We are taught by Rav Yosef in today’s daf (Moed Katan 14b) that the Sanhedrin would try capital cases on Chol HaMoed.
The problem with this, as noted by Abaye while quoting a teaching from Rabbi Akiva, is that members of a Sanhedrin would fast on the day when someone whom they had judged to be deserving of capital punishment was executed – and fasting is not appropriate on Chol HaMoed.
Still, worse than the judges fasting on Chol HaMoed is the delaying of an execution (nb. though capital punishment was rare, when it was performed it was done as soon as possible after the decision had been reached). As a result, Rav Yosef responds to Abaye’s challenge by explaining that if a capital case does need to be judged on Chol HaMoed, the judges should spend much of the day trying to consider the facts of the case (and thereby trying to find a way to avoid carrying out the capital punishment). Having done so, they may then eat a meal appropriate for Chol HaMoed. And then, if they do reach the decision that the suspect is guilty and that the crime meets all the criteria for a capital punishment, they should formally come to this decision at sunset so that, once the new Jewish day has started at nightime, they can carry out the punishment.
Of course, on first glance it may seem strange to find a discussion about sensitivities towards eating and fasting on Chol HaMoed, and the sensitivity of delaying a capital execution following a ruling of a court, embedded within a seemingly cold discussion about capital punishment. Yet were someone to draw such a conclusion, they would have ignored the overall and profound reluctance to carry out capital punishment, along with the overall and profound insistence on effective punishments as a consequence to crimes (nb. once capital punishments were no longer effective in achieving that goal, they ceased). To quote Rabbi Sacks:
‘The moral system of the Torah depends on making a fundamental distinction between interpersonal emotion and impersonal law. Revenge, hate and vindictiveness are all I-Thou relationships. Justice is the opposite: the principle refusal to let I-Thou relationships determine the fate of individuals within society. Justice means that all must submit to the impartial process of law…When law and justice prevail, there can be punishment without animosity. The law-based society envisaged by the Torah is one where people hate not the sinner but the sin.’ (Ceremony & Celebration p. 257)
Thus, notwithstanding the need to punish, what we learn from today’s daf is that even when doing so, the judges need to do all they can to maintain their humanity, and sensitivity.