The mekoshesh eitzim, wood gatherer, who was the first mechalel Shabbos, desecrator of Shabbos, was executed by stoning. The Torah writes, Vayirgemu oso b’avanim, “And they pelted him with stones,” in the plural. Interestingly, when the mekallel, blasphemer, was executed by stoning, the Torah writes, Viyirgemu oso even, “And they stoned him to death,” in the singular (Vayikra 24:23). What is the reason for this change in the Torah’s vernacular?
This question was asked of the Chidushei HaRim when he was a young boy. Known as a child prodigy, Rabbinic leaders would often pepper him with difficult questions to see how the young genius would respond. When posed with this question, the young child’s eyes lit up as he gave his reply, “I remember that the Baalei Tosfos in the Talmud Bava Basra 119b cite the Midrash which contends that the mekoshesh’s intention was l’shem Shomayim, for the sake of Heaven,” the child began. “Apparently, the people were grumbling that, since Hashem decreed that no one would enter Eretz Yisrael due to their participation in the sin of the meraglim, they should not bother performing mitzvos. The mekoshesh sought to disprove their baseless reasoning by desecrating Shabbos, thereby incurring the death penalty. This would teach the people that everyone must perform mitzvos. Not being granted access to Eretz Yisrael is certainly no excuse for ignoring mitzvos.
“As a result of their faulty reasoning, there were Jews who, upon being instructed to stone the mekoshesh, were hesitant about it. They harbored second thoughts, thinking to themselves that perhaps the mekoshesh was not such a bad guy after all. His intentions were noble. He wanted to teach the nation an important lesson. Who knows how many lives he had saved by his commission of a sin? Therefore, when Klal Yisrael stoned the mekoshesh, not everyone was on the same page concerning the man’s culpability. Some must have felt that he deserved a reward – certainly not stoning. Thus, the Torah uses the plural to describe the stoning. There was a strong difference of opinion among the executioners.
“Concerning the blasphemer, the consensus of emotion was all proactive. This man’s actions warranted the death penalty. He has blasphemed Hashem’s Name. Everyone was on the same page concerning this sinner. Thus, the Torah records the stoning in the singular.”