Lost in Translation

June 13, 2024

The most important moment in Jewish history is undoubtedly when the Israelites stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and received the Torah. The vivid descriptions of that moment are rich with detail: the people fasted to attain ritual purity, and a massive natural phenomenon of thunder and lightning filled the sky overhead. All of this served as a dramatic backdrop for the giving of the Ten Commandments, arguably the most important guidelines in the Torah.

But shockingly, one of these commandments has been mistranslated by modern Biblical texts to this day, leading to significant misinterpretations. Curious which of the commandments I’m referring to?

The commandment in question is the prohibition against taking life, often cited as “Thou shalt not murder.” However, many Christian Bibles, including the influential King James Bible, translate this as “Thou shalt not kill,” a broader and less precise rendering.

The original Hebrew text of Exodus reads, “לֹ֖א תִּרְצָֽח” (lo tirtzach).

The word “תִּרְצָֽח” (tirtzach) specifically means “murder,” referring to the unlawful, premeditated killing of one human by another. This is distinct from “killing,” which can encompass justified acts like self-defense, wartime actions, and judicial executions. More recent translations, such as the Chabad.org Bible, accurately state, “You shall not murder,” aligning with the original Hebrew and maintaining this crucial distinction.

Reading the Bible in its original Hebrew is vital for preserving the nuance and specificity of the language. For example, Exodus provides a context where killing is commanded in response to certain transgressions, illustrating that the Torah distinguishes between different forms of taking life.

Accurate translation ensures that these distinctions are maintained, fostering a deeper understanding of the text.

The importance of precise biblical interpretation extends to contemporary issues as well. In the past eight months, terms like “genocide” have been irresponsibly thrown around by ill-informed “social justice warriors.” Yet the actions that the IDF have been taking in Gaza have been nothing further from that truth. The targeted killing of Hamas terrorists in Gaza is often mislabeled as genocide, ignoring the fact that these actions are aimed at terrorists who pose a direct threat, not civilians. Any innocent civilian casualties are unintentional and deeply regrettable.

In contrast, Hamas has launched brutal attacks on Israeli civilians since they came into power, most recently on October 7th. Their intention? To murder indiscriminately. Understanding the true meaning of “Thou shalt not murder” highlights the difference between such acts of premeditated violence and the defensive measures taken to prevent further loss of innocent lives. The Bible provides clear ethical and moral guidance, condemning murder while recognizing the necessity of self-defense.

The Ten Commandments, received on Shavuot, are foundational to both Jewish and Christian traditions. They provide a moral compass that has guided human behavior for millennia. Misinterpreting these commandments can lead to significant ethical ambiguities. Imagine the implications if any other commandment were so grossly mistranslated, such as “Thou shall not commit adultery.” The consequences would be severe and far-reaching.

Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah and the incredible guidelines found within it. These morally clear boundaries help us navigate our daily lives, and we should be grateful for them. The fourth commandment, “Honor thy Father and thy Mother,” reminds us to cherish and respect our parents. Note to self: Call mom and dad. 

In today’s world, where terms like “genocide” and “murder” are often misused and misattributed, returning to the original Hebrew text provides clarity and reinforces the enduring relevance of the Torah’s teachings. The IDF’s constant ethical calculations, which date back to the laws of war in Biblical times, serve as a contemporary example of these principles in action.

By understanding the commandments’ true meaning and applying them to modern challenges, we can uphold the Torah’s timeless wisdom and build a more just and ethical society.

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Sara Lamm

Sara Lamm is a content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. Originally from Virginia, she moved to Israel with her husband and children in 2021. Sara has a Masters Degree in Education from Bankstreet college and taught preschool for almost a decade before making Aliyah to Israel. Sara is passionate about connecting Bible study with “real life’ and is currently working on a children’s Bible series.

Sara Lamm

Sara Lamm is a content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. Originally from Virginia, she moved to Israel with her husband and children in 2021. Sara has a Masters Degree in Education from Bankstreet college and taught preschool for almost a decade before making Aliyah to Israel. Sara is passionate about connecting Bible study with “real life’ and is currently working on a children’s Bible series.

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