Talmidav Shel Aharon
29-5768: Mitzvah N-32
July 30, 2008
Negative Mitzvah 32 – This is a negative commandment: do not kill a living human being
Hafetz Hayim: For Scripture says, “You shall not murder.” (Ex. 20:13). If someone kills a human being deliberately, his execution should be by the sword (decapitation). If he did not kill him with his own hand but only caused his death, he is not subject to execution by court verdict, but is punishable by death at heaven’s hands. If someone destroys even one living person in Jewry, it is as though he made a whole world perish. If someone closes a person’s eyes at the departure of his life (instead of afterward) he thus sheds blood (by shortening the other’s life, however briefly. It is in force everywhere and at all times for both men and women.
The Ten Commandments do not say, “You shall not kill” it says instead, “You shall not murder”. Murder here is the taking of another human life. It does not matter if that life is Jewish or not. Taking a human life is a capital crime in all cases. The Torah is clear, if you murder, you are executed. Of the four types of capital punishment, the one used for murder is decapitation. The later rabbis ruled that if you injure someone, even though the Torah requires “eye for an eye” we set a value on the injury and the one who injures pays that amount to the one injured. The Torah, however, forbids ransoming someone accused of murder. There can be no valuation placed on the taking of a life. The murderer must die. Maybe!
The Sages of the Talmud did not want to execute murderers. They declared that a court that sentences on person to death in seven years was a “hanging court”. Other Rabbis declared that if they were on that court, it would not happen once in seventy years. The Sages understood that such a position might encourage murder but then again, they could turn their condemned over to the Romans for punishment.
How could they reverse a plain, clear law from the Torah? They really didn’t. The law is still on the books, The Sages just made it very difficult to get a clear conviction. There had to be two witnesses to the murder, that is, they had to see the actual killing. (Seeing a man holding a bloody sword over a dead body was not proof enough for the court). That alone is rare. The witnesses could not be relatives of the victim or the killer making getting a witness very difficult. The witnesses had to be warned that if they were plotting to testify falsely, the execution they plotted for the defendant would be carried out on them instead. There were no jury trials but the court would have seventy one judges and to execute the defendant, they needed not a simple majority but 50% plus two. To acquit, however, they only needed 50% plus one. In all other cases the elder judges spoke before the younger colleagues. In capital cases, the younger colleagues voted first so as not to be swayed by their more experienced colleagues. A man was presumed innocent until proven guilty and once acquitted; the defendant could not be tried again for the same crime. We see that it was very hard to convict in a capital case. Why then did they just take capital punishment off the books? Because they felt that from time to time there may be a need to execute a criminal in unusual circumstances. In the Middle Ages, for example, the community might execute a person convicted of informing against the community to the non-Jewish authorities in order to bring down a pogrom or riot in which many could be killed. Even with all the terrorists in Israeli prisons, only one person has ever been executed in Israel, for a crime so great it warranted this one exception: Adof Eichmann.
Accidental killing is not the same as murder and the one who kills without premeditation is not put to death. It is in the hands of Heaven if he will die a premature death. Soldiers and those who were defending themselves or others from deadly force could use deadly force themselves to prevent killing. This too is allowed. This law, interestingly enough, is also used to allow an abortion to protect the health of the mother. The fetus endangering his mother is called “one who pursues with murderous intent” and can be killed before he kills his victim (in this case, his mother).
The Rabbis noted that G-d created only one person, Adam, in the divine image in order to teach that whoever takes one life, it is as if he has killed an entire world. The killer has not killed just one person but he has also killed all the descendants of that person. If a human being is created in the image of G-d, then the one who kills a person is guilty of desecrating the image of G-d as well as killing a human being. It is a very grave crime.
The final note has to do with euthanasia. We are not allowed to end a life even one moment before they are destined to die. Even when a person is breathing their last breaths, we don’t touch them or interfere with their passing. To close the eyes of someone who is dying but not yet dead, is a final insult to the dying and is declared to be as if one has hastened the death and therefore a murderer, even though the person was dying anyway. We can remove things that prevent a person from dying but we can not hasten the natural progression of death without being called a murderer.