Does the Torah Differentiate Between Murder and Killing?
The King James Bible has had an inordinate influence on the understanding of the Bible in the English-speaking world. Its rendering of לא תרצח as “Thou shall not kill” in the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) has been memorialized in plaques and statues throughout the United States, some of which have been discussed in recent court cases. Most newer translations render instead “You shall not murder.” But what does the Hebrew mean?
Rashbam: רצח Always Means Murder
In his commentary on the Decalogue in Exodus 20:13, Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir, c. 1085-c. 1158) argues that רצח must mean “murder” and only murder:
לא תרצח – כל רציחה, הריגה בחינם היא בכל מקום: מות יומת הרוצח (במדבר ל”ה:ט”ז-י”ח) הרצחת וגם ירשת (מלכים א כ”א:י”ט) צדק ילין בה ועתה מרצחים (ישעיהו א’:כ”א).
You shall not murder – The verb ר-צ-ח always – wherever it appears – refers to unjustified homicide. For example (Num. 35:16—I will deal with this passage below), “the murderer (הרוצח) must be put to death,” or (1Kings 21:19, of King Ahab, who killed the innocent Naboth), “Would you murder (הרצחת) and also take possession,” or (Isa. 1:21), “Where righteousness dwelt – but now murderers (מרצחים).”
אבל הריגה ומיתה: יש בחינם כמו ויהרגהו (בראשית ד’:ח) דקין, ויש בדין כמו והרגת את האשה (ויקרא כ’:ט”ז).
But the verbs ה-ר-ג and מ-ו-ת sometimes refer to unjustified homicide (i.e., murder) – e.g. (Gen. 4:8) “and he,” Cain, “killed him (ויהרגהו)” – and sometimes to justifiable homicide (i.e., execution) – e.g. (Lev. 20:16) “you shall kill (והרגת) the woman.”
Rashbam thus suggests that ה-ר-ג and מ-ו-ת are general terms, which may refer to homicide of any type, the equivalent of English “kill,” while ר-צ-ח is a narrower term, referring to unjustified killing, “murder.”
Response to Christian Latin Translation
In the continuation of his comment, Rashbam explains why he makes this point so emphatically:
תשובה למינים והודו לי. ואף על פי שיש בספריהם אני אמית ואחיה (דברים לב לט) בלשון לטין של לא תרצח, הם לא דיקדקו:
I offered this explanation as an argument against the heretics and they admitted that I was right. Even though in their Latin books the same verb is used to translate the verb מ-ו-ת in the phrase (Deut. 32:39) “I deal death (אמית) and I give life,” and the verb ר-צ-ח in this verse, their translations are inaccurate.
As he does occasionally, Rashbam relates that he discussed this verse with Christians. He told them that the decision of Jerome (347-420), the author of the Vulgate, the authoritative Latin Bible translation of Western Christianity, to use the same verb to translate רצח and הרג was mistaken. The major purpose of Rashbam’s polemical point was probably to prove that Jews use reliable texts of the Bible while Christians, who read the Bible in inaccurate translations, do not. Despite Rashbam’s polemic, it is uncertain whether a simple way of distinguishing between murder and killing existed in classical Latin.
R. Joseph Bechor Shor: Proof from French
In his commentary to the Decalogue, Rashbam’s younger contemporary, Rabbi Joseph Bechor Shor (12th cent), expands:
רציחה: מורטר”א בלע”ז, והיא מיתה שלא כדין, ואין לשון רציחה שייך אלא כשלא כדין, אבל מיתה והריגה שייכי בין בדין, בין שלא בדין,
רציחה is meurtre in the vernacular, i.e. killing that is outlawed. The word רציחה cannot be used unless the killing is against the law. But מיתה and הריגה can be for actions both legal and illegal.
Bechor Shor strengthens the argument by adding proof from French, where a similar distinction exists between tuer and meurtre.
Rashbam’s Problem: Accidental Murder?
Rashbam knows that not all the evidence within the Torah supports the distinction that he makes. He attempts to address the problem in that same comment in Exodus:
ומה שכתוב אשר ירצח את רעהו בבלי דעת (דברים ד מב), לפי שמדבר בענין רוצח במזיד לכך הוא אומר ואם רציחה זו בבלי דעת פטור.
When the verse says (Deut. 4:42) “one who unwittingly slew (literally “murdered”; ירצח) a fellow man,”  since the greater context there deals with premeditated murder, the text says that if such “murdering” (רציחה) takes place unwittingly, then there is no penalty.
While this argument concerning Deut 4:42 appears reasonable, Rashbam is ignoring several more problematic cases of the use of the verb רצח that cannot be solved in this manner.
The Verb רצח in Numbers 35
In particular, the use of ר-צ-ח in the law of unintentional manslaughter poses a number of serious difficulties for Rashbam’s contention.
1. A Murderer Who Kills Unintentionally
If ר-צ-ח always means murder, then Numbers 35 uses the verb רצח in surprising ways. Verse 11 refers to a רֹצֵחַ מַכֵּה נֶפֶשׁ בִּשְׁגָגָה, what appears to be an oxymoron, “a murderer who has killed a person unintentionally.” The JPS translation, recognizing that English does not label someone who kills unintentionally a “murderer,” here translates רֹצֵחַ as “manslayer.”
Since chapter 35 discusses both intentional and accidental homicide, Rashbam’s solution could work here, and we could say, “since the greater context deals with premeditated murder, the text says that if such ‘murdering’ (רציחה) takes place unwittingly, then there is no death penalty.”
2. A Murderer with No Culpability
Another example of ר-צ-ח in what seems to be a case of accidental manslaughter comes in v. 27, which discusses what happens if an accidental killer, who was required to stay in a city of refuge, leaves that city without permission and is subsequently killed by the blood avenger:
וּמָצָא אֹתוֹ גֹּאֵל הַדָּם מִחוּץ לִגְבוּל עִיר מִקְלָטוֹ וְרָצַח גֹּאֵל הַדָּם אֶת הָרֹצֵחַ אֵין לוֹ דָּם…
And the blood-avenger comes upon him outside the limits of his city of refuge, and the blood-avenger kills (רצח) the manslayer (רוצח), there is no bloodguilt on his account…
The end of this verse would be translated literally “and if the blood avenger murders the murderer there is no culpability.” But is the person who committed accidental homicide a murderer—a רֹצֵחַ? And what could it mean to say that the act of the blood avenger is “murder,” but he is not punished with death?
3. Murdering the Murderer
Verse 30 presents the most significant problem for rendering רֹצֵח as “murderer.” There the procedure legislated by the Torah for dealing with a murderer with premeditation is described (I will translate literally):
כָּל מַכֵּה נֶפֶשׁ לְפִי עֵדִים יִרְצַח אֶת הָרֹצֵחַ…
If anyone kills a person, the murderer may be murdered only on the evidence of witnesses…
Here the killing of a person guilty of a crime is described by the verb רצח. Rashbam’s explanation—that sometimes, because of the context, accidental killing is called murder, cannot explain this context, and indeed Rashbam is silent on this verse.
Shadal – Not a Reference to a Court Execution
The verb ירצח in verse 30 has an ambiguous subject. Most Jewish commentators and translations see the court of law as the subject. For example, NJPS translates “If anyone kills a person, the manslayer may be executed only on the evidence of witnesses; the testimony of a single witness against a person shall not suffice for a sentence of death.”
On the other hand, Samuel David Luzzatto (Shadal, 1800-1865), well-aware of the problem that this verse presents, suggests that the verse implies that the blood avenger, not the Jewish court, kills the murderer on the basis of the testimony of witnesses. He writes that it is unthinkable that the verb רצח would be used about the actions of a Jewish court of law (ביד בית דין לא יצדק לשון רציחה). His interpretation is a possible understanding of the syntax (though not the approach I am exploring in this piece).
Creative Translations: Gerald Blidstein’s Observation
In an excellent article written over fifty years ago, Professor Gerald (Yaacov) Blidstein of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (who was not yet a professor then) showed how various Jewish Bible translators obfuscated in Numbers 35, using the verb “murder” as a translation for רצח consistently throughout the Bible, except for Numbers 35:11, 12, 27, and 30, highlighting the problematic nature of the term’s use in this chapter. For example, he notes that the New JPS (1962) Torah offers four different translations of רוצח or רצח in this chapter: “murder” (often), “kill” (vs. 27, translating ורצח), “manslayer” (vs. 27, translating הרוצח) and “execute” (vs. 30, translating ירצח).
Since Blidstein wrote his article, several new Bible translations have been published; these are equally problematic:
“Puts the Killer to Death”: Avoiding the word “murder” – Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan astonishingly translates ורצח גואל הדם את הרוצח אין לו דם as “If the blood avenger puts the killer to death it is not an act of murder,” ignoring the fact that the verb רצח is used, and saying that the verse means “it is not murder.”
“Murder the Murderer”: A Literal Translation – Everett Fox, following in the tradition of the Buber-Rosenzweig translation to German, attempts to be as loyal as possible to the Hebrew, even when it means that the English is clumsy or confusing. He thus translates vs. 27: “the blood redeemer may murder the murderer, he has no bloodguilt” and vs. 30: “at the mouth of witnesses (only) may a murderer be murdered.”
“רצח” Doesn’t Mean Murder but Kill – The Artscroll Stone Chumash goes to the opposite direction. In its earliest editions, its editors offered inconsistent translations of the verb רצח, often, but not always, translating it as “murder.” At some point, they changed their policy, and now רצח is translated consistently as “kill,” in the Decalogue and throughout Numbers 35.
Abarbanel: ר-צ-ח Means Killing and Murdering
The use of ר-צ-ח in Numbers 35 stands as a decisive counterexample to Rashbam. As Blidstein notes, Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508), who never saw Rashbam’s Torah commentary, understood the problem, and cited Num. 35:27 ורצח גואל הדם את הרוצח, to prove that the root רצח means “kill,” not “murder.” Accordingly, he interpreted the sixth commandment of the Decalogue broadly, as outlawing more than premeditated homicide (although he clearly recognizes that the Torah does allow and even encourages some taking of human life). In some ways, Jacob Milgrom’s suggestion: “Hebrew rotseaḥ is used indiscriminately for manslaughter, irrespective of intention and authorization,” follows Abarbanel.
Feeding the “Justice not Love” Myth
This understanding undercuts what Blidstein portrays as a common, but inaccurate belief among Jews today. As Blidstein describes it, many Jews believe that the translation “You shall not murder” proves that Judaism, as opposed to Christianity, is
“[A] realistic, hard-headed system, committed to a law of justice rather than a chaos of love. An obvious line is being drawn between a faith that reads. ‘You shall not murder,’ and one that naively and unrealistically demands, ‘You shall not kill’.”
For Abarbanel, Judaism really does teach “You shall not kill.”
Judaism and Capital Punishment
Clearly the verb רצח in the Bible almost always means “murder.” But in a few verses in Numbers 35 and one verse in Deuteronomy it doesn’t. Is there any significance to this or is it just an inconsistency? Blidstein argues that the inconsistency is intentional and conveys ethical meaning, and that the rabbis of the Talmud picked up on the message of this linguistic problem.
As is well known, the Talmud made capital punishment difficult and perhaps impossible. Rabbis Tarfon and Akiva taught, “Were we in the Sanhedrin, no man would ever have been killed.” Even those rabbis who did not take such a strident position made it difficult for a capital penalty to be applied. What caused them to abandon what seems to be the plain meaning of the Torah’s many laws requiring capital punishment?
While many possible explanations come to mind, Blidstein claims that the rabbis were reading the Bible carefully, noticing that the Torah uses the same term ר-צ-ח for the intentional and unintentional spilling of blood. He clarifies, “Obviously I do not speak here of Biblical law, which knows of authorized killings of war, self-defense and execution.” But at the language level, the Torah teaches us that:
[N]o word for the spilling of human blood could bear a less prohibitive denotation than any other. . . . Western thought distinguishes, at a basic and indelible level—at the level of the word—between homicide and murder. Jewish usage does not make this distinction. The verbal integrity of the spilling of human blood is never violated; homicide is not splintered into the justifiable and the criminal.
At least two options present themselves for explaining the unexpected use of the verb רצח in Numbers 35 to refer to killing rather than homicide. Perhaps the root is used inconsistently in the Bible, and for some reason, in a small number of cases, it need not refer to murder; for a variety of reasons, languages contain such inconsistencies. Alternatively, we could say with Blidstein, that the lack of clarity of the root רצח is meant to teach us to abhor all killing of human beings.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
August 1, 2016
September 17, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin is Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.
Essays on Related Topics: