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M5. Committing Murder or Other Unjustifiable Homicide.    [Make a Comment]

We are not to commit murder or other unjustifiable homicide.

This precept is derived from His Word (blessed be He):

Key Scriptures

Genesis 9:5-6
I will certainly demand an accounting for the blood of your lives: I will demand it from every animal and from every human being. I will demand from every human being an accounting for the life of his fellow human being. Whoever sheds human blood, by a human being will his own blood be shed; for God made human beings in his image.

Exodus 20:13 (Maimonides RN289; Meir MN32; Chinuch C34)
Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not give false evidence against your neighbor.

Exodus 21:12-14
Whoever attacks a person and causes his death must be put to death. If it was not premeditated but an act of God, then I will designate for you a place to which he can flee. But if someone willfully kills another after deliberate planning, you are to take him even from my altar and put him to death.

Exodus 22:1-2a(2-3a)
If a thief caught in the act of breaking in is beaten to death, it is not murder; unless it happens after sunrise, in which case it is murder ...

Leviticus 24:17
Anyone who strikes another person and kills him must be put to death.

Numbers 35:11-34 (Maimonides RP225; Chinuch C410) are to designate for yourselves cities that will be cities of refuge for you, to which anyone who kills someone by mistake can flee. These cities are to be a refuge for you from the dead person's next-of-kin, who might otherwise avenge his kinsman's death by slaying the killer prior to his standing trial before the community. In regard to the cities you are to give, there are to be six cities of refuge for you. You are to give three cities east of the Yarden and three cities in the land of Kena'an; they will be cities of refuge. These six cities will serve as refuge for the people of Isra'el, as well as for the foreigner and resident alien with them; so that anyone who kills someone by mistake may flee there. However, if he hits him with an iron implement and thus causes his death, he is a murderer; the murderer must be put to death. Or if he hits him with a stone in his hand big enough to kill someone, and he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer must be put to death. Or if he hits him with a wood utensil in his hand capable of killing someone, and he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer must be put to death. The next-of-kin avenger is to put the murderer to death himself - upon meeting him, he is to put him to death. Likewise, if he shoves him out of hatred; or intentionally throws something at him, causing his death; or out of hostility strikes him with his hand, so that he dies; then the one who struck him must be put to death; he is a murderer; and the next-of-kin avenger is to put the murderer to death upon meeting him. But suppose he shoves him suddenly, but without hostility; or he throws something at him unintentionally; or, without seeing him, being his enemy or seeking to harm him, he throws a stone big enough to cause death; and the person dies. Then the community is to judge between the one who struck him and the next-of-kin avenger in accordance with these rules; and the community is to save the killer from the next-of-kin avenger. The community is to return him to the city of refuge to which he fled, and he is to live there until the cohen hagadol, who was anointed with the holy oil, dies. But if the killer ever goes beyond the limits of the city of refuge he fled to, and the next-of-kin avenger finds him outside the limits of his city of refuge, and the avenger kills the killer, he will not be guilty of the man's blood; because he must stay in his city of refuge until the death of the cohen hagadol. But after the death of the cohen hagadol the killer may return to the land he owns. These things shall constitute your standard for judgment through all your generations, wherever you live. If anyone kills someone, the murderer is to be put to death upon the testimony of witnesses; but the testimony of only one witness will not suffice to cause a person to be put to death. Also, you are not to accept a ransom in lieu of the life of a murderer condemned to death; rather, he must be put to death. Likewise, you are not to accept for someone who has fled to his city of refuge a ransom that would allow him to return to his land before the death of the cohen. In this way you will not defile the land in which you are living. For blood defiles the land, and in this land no atonement can be made for the blood shed in it except the blood of him who shed it. No, you are not to defile the land in which you live and in which I live; for I, ADONAI, live among the people of Isra'el.

Deuteronomy 5:17
Do not murder.

1 Peter 4:15
Let none of you suffer for being a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or a meddler in other people's affairs.

1 John 3:15
Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.

Supportive Scriptures

Genesis 4:8-9)
Kayin had words with Hevel his brother; then one time, when they were in the field, Kayin turned on Hevel his brother and killed him. ADONAI said to Kayin, "Where is Hevel your brother?" And he replied, "I don't know; am I my brother's guardian?"

Numbers 31:7-8
They fought against Midyan, as ADONAI had ordered Moshe, and killed every male. They killed the kings of Midyan along with the others who were slain - Evi, Rekem, Tzur, Hur and Reva, the five kings of Midyan. They also killed Bil'am the son of B'or with the sword.

Deuteronomy 4:41-43
Then Moshe separated three cities on the east side of the Yarden, toward the sunrise, to which a killer might flee, that is, someone who kills by mistake a person whom he did not previously hate, and upon fleeing to one of these cities might live there. The cities were Betzer in the desert, in the flatland, for the Re'uveni; Ramot in Gil'ad for the Gadi; and Golan in Bashan for the M'nashi.

Deuteronomy 19:1-13
When ADONAI your God cuts off the nations whose land ADONAI your God is giving you, and you take their place and settle in their cities and houses, you are to set aside three cities for yourselves in your land that ADONAI your God is giving you to possess. Divide the territory of your land, which ADONAI your God is having you inherit, into three parts; and prepare the roads, so that any killer can flee to these cities. The killer who will live if he flees there is someone who has killed his fellow member of the community by mistake, who did not hate him in the past. An example would be if a man goes into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood and takes a stroke with the axe to fell a tree, but the head of the axe flies off the handle, hits his neighbor and kills him. Then he is to flee to one of these cities and live there. Otherwise the next-of-kin avenger, in the heat of his anger, may pursue the killer, overtake him because the distance [to the city of refuge] is long, and strike him dead - even though he didn't deserve to die, inasmuch as he hadn't hated him in the past. This is why I am ordering you to set aside for yourselves three cities. If ADONAI your God expands your territory, as he swore to your ancestors that he would, and gives you all the land he promised to give to your ancestors - provided you keep and observe all these mitzvot I am giving you today, loving ADONAI your God and always following his ways - then you are to add three more cities for yourselves, besides these three; so that innocent blood will not be shed in the land ADONAI your God is giving you as an inheritance, and thus blood guilt be on you. However, if someone hates his fellow member of the community, lies in wait for him, attacks him, strikes him a death blow, and then flees into one of these cities; then the leaders of his own town are to send and bring him back from there and hand him over to the next-of-kin avenger, to be put to death. You are not to pity him. Rather, you must put an end to the shedding of innocent blood in Isra'el. Then things will go well with you.

Proverbs 1:10-16
My son, if sinners entice you, don't go along with them. Suppose they say, "Come with us: we'll ambush somebody and kill him, we'll waylay some harmless soul, just for fun; we'll swallow him alive, like Sh'ol, whole, like those who descend to the pit; we'll find everything he has of value, we'll fill our homes with loot! Throw in your lot with us; we'll share a common purse" - my son, don't go along with them, don't set foot on their path; their feet run to evil, they rush to shed blood.

Matthew 5:21-22
You have heard that our fathers were told, 'Do not murder', and that anyone who commits murder will be subject to judgment. But I tell you that anyone who nurses anger against his brother will be subject to judgment; that whoever calls his brother, 'You good-for-nothing!' will be brought before the Sanhedrin; that whoever says, 'Fool!' incurs the penalty of burning in the fire of Gei-Hinnom!

Matthew 15:18-19
But what comes out of your mouth is actually coming from your heart, and that is what makes a person unclean. For out of the heart come forth wicked thoughts, murder, adultery and other kinds of sexual immorality, theft, lies, slanders ... (See also, Mark 7:20-22).

Proverbs 13:9-10
For the commandments, "Don't commit adultery", "Don't murder", "Don't steal", "Don't covet", and any others are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself". Love does not do harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fullness of Torah.

Revelation 21:8
But as for the cowardly, the untrustworthy, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those involved with the occult and with drugs, idol-worshippers, and all liars - their destiny is the lake burning with fire and sulfur, the second death.


The Scriptures that teach against murder appear to be of two kinds - the majority of them speak only of killing the physical body, and a few of them hint at a non-physical kind of murder - hostility in one's heart to one's brother.

Of all the Scriptures on murder, Exodus 20:13 is the most well-known because it is among the "Ten Commandments". Murder (the intentional unrighteous killing of a human being) is universally perceived to be wrong, even by those who do not believe in God; it is what secularists may sometimes call "natural law". God Himself does not kill with impunity either. He values those whom He has created in His image and, when men do otherwise to their fellow men with intention, God deems it evil as though they are seeking to destroy God Himself. We see this clearly in Genesis 9:6, which associates murder with destroying God's image; it reads:

Whoever sheds human blood, by a human being will his own blood be shed; for God made human beings in his image.

Perhaps the same rationale explains 1 John 3:15 that extends the sin of murder to hating one's brother, for it says:

Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.

Seeking to kill a man who is created in God's image is akin to coming against God Himself, and is quite the opposite of receiving Him as Lord and Messiah by which we are saved. In a similar way, Matthew 5:22 states:

But I tell you that anyone who nurses anger against his brother will be subject to judgment; that whoever calls his brother, 'You good-for-nothing!' will be brought before the Sanhedrin; that whoever says, 'Fool!' incurs the penalty of burning in the fire of Gei-Hinnom!

Murder, probably because of its permanently destructive nature, is presented as the quintessential opposite of loving our neighbor for, as Romans 13:10 states:

Love does not do harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fullness of Torah.

In the Bible, the penalty for murder is always death. That notwithstanding, the biblical law (similar to modern secular law) recognizes a category of justifiable killing and also unjustifiable killing that is a lesser crime than murder (terms used today are "murder in the second degree", "manslaughter", "negligent homicide", etc.). Murder is ordinarily distinguished from these lesser offenses by whether there was intention, deliberation, premeditation, provocation, and malice. Examples of justifiable killing are self-defense and killing in battle. Culpability in the case of accidental killing has to do with whether or not negligence contributed to the death.

Not precisely analogous but interestingly, whereas modern systems of justice typically employ imprisonment as a penalty for these lesser categories of homicide, the biblical law provides cities of refuge to which a man who has killed another (excluding intentional murder) might flee to avoid being seized upon and killed by the deceased's vengeful relatives.

Daniel C. Juster

The Bible knows nothing of our modern justice system where so very many crimes are punishable by jail time for the offender and often no restitution in any real way for the victim. The Torah, instead, bases its justice system on two categories. The first of them is capital crimes for which the perpetrator is put to death. The second is all other crimes. For the latter, there are penalties that both restore the offender and make restitution to the offended. The community, under its judges (elders), oversees the restitution process.

We may argue that capital punishment should be carried out in cases of capital crimes committed in modern society, or we can argue that, due to the difficulty of doing so and due to the many examples of false convictions (although capital punishment is legitimate in principle and goes back to Noah), life imprisonment is more appropriate and potentially more just.

Of course, biblical laws need to be updated for application in modern society, but their principles still hold. Really, the prison system for non-capital crimes is counter-productive compared to the biblical prescriptions. In the Bible, one working off one's debt through indentured slavery is merely a means for making restitution. In our age, the analogy would be a judge attaching an employees' wages so that the garnished person is in a partially parallel situation to the indentured slave whose slavery lasts until the debt is paid off. Other crimes, like sexual intercourse before marriage, are also dealt with by restitution, where the male subject has to pay the bride price to the parents, and marry the woman if the father so desires. I am aware that these remarks are gratuitously general, and depart from the subject of this Mitzvah which is murder.

Even in the case of homicide, modern societies should consider replacing at least a part of their justice systems that utilizes jail time, with methods of procuring restitution for those injured (the families of the one killed in the case of homicide). Where a person simply cannot abide by community oversight and restitution or because he is criminally dangerous, then perhaps jail is the only alternative, but it should be the last one considered.

Classical Commentators

Maimonides' mitzvah commands against murder (physical killing), references Sanhedrin 9 and Makkoth 2, and prescribes death by beheading.

Meir prescribes beheading as well, but only if the murder is by the perpetrator's own hand. If he only caused the death, he is not punishable by a bet din but only by "Heaven's hands". Ironically, this may even be the case if one pays another to commit murder. Meir also opines that if one kills even a single Jewish person, it is as though he slew the entire world.

HaChinuch begins with citing Genesis 1:28:

God blessed them: God said to them, 'Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea, the birds in the air and every living creature that crawls on the earth.'

He sees murder as violating God's plan that human beings multiply and settle the world. He also cites Proverbs 11:10 and 28:17 as justification for executing murderers. As does Maimonides, HaChinuch references Sanhedrin 9 and Makkoth 2. None of the commentators refer to Genesis 9:6 or suggest a connection between murder and God's image.


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