The way I was taught it (and confirmed by this answer and the comment on it), the Hebrew word "tirtzach" refers to murder, and is distinguished from the H-R-G and M-T roots which mean "kill." Therefore, the pasuk which reads "lo tirtzach" (do not murder) is not in conflict with judicial killing (tehargeno, or yumat).

However in the case of a killer who has to run to an ir miklat, the go'el hadam who catches up and kills the unintentional killer, first, is said to kill (M-T) him and then is said to R-TZ-CH him (all from B'midbar 35): יט גֹּאֵל הַדָּם, הוּא יָמִית אֶת-הָרֹצֵחַ:

and then

כז וּמָצָא אֹתוֹ, גֹּאֵל הַדָּם, מִחוּץ, לִגְבוּל עִיר מִקְלָטוֹ: וְרָצַח גֹּאֵל הַדָּם, אֶת-הָרֹצֵחַ--אֵין לוֹ, דָּם

I know that in the second pasuk, the situation has changed (the accused has left the safety of an ir miklat) but if his killing of the accused is "extra judicial" then he would be held liable. The end of the pasuk says he isn't.

A following pasuk is even more confusing: ל כָּל-מַכֵּה-נֶפֶשׁ--לְפִי עֵדִים, יִרְצַח אֶת-הָרֹצֵחַ

No context is given, but the killing of someone deemed textually a "murderer" is called "murder."

The Torah Temima quotes the gemara in Makot 12a which posits opinions that it is a mitzvah to kill the accused if he leaves the city (only in particular situations, granted) so the title "murder" should not apply.

Am I missing something in understanding the root R-TZ-CH?

  • "Am I missing something in understanding the root R-TZ-CH?" Looks like it!
    – Seth J
    Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 14:19
  • 2
    +1, and unfortunately I can't vote more than once. When I 1st saw the title, I was about to answer exactly what your content points out. Time for me to research!
    – DanF
    Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 14:49
  • It appears that it means kill with deliberate intent beforehand and includes "searching" for the person to be killed. Thus, the English word "murder" has the connotation of a crime while the Hebrew word R-Tz-Ch means deliberate killing which is allowed to a court (under appropriate circumstances) or the Goel (in effect as an agent of the court) but is a crime under other circumstances. Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 14:49
  • 2
    I'm hoping that other readers see this comment: Onkelos uses a one word for Rotzea'ach in verse 21 and another word in verse 25. I don't know Aramaic well enough to translate these words. But, apparently, there is a difference in meaning. Perhaps, another M.Y. reader can elucidate this for us.
    – DanF
    Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 15:08
  • @SethJ See ^^^. Maybe, you want to try translating? It may provide an answer.
    – DanF
    Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 15:09

1 Answer 1


The answer (inspired by Shadal to 35:30, but with a lot of elaboration and explanation) seems to be as follows:

In Bamidbar 35:19 and 35:21 the Root M-T (which I'm assuming means "put to death") is used, for the simple reason that those cases (35:16-18) are cases of intentional murder. The murderer there is "Chayav M-T" (which is the word used for Beis Din putting someone to death). The Goel Hadam is supposed to be carrying out that verdict of Beit Din, hence he M-T's the murderer. In conclusion, Beit Din is associated with M-T, and the Goel Hadam is doing what Beit Din would be doing.

However, the story changes at that point from an intentional murder to an accidental murder. Therefore (at least in Peshat, if not Halacha as well, see Rashi, Hakesav Vehakabbalah, Shadal, Ibn Ezra to 35:27), ideally the Goel Hadam should not kill the murderer. In Bamidbar 35:27 the wording used is R-Tz-Ch, because the Goel Hadam is no longer simply fulfilling the Beis Din's wishes to put the murdered to death, but he is murdering him because he is mad that this person killed his relative. It happens to be that he is not punished for this (likely because the murderer left the Ir Miklat), similar to a Ba Bamachteres, see Rashi and Ibn Ezra to 35:27, but he is still considered a "murderer".

This leaves a problem with the R-Tz-Ch in 35:30, which seems to be talking about a case of intentional murder, which would make the Goel Hadam an "agent" of the Beis Din. However, we can suggest a couple of answers:

  1. This is before it even gets to Beit Din - the Eidim can "allow" the Goel Hadam to kill him and be let off scot-free.

  2. It is simply expressing that even (and perhaps even more so) in cases of intentional murder, he is still functioning to some extent as a "murderer", who would kill the original murderer even if he wasn't allowed to, and he is not just a nice guy trying to do Beis Din's bidding.

  3. (Edit: Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 7:3 has a Hava Amina that since it says Yirtzach [Es] Harotzeach, we would assume that the murderer must be put to death the same way he killed, which might be a reason in Peshat for using a similar term.)

I'm not sure exactly what combination of this is explained by Harechasim Levikah (here) quoted by Shadal above, but that's the basic gist.

In summary, your understanding of R-Tz-Ch is correct, it just cannot be applied to Beis Din, so when the Goel Hadam acts (even unintentionally) as an agent of Beis Din, we call him a Killer (M-T). When the Goel Hadam attacks the murderer in a case where the death was an accident, he is considered a "murderer" that does not get punished.

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