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Is the Sixth Commandment
"Thou Shalt Not Kill" or
"Thou Shalt Not Murder"?

By Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D.

Vegetarian activists are increasingly convinced that a shift toward vegetarianism is a societal imperative because of the significant negative health and environmental effects of animal-based diets and agriculture, and a religious imperative because the production and consumption of animal products violate basic religious mandates to preserve human health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, and help hungry people. Because of their strong beliefs that a switch toward vegetarianism is essential, and since progress toward vegetarianism appears very slow, some vegetarian advocates become frustrated and resort to methods that are counterproductive, including misinterpreting biblical passages. One example is mistranslating the sixth of the Ten Commandments as "Thou shalt not kill," and arguing that therefore no killing of animals is permissible. This incorrect quote has been used to support other causes besides animal rights and vegetarianism, including pacifism, the opposition to capital punishment, and the anti-abortion movement.

There are several strong arguments for the case that the sixth commandment should be translated as "Thou shalt not murder." First, the verb used in the Torah commandment is "ratsah," which generally is translated as murder and refers only to criminal acts of killing a human being. The word "kill" generally refers to the taking of life for all classes of victims and for all reasons. This generalization is expressed through a different Hebrew verb "harag."

Another compelling argument against the "Thou shalt not kill" translation is that there are many places in the Hebrew scriptures that command or condone warfare, the sacrifice of animals, and several methods of capital punishment. While there is much in the Jewish tradition that attempts to limit war and capital punishment, and the biblical prophets indicated that God prefers justice and mercy to animal sacrifices, it can’t be denied that some forms of killing are acceptable according to Judaism.

If "Thou shalt not kill" were the proper translation, no person who took the Ten Commandments seriously could kill in self defense, even if it meant loss of the threatened person’s life, or could kill in warfare, even if his or her country were attacked. There could be no capital punishment no matter how horrible a person’s crimes were. Clearly there are cases where the Torah permits the taking of a human life. And, if it is sometimes permissible to kill another person, most people would agree that there are circumstances when it is also permissible to kill an animal. Judaism does not consider that the sixth commandment refers to animals.

Since the sixth commandment has been so frequently mistranslated, two prominent Jewish commentators, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam) and Rabbi Joseph Bekhor-Shor, explained at great length that the Hebrew text refers only to unlawful killing. Both scholars stressed the differences between the Hebrew words for killing and murdering.

So the common Jewish belief is that the sixth commandment should be translated as "Thou shalt not murder." However, this translation can still be used to argue for vegetarianism, because it can be considered to mean "thou shalt not kill unnecessarily." Many nutritional studies have shown that a person does not need to eat animal products in order to be adequately nourished, and people are actually generally healthier on a varied diet composed solely of plant foods, with possible supplementation via vegetarian vitamins or enriched vegetarian foods to insure adequate vitamin B12. While Judaism does permit the killing of animals, it has very strong teachings on treating animals with compassion, and only permits the killing of animals to meet an essential human need that can't easily be met in any other way.

In addition, according to Rabbi Dr, J. H. Hertz, late Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, in his commentary on the sixth commandment, "Jewish ethics enlarges the notion of murder so as to include the doing of anything by which the health and well-being of a fellow man is undermined, and the omission of any act by which a fellow-man could be saved in peril, distress or despair." Hence, perhaps this should be considered with regard to the widespread promotion of animal products that are harmful to human health and the failure to make people sufficiently aware of the negative health effects of consuming animal products.

Since there are so many powerful arguments for vegetarianism, it is essential that we do not use arguments that can be easily challenged or that enable people to shift the subject away from the many negative effects of animal-centered diets.

An excellent discussion of the proper translation of the sixth commandment is in the article "Thou Shalt Not Murder," by Eliezer Siegel. That article has the following 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.