Posted on November 14, 2005 by Rabbi Dr. Azriel Rosenfeld | Series: | Level:

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68. Murderer and Protection of Life – Rotze’ach u-Shemiras Nefesh

It is forbidden to murder, as it says “You shall not murder”.1 A murderer must be put to death, as it says “He shall be avenged”2; it is forbidden to accept compensation from him instead, as it says “You shall not take redemption for the life of a murderer…; and there shall be no atonement for the blood that was spilled… except the blood of him that spilled it”.3 It is forbidden to execute a murderer before he has stood trial, as it says “And the murderer shall not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment”.4 However, we are commanded to prevent an attempted murder by killing the would-be murderer if necessary, and it is forbidden to refrain from doing so, as it says “And you shall cut off her hand; you shall not be merciful”5; and similarly for attempted fornication, as it says “[If the man seizes her and lies with her…] just as a man rises up against his friend and murders him, so is this thing.”6 It is forbidden to refrain from saving life when it is in one’s power to do so, as it says “You shall not stand on your friend’s blood.”7,a

One who kills a man by accident must be exiled to a city of refuge and it is forbidden to accept compensation from him instead, as it says “He shall dwell there until the death of the high priest… and you shall not take redemption from [one] who flees to his city of refuge [to return and dwell in the land before the priest dies].”8 We are commanded to set aside such cities in the land of Israel, as it says “You shall set aside three cities… [to which a murderer can flee]”9; all the cities given to the Levites are cities of refuge, as it says “The cities that you shall give to the Levites: the six cities of refuge that you shall give for a murderer to flee there, and besides them you shall give 42 cities”.10,b

If a murdered body is found in the land of Israel the court of the nearest city kills a calf near a stream on untilled soil as an atonement [as it says “If a corpse is found in the land… and it is not known who struck him… the elders of the city nearest to the corpse shall take a calf with which no work has been done… and take the calf down to a mighty stream that must not be worked and not sown and break the neck of the calf there by the stream… and say …`atone for Your people Israel…'”].11 When murder is common this practice is not followed.c

We are commanded to remove all possible sources of danger to life — for example, to build a parapet around a roof — and it is forbidden to refrain from doing so, as it says “You shall make a fence for your roof and you shall not put blood in your house”.12 All practices that are potentially dangerous to life must be avoided. It is forbidden to lead anyone astray and in particular to tempt him to sin, as it says “And you shall not put an obstacle before a blind man”.13,d

[If we find someone in difficulty we are commanded to help him; for example,] if someone’s animal is crushed under a heavy load we are commanded to help him unload and reload it and it is forbidden to ignore him, as it says “[If you see your enemy’s ass crouching under its load…] you shall unload with him”,14 and it says “You shall not see your brother’s ass [or his ox fallen on the road and ignore them]; you shall lift up with him”.l5,e


1. Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17 a. 1:1,4-11,14
2. Ex. 21:20; see Lev. 24:17,21 b. 5:1; 8:1,9
3. Num. 35:31,33 c. 9:1-3,12; 10:1,9
4. Num. 35:12 d. 11:1,3-5
5. Deut. 25:12 e. 13:1-2
6. Deut. 22:26
7. Lev. 19:16
8. Num. 35:25-32
9. Deut. 18:2ff; see Num. 35:10ff
10. Num. 35:6
11. Deut. 21:lff
12. Deut. 22:8
13. Lev. 19:14
14. Ex. 23:5
15. Deut. 22:4