Thursday, January 08, 2004

Professor Berel Lang writes from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.:

"Perhaps you would give a couple of paragraphs to the misconception (and the mistranslation) of the Sixth Commandment [in Exodus 20:13], 'You shall not murder,' as 'You shall not kill.' The original Hebrew, lo tirtsah., is very clear, since the verb ratsah. means 'murder,' not 'kill.' If the commandment proscribed killing as such, it would position Judaism against capital punishment and make it pacifist even in wartime. These may be defensible or admirable views, but they're certainly not biblical."


Traditionally, Christian translations of Exodus 20:13 have favored � as does the King James Version in English � "Thou shalt not kill." Martin Luther's German Bible has Du sollst nicht t�ten rather than du sollst nicht m�rdern, the French Louis II Bible has tu ne tueras point and not tu meurtrieras or assassineras point, and so on. This has led Jewish commentators, going back to medieval rabbis like Samuel Ben Meir and Joseph Bekhor-Shor, to accuse Christian translators of distorting the Sixth Commandment so as to make it conform to the Christian principle � honored by Christianity, alas, almost entirely in the breach � of turning the other cheek. Whereas, such polemicists have maintained, pointing to the Christian translation of lo tirtsah., Christianity preaches the impossible goal of loving one's enemies, Judaism realistically teaches, in the words of the rabbinic maxim, that "he who comes to kill you, kill him first."


In the final analysis, I would agree with Segal's conclusion 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 [translate] accurately the broader range of meanings of the Hebrew root." This is not to say that "Thou shalt not kill" is the better or more accurate translation. It is simply to say that, first of all, not all languages make an absolutely clear distinction between killing and murdering, and secondly, that, as is often true of translation, one's interpretation depends on prior attitudes. To an opponent of capital punishment, killing a murderer is murder too; to a proponent of abortion, killing a fetus is not. It is not the meaning of the Sixth Commandment that will in most cases determine how we think about such things. It is how we think about them that will determine what we make of the Sixth Commandment.

Concepts in one language often cannot be mapped directly onto the vocabulary of another language and this is a good example. There is no word in ancient Hebrew which corresponds exactly to the English word "murder." As Philologos notes, in Numbers 35, ras.ah. (or ratsach - the root is resh-tsade-het) is used of someone who kills someone accidentally (e.g. v. 11), our "manslaughter," and of the execution of a murderer by the victim's next-of-kin both outside and within a judicial setting (vv. 27, 30). As near as I can tell, ras.ah. means "to kill in cold blood" or "to kill without immediately preceding provocation." Much of the time it applies to murder but it also applies to manslaughter, where it's an accident but still without immediate provocation, and execution or revenge killing, where the provocation is not an immediate threat to the avenger but the earlier unlawful killing of the avenger's relative. In Israelite law, execution and revenge killing were legal and proper. So the best translation in context of the sixth commandment is indeed "you shall not murder," but the exact nuances of the Hebrew word are more complicated and can't be expressed in a single word.

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