You shall not murder
“Thou shalt not kill”. It really only sounds right that way, doesn’t it? (Thanks, King James). Yet, any careful observer who looks elsewhere in the Torah will find a plethora of killing: capital punishment, vicious battles, and interpersonal conflicts that end in an inevitable crime scene.
The reason for this apparent paradox is, as usual, a mistranslation which we have internalised in our English-dominated KJV world.
The mitzvah is encapsulated in the Hebrew words lo tirtsach. The root of our critical verb refers specifically to what we would call murder, that is, an unjust and intentional killing. Many religions advocate pacifism, from Christianity’s injunction to turn the other cheek, to Jainism’s avoidance even of accidentally killing insects while walking. Yet Judaism cares little about ‘killing’– but a lot about murder.
This distinction is what animates so many of the hot button issues that involve religion (abortion, euthanasia, etc.) because being able to distinguish between what is permitted (and even sometimes sanctified) killing and what is murder is not always easy. As a result, understanding what falls under the mitzvah of lo tirtsach is critically important, because without a clear grasp of it, we run the risk of blurring the line between life and death in a profound way.
[This is part of the publication “The Ten (Masorti) Commandments.” The full booklet can be found here.]