of excommunicating indicates any person or thing that was removed from the community, because it was made sacred by God or perceived as a disgrace before God. Herem in the Bible predominantly concerns the act of an individual devoting goods to God, which was regarded as a sacred act. However, once something had been dedicated, neither the sanctuary could sell the item nor could the contributor retrieve it.
After the Babylonian exile, the term herem began indicating the act of excommunicating people who disobeyed the law or authorities. If the elders and rabbis of a community believed a person to be disobedient, the offender was punished by being forced into isolation, removed from the community at large. The excommunication could last anywhere from a day to a lifetime, depending on the urgency of the convicted act. Once the allotted time has elapse the individual may return to the community as long as he repents for his actions. The Talmud alludes to twenty-four offenses punishable by excommunication.
Some examples include:
The Talmud forbids coming within six feet of a person who has been excommunicated. During medieval times, the laws of excommunication could be extended to the family of the person who was convicted of a crime. Additionally, there existed a weaker form of excommunication, called niddui that was applied for only thirty days. Even the threat of being excommunicated was employed to guarantee the acceptance and submission of the laws.
The rituals surrounding the excommunication of an individual were quite astounding. The act was first announced by the blowing of the shofar in front of an open ark. The community would lament, holding black candles as if in mourning. The congregational leader would proceed to shout Biblical curses at the person being sentenced to herem. Finally a public warning was decreed forbidding all to associate with the convict as the community symbolically smothered the candles.
Examples of famous excommunications include:
• During his life, Moses Maimonides (Rambam) often came under attack from some of the rabbinic community due to his reluctance to acknowledge everything in the Bible as factual certainty. After his death, rabbis of northern France placed a herem on Maimonides’ writings, banning the works from their communities. Conversely, rabbis of southern France and Spain issued a herem on any opponents of Maimonides.
Sources: Eisenberg, Ronald L. The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions. PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2004; Wigoder, Geoffrey , Ed. The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia. NY: Facts on File; 1992; Kolatch, Alfred J. The Jewish Book of Why/The Second Jewish Book of Why. NY: Jonathan David Publishers, 1989.