What's in a Word?

For the week ending 11 February 2023 / 20 Shevat 5783

Yisro: Murder He Wrote

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

Headlining the second half of the Ten Commandments is a prohibition that reads: lo tirtzach (Ex. 20:13, Deut. 5:16) — “do not murder.” Yet, the term retzichah is not the sole Hebrew word for the act of “murdering/killing;” the terms harigah and ketilah also essentially mean the same thing. Rabbi Nathan Adler (1803–1890) cites the use of harigah and retzichah side by side in Ps. 94:6 as evidence that the two terms are indeed synonymous. Nonetheless, if we look very closely at the etymologies of the three expressions in question and see how they are used in the Bible, we will notice that they are not true synonyms. This essay thus explores the nuances between retzichah, harigah, and ketilah and shows how the terms differ from one another.

While both retzichah and harigah refer to the act of taking another’s life, Rashi’s grandson Rashbam lays down a general rule to help define retzichah as opposed to harigah: The term retzichah always refers to killing somebody for no legitimate reason. The very term retzichah includes a moral judgement about the killer by stressing that his act of killing was in no way legally justified, but was instead an illicit act of murder. For example, when the Bible refers to a murderer (whether he killed somebody in deliberate, premediated away and is liable for the death penalty, or he killed somebody by mistake and is subject to exile in a City of Refuge), the term used is rotzeach (Num. 35:16–18, Deut. 19:4–6). Similarly, when Ahab and Jezebel arranged for Naboth’s death in order to take over his vineyard, Elijah the Prophet famously rebuked the king by rhetorically asking, "Did you murder (ha'ratzachta) and also inherit [Naboth]?" (I Kgs. 21:19). These two instances use cognates of the retzichah because they denote the crime of murder, and not simply the act of killing.

On the other hand, the term harigah is a neutral, value-free term that simply denotes the act of killing somebody — whether legally justified or not. In other words, harigah can refer to murder and also refer to a justified killing. For example, when the Bible states that a woman who commits the sin of bestiality ought to be put to death, the verb used to denote that she should be killed is a cognate of harigah (Lev. 20:16). This because this judicial execution is legally justified. But a cognate of harigah also appears when Cain “killed” Abel (Gen. 4:8), even though that was famously the first act of homicide, and was thus a crime of murder. Like Rashbam, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814)also writes that harigah refers to any act of “killing” that causes someone’s death in an unnatural way — whether lawful or not — while retzichah specifically denotes an illegal act of killing.

The only exception to Rashbam’s distinction is the Biblical passage that uses the verb form of retzichah (Num. 35:27, 35:30) when saying that a “redeemer of blood” (i.e., relative of somebody who was mistakenly killed) may “kill” a mistaken murderer. Even though that “killing” is permitted according to the law, the term used is still retzichah, not the expected harigah (see Rabbi Hirsch to Ex. 20:13 for an explanation of this special case).

In his work Chotam Tochnit, Rabbi Avraham Bedersi (a 13th century Spanish scholar) adds that harigah applies even to somebody who “killed” another indirectly (as opposed to retzichah which refers exclusively to the one who actually carried out the dirty deed). For example, King Saul was said to have “killed” (harag) the Kohanim at Nob (I Sam. 22:21), even though Saul himself did not actually murder them, but simply gave the orders which caused them to be killed. Similarly, when King David sent Uriah the Hittite to the frontlines in the battle against the Ammonites, thus allowing him to be killed so that King David can marry his wife Batsheba, Nathan the prophet criticized King David’s actions by asking, "Why did you disparage the word of Hashem to do evil in His eyes? That you hit Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and his wife you took for yourself as a wife, and him [Uriah] — you slayed (haragta) by the sword of the Children of Ammon" (II Sam. 12:9). In this case, a cognate of harigah is used because King David did not directly kill Uriah, he merely brought about Uriah’s death in a roundabout way. (However, see Abarbanel to Ex. 20:13 who cites Jud. 20:4 as proof that retzichah also applies to killing indirectly.)

Rabbi Bedersi also notes that the Biblical retzichah refers specifically to people killing other people, while harigah is even used in reference to people killing animals (Lev 20:15, 20:16, Num. 22:39, Isa. 22:13, 27:1) or plants (Ps. 78:47). Based on this, Rabbi Bedersi explains that the Ten Commandments purposely uses an inflection of retzichah when outlawing murder, as opposed to a form of harigah, so that the reader will understand that the prohibition of extra-judicial killing only applies to killing people, but not to killing animals or plants. Rabbi Pappenheim makes a similar point, explaining that because out of all living creatures in the world, only human beings form societies with rules and laws, retzichah — which is essentially a legal term that denotes “murder” — only applies to humans killing humans.

Using his unique system of etymological connections between roots with phonetically-similar letters, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ex. 20:13) offers a fascinating insight into the word retzichah. He connects the triliteral root REISH-TZADI-CHET (from whence retzichah derives) to the root REISH-SHIN-AYIN (via the interchangeability of TZADI and SHIN, plus CHET and AYIN), from whence rasha ("wicked/evil") derives. This connection leads Rabbi Hirsch to classifying murder as the ultimate act of evil and the most heinous of crimes.He also connects REISH-TZADI-CHET to the root REISH-TZADI-HEY (via the interchangeability of CHET and HEY), which means “will/want” in Hebrew, and to the root REISH-SHIN-HEY, which means “permission” in Aramaic. To explain these connections, he writes that committing murder represents an illegitimate expression of one’s freewill (even though otherwise a person has “permission” to “want” whatever he chooses).

When it comes to harigah, Rabbi Hirsch agrees with Rashbam’s assessment that the term can refer even to “killing” in a legally-permitted way. But elsewhere, Rabbi Hirsch (to Gen. 30:27) adds that his explanation of REISH-TZADI-CHET has parallels in the phonetic etymology of harigah (HEY-REISH-GIMMEL), which he connects with AYIN-REISH-GIMMEL (“desiring/yearning”).

Rabbi Pappenheim traces harigah to the biliteral root REISH-GIMMEL, which he defines as "totally subduing something via choking/closing." The word harigah relates to this concept because when one "kills" another, he has subdued them and put them to rest in the most absolute way possible. Other words that Rabbi Pappenheim sees as derived from this root include regimah ("stoning," because a stoned person is overwhelmed and subdued by the quantity of stones thrown at him that limit his ability to continue functioning) and arigah ("weaving," because threads are so tightly woven together, that they appeared subdued when rendered immobile in place). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ex. 35:25) also insinuates a connection between harigah and arigah (via the interchangeability of HEY and ALPEH). Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843–1916) takes this a few steps further and connects several other words with the REISH-GIMMEL string to this biliteral root, including regev (“clump of dirt”), regel (“foot”), rogez (“anger”), regesh (“feeling”), noting that all of these words are associated with “subduing,” “conquering,” and/or “trampling” in one way or another.

There is another way to differentiate between retzichah and harigah: Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866–1935) notes that Rabbi Shlomo Galblum in his concordance Sefer HaMilim (first published in 1877) writes that retzichah refers to the act of “giving a death blow.” To Rabbi Wertheimer, this implies that the difference between harigah and retzichah is that harigah refers directly to the act of “killing,” while retzichah refers to the murderous blow given to one’s victim. This is a subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless.

Interestingly, the Sefer Yeraim (§175) writes that retzichah only applies to killing a Jew. Rabbi Yaakov Berger of Kiryat Sefer (in his unpublished Milon Leshon Mikra) wonders whether this was meant as a linguistic comment (i.e., to differentiate between the words retzichah and harigah), or as a legal comment (i.e., to differentiate between the legal status of one who kills a Jew versus one who kills a non-Jew).

The standard Targumic rendering of the Hebrew words harigah and retzichah in Aramaic is ketilah. Interestingly, the Aramaic root KUF-TET-LAMMED is considered a quintessential Aramaic root akin to the Hebrew root PEH-AYIN-LAMMED used by grammarians to highlight the various inflections. It also appears seven times in the Aramaic sections of Daniel (Dan. 2:13-14, 3:22, 5:19, 5:30, 7:11) and is the common word for “killing” in Talmudic Aramaic.

Besides these Aramaic usages, the root KUF-TET-LAMMED actually appears four times in the Hebrew parts of the Bible (Iyov 24:14, 13:15, Ps. 139:19, Obad. 1:9). In Machberet Menachem, Menachem Ibn Saruk (920–970) identifies the Hebrew KUT-TET-LAMMED with its Aramaic counterpart, thus defining both as “killing/murdering.” Essentially, Menachem understands the Hebrew ketilah as a synonym for harigah. Rashi also translates the term ketilah in Aramaic and Hebrew into harigah (see Rashi to Obad. 1:9, Dan. 2:13, Pesachim 111a, Gittin 59a, Bava Kamma 23b, Chullin 11b, Niddah 20b).

Although ketilah seems to be used as a synonym for harigah and, to some extent, retzichah, it is possible that its core meaning refers to something else. In some places in the Talmud, inflections of the Aramaic verb KUF-TET-LAMMED refer not to “killing,” but to “cutting” (see Shabbat 98a, Eruvin 28b, Moed Katan 12b, Yevamot 121b, Bava Kamma 96a, Sanhedrin 33a, 74b, Shevuot 46a, Bechorot 8b). Perhaps then ketilah literally refers to “cutting” the soul away from the body, which is another way of characterizing death, and refers to a certain aspect of “killing,” but is not quite synonymous with harigah and retzichah. [Rabbi Yaakov Berger suggests a similar idea in explaining the root REISH-TZADI-CHET as a metathesized form of CHET-REISH-TZADI (“cutting”), with the former referring to “cutting off” another’s life.]

Rabbi Wertheimer observes that because ketilah seems to be a synonym of harigah, it makes sense that Targum Onkelos (to Ex. 20:13) would render the prohibition lo tirtzach as lo tiktol nefesh, adding the word nefesh where the original Hebrew text does not have a corresponding word, because simply rendering the prohibition as lo tiktol would imply that it is also forbidden to kill animals (as implied by the use of ketilah which is the equivalent to harigah, that can also include killing animals, as mentioned above). In order to obviate that explanation, Onkelos added the word nefesh, which clarifies that the prohibition only applies to killing humans.

Rabbi Nathan Adler takes a different approach, arguing that the Aramaic ketilah does not necessarily mean murder, but simply “striking” another. He finds evidence of this in the Talmudic expression “what is the difference between complete ketilah and partial ketilah?” (Bava Kamma 65a, Bava Metzia 95a, Chullin 35b, Niddah 55b); if ketilah means killing, there is no such thing as partial ketilah. Because ketilah could just mean “hitting” and not actually “killing,” Rabbi Adler explains that Onkelos added the word nefesh to clarify that the prohibition in question refers to killing.

In multiple places, the Mishnah (Shabbat 6:1, Sotah 1:6, Avodah Zarah 1:8, Meilah 5:1, Keilim 11:8) mentions a type of jewelry called a katla. Rashi (Shabbat 57b, Sotah 7b) explains that this refers to a very tight necklace (a “choker”). Perhaps it relates to ketilah in the sense of “killing,” because one wearing such an adornment might feel like she is being killed.

Rabbi Pappenheim contends that even though in Aramaic ketilah means the same thing as harigah and retzichah, in Hebrew it means something slightly differently. He argues that the Hebrew ketilah does not actually refer to “killing” or “murdering,” but to the act of striking another in a way that renders the victim totally helpless on the verge of death. Although such a moribund person may technically be alive, he has effectively been “killed.” Rabbi Pappenheim sees the root of ketilah as a portmanteau comprised of the two biliteral roots KUF-TET ("cutting/submitting") and TET-LAMMED ("throwing/lowering"). There may be some support for this view in the work Sefer HaChachmah (ascribed to the late 12th century Ashkenazic scholar Rabbi Elazar Rokeach of Worms), which writes that ketilah refers to killing somebody in a prolonged and tortuous way, instead of in one fell swoop.

Sometimes, the verb for “killing” is actually a cognate of the word mitah (“death”), as the killer causes “death” to visit his victim. Such verbiage invokes a general term for all sorts of death, whether one by natural causes, by murder, or by otherwise being killed. Other terms used for “murder” in rabbinic parlance include netillat neshamah (literally, “taking the soul”) and shefichat damim (literally, “spilling blood”). For related discussions, about the word mitah and challal/peger (“corpse”), see my earlier essays “Of Corpses and Carcasses” (June 2018) and “Confronting Death” (May 2017). That’s all he wrote.

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