January 18, 2019

Hebrew word of the week: Lo’ tirtsah/Thou shall not kill

The original sense of r-ts-H* was “to smash, shatter” as in retsaH be-’atsmotay “crushing my bones” (Psalms 42:11); Arabic and Aramaic cognates “to crush.” The English kill meant “strike, beat”; and murder, related to mortal, in older English meant “secret or unlawful killing”; the Germanic cognate involved concealment or slaying a person by night or while asleep, considered a heinous crime. Also in Hebrew ratsaH, in contrast to harag, hemit, qaTal “(plain) kill,” generally denotes illegal behavior against the community, especially killing of a fellow countryman. 

Other related words: retsaH “murder”; rotseaH/ratsHan “murderer”; ratsHanut “killer-instinct, murderousness”; meratstseaH “frequent murderer, or of many” (Isaiah 1:21; Psalms 94:6); rav-meratsHim “master-murderer” in modern Hebrew is often used in reference to Hitler and the Nazis.

*With Het, not to be confused with the graphically similar ratsah (הצר, with heh) “want, wish”; but with partly identical roots r-ts-ts “crush”; r-ts-’ “pierce with awl.”

Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.