This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Thou Shalt Not Murder*

Those of us who are familiar with the original Hebrew text of the Bible find frequent occasion to whine about inaccuracies and misleading expressions in the translations that are in use among non-Jews. Many of these discrepancies arose out of patently theological motives, as Christian interpreters rewrote passages in the "Old Testament" so as to turn them into predictions or prefigurations of the life of Jesus. Some of the mistranslations, though, are harder to account for.

For me, one of the most irksome cases has always been the rendering of the sixth commandment as "Thou shalt not kill." In this form, the quote has been conscripted into the service of diverse causes, including those of pacifism, animal rights, the opposition to capital punishment, and the anti-abortion movement.

Indeed, "kill" in English is an all-encompassing verb that covers the taking of life in all forms and for all classes of victims. That kind of generalization is expressed in Hebrew through the verb "harag." However, the verb that appears in the Torah's prohibition is a completely different one, " ratsah" which, it would seem, should be rendered "murder." This root refers only to criminal acts of killing.

It is, of course, not just a question of etymology. Those ideologies that adduce the commandment in support of their gentle-hearted causes are compelled to feign ignorance of all those other places in the Bible that condone or command warfare, the slaughter of sacrificial animals, and an assortment of methods for inflicting capital punishment.

The good old King James version of the Bible, which introduced this formulation into standard English discourse, is usually much more accurate in its Hebrew scholarship, and I have wondered for many years how the erudite scholars who produced that fine translation managed to slip up on such a simple expression, one that would have been caught by any Jewish schoolchild.

It turns out that the confusion did not originate with that seventeenth-century English translation. From the writings of Jewish exegetes who lived in medieval France, we learn that the gentiles in their environment were also translating the biblical prohibition incorrectly.

For example, two of the most eminent commentators of the time, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam) and Rabbi Joseph Bekhor-Shor, felt the need to go on at uncharacteristic length in order to explain that the Hebrew text refers only to unlawful killing. Both these scholars pointed out plainly the differences between the Hebrew roots for killing and murdering (for good measure, Bekhor Shor even provides a French translation of the latter term: meurtre), and brought ample evidence of the Torah's condoning other types of killing.

Rashbam concludes his discussion of the topic with the following words:

And this is a refutation of the heretics, and they have conceded the point to me. Even though their own books state "I kill, and I make alive" (in Deuteronomy 32:39) --using the same Latin root as for "thou shalt not murder"--they are not being precise.

From the words of these French Jewish scholars, we learn that the "thou shalt not kill" translation stems from the Latin Bible translation that was in use in the medieval Roman Catholic church. Indeed, the Vulgate (as that translation is designated) employs the Latin verb occidere which has the sense of "kill" rather than "murder." By demonstrating that the Vulgate itself employed the root occidere in Deuteronomy, when the Almighty himself is speaking of his own power over the lives of his creatures--in a context where it cannot conceivably be rendered as "murder"--Rashbam aggressively proved the error of the traditional Christian understanding of the sixth commandment. It is not surprising, therefore, to hear that his Christian interlocutors acknowledged their error without a fight.

This still raises some difficult questions about the Latin Vulgate translation. The author of that translation, Saint Jerome (died in 420), spent much of his career in the Land of Israel, where he consulted frequently with Jewish scholars whose interpretations he often cites with great respect. Even the Septuagint, the old Greek translation of the Bible, translated the commandment with a word that means "murder" rather than "kill." St. Augustine, basing himself on the standard translations, made it clear that the commandment does not extend to wars or capital punishment that are explicitly ordained by God.

The fact remains, however, that even the Jewish translators were not unanimous in maintaining a consistent distinctions between the various Hebrew roots.

Don Isaac Abravanel and others noted that ratsah is employed in Numbers 35:27-30 both when dealing with an authorized case of blood vengeance, and with capital punishment--neither of which falls under the legal category of murder.

In fact, some distinguished Jewish philosophers believed that "thou shalt not kill" is a perfectly accurate rendering of the sixth commandment. Maimonides, for example, wrote that all cases of killing human beings involve violations of the command, even if the violation happens to be overridden by other mitigating factors. It has been suggested that this tradition underlies the virtual elimination of capital punishment in Rabbinic law.

Viewed from this perspective, we may appreciate that the translation "thou shalt not kill" was not the result of simple ignorance on the side of Jerome or the King James English translators. Rather, it reflects their legitimate determination to reflect accurately the broader range of meanings of the Hebrew root.

As usual, careful study teaches us that what initially appeared ridiculously obvious is really much more complex than it seemed at first glance. We should be very cautious before passing hasty judgement on apparent bloopers.

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, October 19, 2000, p. 8.

  • Bibliography:
    • Blidstein, Gerald J. "Capital Punishment--The Classic Jewish Discussion." Judaism 14, no. 2 (1965): 159-71.
    • Lockshin, Martin I., ed. 1997. Rashbam's Commentary on Exodus: an Annotated Translation, Brown Judaic. Atlanta: Scholars Press.
    • Segal, Ben-Tsiyon. 1990. The Ten Commandments in History and Tradition. Translated by Gershom Levi, Publications of the Perry Foundation for Biblical Research, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Jerusalem: Magnes.