The first chapter of the the Laws of Murder and the Preservation of Life, the tellingly named section of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah that details the laws of murder, highlights the value system that is their foundation and which continues to inform the Jewish conversation on this topic to this very day.
Maimonides begins with this: Anyone who kills someone in the presence of witnesses is put to death by the sword. There is no ambiguity about this law. As it says very simply in the Torah, in both instances in which the Ten Commandments are related, in Deuteronomy and Exodus, “You shall not murder.” The penalty for violating this transgression, regardless of the means used to carry it out, is death.
Yet in noting the requirement of witnesses, Maimonides also alludes to the rabbinic requirement that intentionality must be firmly established before carrying out a death sentence. The ancient rabbis essentially neutralized capital punishment with this requirement. In order to actually carry out capital punishment, witnesses had first to warn a murderer that they were about to commit a capital crime and the killer needed to acknowledge the warning and proceed to kill anyway. In order to take a life, even in response to the taking of another life, the rabbis required a degree of absolute certainty that a human being could never have. The rabbis’ aversion to killing was so strong that it practically nullified the Torah’s instruction that murder is a capital crime.
Maimonides goes on to say that a Jewish court may not take ransom from a murderer — no matter how much money is offered, and even if the relatives of the victim wish to accept it. The court cannot decide to punish a murderer differently depending on their ability to pay money. The reason is that the soul of a murdered person belongs neither to the court nor to the victim’s family. It belongs to God. Life is a gift, given and taken by God. It cannot be bought and sold.
Likewise, how we respond to a murderer is not a human choice. Maimonides here cites the Book of Numbers 35:33, which says the following:
You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it.
Nothing is more important to the Torah than the shedding of blood, which it connects to the capacity to live in the land of Israel. Blood that is not atoned for will make the land spit its people out. There can be no living in a holy land, no creating of a holy and just society, if blood is being shed and not properly atoned for.
Doing this is not the responsibility of those who witness the crime, but of the court, and only upon the completion of a legal process. But Maimonides makes a very significant distinction between a murder that has already been committed and one that is in progress. After the murder, no one has the right to step up and take the life of the person who has done it. It is the community that sits in judgment and decides what action to take.
But that is very different from a situation in which the crime has not happened yet. In a case where somebody is about to take the life of someone else, every individual has the responsibility to do what they can to save the one who is pursued, including taking the life of the person who is pursuing. This is not as a punishment — no individual has the right to take the life of a murderer. But the obligation to save somebody who is in danger of being murdered is so powerful that you can even risk the life of the person who is pursuing them. If the murder can be prevented through non-lethal means — by a warning, say, or by injuring the assailant or cutting off their limb — that is preferable. But if that’s not possible, it’s permissible to kill the pursuer. The priority is to save the life of the one who is being pursued.
Maimonides derives this rule from an innovative reading of the verse in Deuteronomy 25:13. That verse describes a case in which two men are fighting and the wife of one of them intervenes to try and save her husband by grabbing the genitals of his attacker. In such a case, the Torah says that the woman’s hand must be cut off and no compassion shown to her. But Maimonides reads this as a situation in which a person is in danger. In such a situation, the first thing that must be done is to cut off the hand of the pursuer. But if more is required to save the life of another, you should have no compassion for the pursuer.
Anyone who fails to do this, who could have saved a person and did not, transgresses the verse in Leviticus, which states “you shall not stand by the blood of your fellow.” That is to say, if someone is in danger and it’s possible to save them, or to have someone else save them, or if a plot to do harm is uncovered and it’s possible to intervene to prevent it and one does nothing — that person is guilty of standing idly by the blood of their neighbor.
As a practical matter, Jewish law does not punish someone for this failing, since punishments are only meted out by Jewish courts for sins of commission. This is a sin of omission, of failing to act in a case where one should have acted. Nevertheless, Maimonides stipulates that this failing is a serious one, quoting the famous rabbinic maxim that one who takes a life is as if they have destroyed an entire world, while one who saves a life is as if they have established an entire world.
This article is adapted from a class by Rabbi Ebn Leader on the first chapter of Maimonides’ Laws of Murder and the Preservation of Life.