Killing With the Divine Name

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by R. Gil Student

In 1927, when Rav Ahron Soloveichik was 10 years old, he sent a letter to his older brother Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who at the time was studying in Berlin. The young Ahreleh wrote an impressive essay, which is recorded, along with the reactions of his father and brother, in Iggeros Ha-Grid Ha-Levi (pp. 272-275).

I. Divine Punishment

Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Melachim 10:6, Hilchos Chovel U-Mazik 5:3) writes that a Gentile who injures a Jew is subject to the death penalty but only by divine hands, not human. No court may punish him. Rambam learns this from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 58b) based on Moshe (Ex. 2:12), who saw an Egyptian injuring a Jew and killed him. The question is where in that verse Rambam sees a proof to his position.

Rav Ahron answers based on Rashi (Ex. 2:14) that Moshe killed the Egyptian through use of the divine name. This is not a direct killing but only indirect causation (gerama). And even though the Rambam (Hilchos Rotzei’ach 3:10) rules that even causing a death is forbidden, the Mishneh Le-Melech quotes the Ritva that causing a death through speech is not punished even by divine hands.

Therefore, Moshe punished the Egyptian for injuring a Jew specifically by killing him with the divine name. The Egyptian was not liable for human punishment, only divine punishment. Killing him any other way would have been forbidden. Moshe punished him through the divine name because the Egyptian was only liable for divine punishment. This, then, is Rambam’s proof that a Gentile who injures a Jew is not punished by human hands.

Rav Moshe Soloveichik, Rav Ahron’s father, adds that while he is proud of his young son’s accomplishments, he disagrees with his statement that killing someone with the divine name is only causative. Rather, it is not killing at all. This does not mean that it is permissible to kill someone with the divine name rather that it is not classified as killing but prohibited for other reasons.

Rav Joseph Soloevitchik also responds with admiration (“I could not believe my eyes”). However, he adds that the Mishneh Le-Melech‘s position that causation through words is not considered causation is difficult. Why should it matter how someone causes the action? Rather, Ritva was referring to someone who hires a hitman, i.e. tells someone else to commit murder. In that case, the person doing the telling is not guilty of causing the murder. But causing someone’s death by invoking the divine name is directly causing the death. Both brothers disagree with their father.

II. Debate Over Divine Murder

Perhaps we can find support for the young Rav Ahron in a debate among great Sephardic sages. Rav Yisrael Ya’akov Chagiz (17th cen., Israel; Halachos Ketanos 2:98) writes similarly in a brief responsum. He asks whether someone is liable for murdering with the divine name or witchcraft (kishuf). Rav Chagiz replies that the words you send out are similar to an arrow you shoot. Either way, you send the deadly means by which the person dies. He cleverly quotes the verse: “Their tongue is a deadly arrow” (Jer. 9:7).

Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai (Chida, 18th cen., Israel; Devash Le-Fi, mem, no. 5) agrees with Rav Chagiz’s argument. However, he distinguishes between types of murders. Chida says that when someone invokes the divine name, that causes death unless there is divine intervention to prevent the death from happening. When the intervention is lacking, the person who invoked the divine name directly causes the death. This is distinct from another form of supernatural murder. The Gemara (Shabbos 33b) tells the story of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s (Rashbi) exit from the cave in which he hid for many years. After all that time of constant Torah study, he was shocked to see a Jew work. In his disappointment, Rashbi looked at the man with a devastating stare, causing him to die. Not everyone reads that story literally but Chida does.

Chida suggests that killing someone by looking at him–without saying anything–is different from invoking G-d’s name for murder. Someone who just stares in that way only intends to draw out the holiness from within the victim, leaving him empty of sanctity which causes death. This is exempt from human punishment because he did not intend to kill anyone, only to draw out the holiness. Alternatively, someone who stares in that way only intends to invoke divine judgment – if the person deserves punishment of death then that divine punishment should be forthcoming immediately. In other words, staring in that way is not a call for murder but a call for divine judgment, letting G-d decide the victim’s fate. In contrast, someone who invokes the divine name commits a direct act of murder for which he is liable.

However, Rav Chaim Palaggi (19th cen., Turkey; Responsa Lev Chaim, vol. 2 Orach Chaim no. 188) disagrees. He claims that no one who kills in a supernatural way is liable for punishment. In such cases, G-d kills; not the person. Murder is the cessation of a life within natural means. A miraculous murder is out of human hands. When someone extinguishes a fire with the divine name, he is really asking G-d to extinguish the fire indirectly. As Rav Palaggi puts it, this is gerama di-gerama, doubly indirect causation. Similarly, when someone kills with the divine name, he is causing death through doubly indirect causation, for which he is not liable.

It seems that Rav Ahron Soloveichik would agree, to some extent, with Rav Chaim Palaggi that killing with the divine name is only indirect causation. Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik would agree with Rav Yisrael Ya’akov Chagiz and Chida that killing with the divine name is a direct act for which someone would be liable.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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