Menachem Mendel

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Benefit of Clergy

Prof. I.M. Ta-Shema once wrote an important article on the exemption of medieval Rabbinic scholars from paying taxes and this article was later included in his book Halakha, Minhag uMetziut beAshkenaz. In America when people think of priviledges that clergy have over others what immediately comes to mind is the tax exemption known as parsonage. While reading Prof. Lawrence M. Friedman’s book A History of American Law I came across another such exemption which went far beyond that of paying taxes. Apparently in colonial America some of the colonies had something called “Benefit of Clergy”, a legal institution apparently imported from England and which has quite an interesting history. In the Colonial American context the “benefit of clergy” consisted of a member of the clergy who had been sentenced to death being able to avoid the death penalty by reading from Psalms 51:3-4,

“Be gracious unto me, O God, according to Thy mercy; according to the multitude of Thy compassions blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.”

Friedman notes that this exemption later applied to non-clergy and “even illiterates could memorize it” (Friedman, p. 34). Eventually colonies began to add into laws the clause that certain punishments were “without Benefit of Clergy” thus abolishing the exemption.

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