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Killing Gentiles Is Forbidden


Written by Gil Student

The Accusation

Jews May Rob and Kill Non-Jews, Sanhedrin 57a . When a Jew murders a Gentile ("Cuthean"), there will be no death penalty. What a Jew steals from a Gentile he may keep.

Minor Tractates. Soferim 15, Rule 10. This is the saying of Rabbi Simon ben Yohai: Tob shebe goyyim harog ("Even the best of the gentiles should all be killed").

 

Robbing gentiles is absolutely forbidden and is dealt with in a separate section. Here we will demonstrate that in no way does the Talmud permit or encourage killing gentiles. Rather, it strictly forbids killing anyone, Jew or gentile.

The Text

Talmud Sofrim 15:10

R. Shimon ben Yochai taught: Kill [even] the good among the gentiles.

While this passage seems to advocate the genocide of all non-Jews, it must be remembered that this is a single passage extracted from a thorough study. Without seeing it in its original context, a simple reading is both incorrect and unsound scholarship. Let us look at the full original passage as recorded in a number of places.

The original teaching is as part of a study of the book of Exodus. At this point, the Jews have left Egypt but have not yet crossed the Sea of Reeds. The Egyptian people, after suffering through ten long and difficult plagues, have decided to pursue the Jewish people rather than let them go.

Mechilta, Beshalach 2 (on Exodus 14:7)

[Exodus 14:5-7 "It was told to the king of Egypt that the people had fled; and the heart of Pharoah and his servants became transformed regarding the people, and they said, 'What is this that we have done that we have sent away Israel from serving us?' He harnessed his chariot and attracted his people with him.] He took six hundred elite chariots [and all the chariots of Egypt, with officers on them all."]

From whom were the animals that drove the chariots? If you say they were from Egypt, doesn't it say (Exodus 9:6) "and all the livestock of Egypt died [from the fifth plague]"? If you say they were from Pharoah, doesn't it say (Exodus 9:3) "[Moses said to Pharoah]: Behold, the hand of G-d is on your livestock that are in the field"? If you say they were from the Jews, doesn't it say (Exodus 10:26) "And our livestock, as well, will go with us- not a hoof will be left"? Rather from whom were they, from the Egyptians who feared G-d [and were not affected by the plagues]. We now see that the livestock of the G-d-fearers that escaped the plague caused great hardship for the Jews [by being used for chariots to pursue them]. From here R. Shimon [ben Yochai] said: Kill [even] the good among the gentiles.

From the above teaching we see that R. Shimon ben Yochai was discussing a case of war. The G-d-fearers among the Egyptians allowed their animals to be used in battle against the Jews. Presumably, these people went along with their animals and drove the chariots. We now see that the G-d-fearers, the "good" among the gentiles, were doing battle with the Jews. To this R. Shimon ben Yochai said that, when in battle, do not try to spare the lives of those opposing soldiers who are fine, upstanding people. Kill any enemy soldier, regardless of their character. This contextual approach to understanding R. Shimon ben Yochai's statement is how the post-Talmudic literature has read this statement [see Tosafot, Avodah Zarah 26b sv Velo; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avodah Zarah 10:1]. Reading R. Shimon ben Yochai's teaching as a single-sentence imperative to kill all gentiles is simply wrong and is not how Jewish scholars have ever understood it.

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rotze'ach 2:11 and the commentary of R. Yosef Karo, Kessef Mishneh

A Jew who killed a righteous gentile is not executed in a court of law as it says (Exodus 21:14) "If a man shall act intentionall against his fellow..." [and a gentile is not considered a fellow] and even more so that he is not executed for killing an unrighteous gentile.

What our teacher Maimonides meant when he wrote that he is not executed in a court of law is that he is nevertheless punished by Heaven.

The above passage in Maimonides shows that there is a discrepancy between the treatment of a murderer of a Jew and a gentile. The Bible says that a murderer is only executed if he kills his "fellow" and by being parts of very different communities a gentile is not the "fellow" of a Jew. Is this murder forbidden? Absolutely. However, biblical fiat declares that this murder is not a capital punishment. However, rather than allowing this murderer to receive a minor punishment, his punishment is left to Divine providence. G-d will punish this sin appropriately because it is out of the court's hands.

While it is understandable that Jewish literature has been relatively quiet about something as obvious as the prohibition against killing gentiles, the following sources are just some of those who say it explicitly: Tosafot, Avodah Zarah 26b sv. Velo; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rotze'ach 2:11, Hilchot Avodah Zarah 10:1; R. Yoel Sirkes, Bayit Chadash, Yoreah Deah 158; Taz, Yoreh Deah 158:1; Beit Meir, Even HaEzer 17:3; R. Yosef Babad, Minchat Chinuch, 93:2; R. Avraham Yishayahu Karelitz, Chazon Ish, Bava Kamma 10:16.

 

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