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Headlining the second half of the Ten Commandments is a prohibition that reads “Lo tirtzach, “Do not murder” (Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 5:16). Yet the term retzicha is not the sole Hebrew word for the act of killing or murdering: harigah and ketilah also essentially mean the same thing. Rabbi Nathan Adler (1803-1890) cites the use of harigah and retzicha side by side in Psalms 94:6 as evidence that the two terms are indeed synonymous. Nonetheless, if we look very closely at the etymology and usage of the three words in question, we will observe that they are not true synonyms.

While both retzicha and harigah refer to the act of taking another’s life, Rashi’s grandson Rashbam lays down a general rule to distinguish retzicha from harigah. According to Rashbam, retzicha always refers to killing somebody for no legitimate reason. Embedded in the very term is a moral judgment signifying that this was an illicit act of murder. For example, when the Bible refers to a killer – be it someone who killed in a deliberate, premeditated away and is liable for the death penalty, or someone who killed by mistake and is subject to exile in a City of Refuge – the term rotzeach is used (Numbers 35:16-18, Deuteronomy 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 Kings 21:19). These two instances use cognates of the retzicha because they denote the crime of murder, and not simply the act of killing.


The term harigah, on the other hand, is a neutral term that simply denotes the act of killing somebody; it can refer to murder, and also refer to a justified killing. There is no implicit “value judgment.” For instance, 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 (Leviticus 20:16); this because this judicial execution is legally justified. But a cognate of harigah also appears when Cain killed Abel (Genesis 4:8), even though that was famously the first act of murder.

The only exception to Rashbam’s distinction is the Biblical passage that uses the verb form of retzicha (Numbers 35:27, 35:30) when saying that a “goel ha’dam” (“redeemer of blood,” i.e., a relative of somebody who was mistakenly killed) may kill someone who committed manslaughter. Even though that “killing” is permitted according to the law, the term used is still retzicha rather than the expected harigah (see Rabbi Shimshon Refael Hirsch to Exodus 20:13 for an explanation of this special case).

In his work Chotam Tochnit, Rabbi Avraham Bedersi (a 13th century Spanish scholar) writes that harigah applies even to somebody who killed another indirectly, while to retzicha refers exclusively to the one who actually carried out the dirty deed. For example, King Saul was said to have “harag” the Kohanim at Nob (I Samuel 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 Samuel 12:9). In this case, a cognate of harigah is used because King David did not directly kill Uriah, but brought about Uriah’s death in a roundabout way. (However, see Abarbanel to Exodus 20:13, where he cites Judges 20:4 as proof that retzicha also applies to killing indirectly.)

Rabbi Bedersi also notes that the Biblical retzicha refers specifically to people killing other people, while harigah is even used in reference to people killing animals (Leviticus 20:15, 20:16, Numbers 22:39, Isaiah 22:13, 27:1) or plants (Psalms 78:47). Based on this, Rabbi Bedersi explains that the Ten Commandments purposely uses retzicha rather than harigah when outlawing murder so that the reader will understand that the prohibition of extrajudicial killing only applies to killing people, not 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, retzicha – essentially a legal term that denotes murder – only applies to humans killing humans.

There are yet other ways to differentiate between retzicha and harigah. Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) notes that in Rabbi Shlomo Galblum’s concordance Sefer HaMilim, first published in 1877, retzicha refers to the act of “giving a death blow.” To Rabbi Wertheimer, this implies that the difference between harigah and retzicha is that harigah refers directly to the act of killing, while retzicha refers to the murderous blow given to one’s victim. This is a subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless. Meanwhile, according to Sefer Yeraim, retzicha only applies to killing a Jew. In his unpublished Milon Leshon Mikra, Rabbi Yaakov Berger of Kiryat Sefer wonders whether this was meant as a linguistic comment (i.e., to differentiate between the words retzicha and harigah), or as a legal comment (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 retzicha 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 (Daniel 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; Psalms 139:19; Obadiah 1:9). In Machberet Menachem, Menachem Ibn Saruk (920-970) identifies the Hebrew kuf-tet-lammed with its Aramaic counterpart, thus defining both as “killing” or “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 Obadiah 1:9, Daniel 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, retzicha, it is possible that its core meaning refers to something else. In some places in the Talmud, usages of the Aramaic 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 retzicha.

Rabbi Wertheimer observes that because ketilah seems to be a synonym of harigah, it makes sense that Targum Onkelos (to Exodus 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.

Rabbi Pappenheim contends that even though in Aramaic ketilah means the same thing as harigah and retzicha, 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 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 HaChachma, ascribed to the late 12th century Ashkenazic scholar Rabbi Elazar Rokeach of Worms, which says that ketilah refers to killing somebody in a prolonged and tortuous way rather than instead of in one fell swoop.


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Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes The Jewish Press's "Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh" column.