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
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.