There is a principle 'svara lamah li krah i.e. if a certain idea is logical and self evident to the average healthy mind, the Torah does not need to teach that idea. Additionally, what seems to be correct behavior to the average healthy mind is itself binding, that is why people can be judged and punished by God before the giving of the Torah (the mabul, dor haflaga, etc.). That being the case why does the Torah need to command not to kill? (and why does the Torah have to command us not to steal, to honor our parents, etc, etc, etc......)

[As a source for the second point you can see the following article by Rav Avraham Grodzinski: https://drive.google.com/open?id=0Bwwd92aBnfAuNG1qYkltS1lfR3M ]

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    Can you source your first sentence? Especially, if you can source it as used to demonstrate why a mitzva does not exist, that would strengthen your question considerably.
    – msh210
    Jan 4, 2016 at 17:35
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    Can you source that "what seems to be correct behavior to the average healthy mind is itself binding" and moreover that "that is why people can be judged and punished by God before the giving of the Torah"? I thought it was because God commanded Adam not to kill, steal, etc. (all the Noahide laws besides Ever Min HaChai). Indeed the simplest answer to your question is that we are not bound by these "svara" based morality other than as God commands us to be, because He Who created that morality also decided which parts of it we'd be bound to (and which immoral things we'd have to do anyway)
    – Double AA
    Jan 4, 2016 at 17:49
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    @msh210 Providing evidence that Jewish tradition views certain commands (including at least one not mentioned by the OP) as derivable logically without Torah improves the question. Furthermore the article in the link may be of great interest to the OP.
    – Double AA
    Jan 4, 2016 at 17:58
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    In the world that the Torah was given, and long, long afterward, it was perfectly normal in some civilizations(Greek and later Roman come to mind quickest) to murder in the form of leaving female, weak, and unwanted children out in the woods or wilderness to die. Murder was definitely not "logical and self-evident"-ly wrong to them.
    – Gary
    Jan 5, 2016 at 5:39
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    Not really addressing the form of your question, but this is the same culture which was given "an eye for an eye", cities of refuge from retaliation for manslaughter, strict rules about reparation for mishaps such as accidental goring by an ox, not a few laments by Moses about innocent blood defiling the land, and plenty of cautions not to become like the Molech-worshippers who made sacrifice of their own children. I'm not sure I would say that 'do not murder' was culturally obvious then. It is now after many years of the Judaeo-Christian ethic holding sway, but don't take it for granted. Jan 5, 2016 at 11:42

4 Answers 4


A Medrash states that G-d offered the Torah to the children of Eisau. They rejected it, saying they could not accept this very commandment against murder. This begs the question: Eisau's descendants also have a law against murder! Why couldn't they accept G-d's law if it was already illegal by their own standard?

Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg ZT"L answers as follows: Once something is a mitzvah, it becomes a G-d-given absolute standard not subject to human interpretation or moralistic reasoning. One can no longer legalize certain forms of killing that fall within one's moral standard. It's no longer possible to allow abortion, or "mercy killing" of the old and infirm. One cannot assassinate for a good cause, or to achieve power. Unlike svara-based avoidance of murder, G-d-based prohibition means that it is forbidden in all cases dictated by Halacha.

Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik tz"l gave a similar explanation. (Speaking from my father's and my own testimony, heard on separate occasions. -@MichaBerger) Just as chukim, the laws that are beyond human understanding (such as that of the Red Heiffer), have elements we can explain, so too every mishpat, comprehensible law, has elements of choq that are beyond us. Using our natural moral compass alone, could we know whether the concept of "murder" should include euthanasia? Whether life ends with the end of some specific aspect of brain activity -- which one? -- or with the end of breath and/or heartbeat? Or when life begins -- is abortion murder, perhaps only after some part of gestation? May one turn over a single victim to an marauder band to save the rest of the community? Etc... All of those moral questions require a rigorous halachic structure to find an approach toward resolution.

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    @sabbahillel There is nothing wrong with separating unrelated answers into two posts. meta.judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/3554/… Jan 5, 2016 at 1:25
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    Rav Moshe Feinstein also says something very similar to this. This is actually one of my 'go-to' Divrei Torah whenever anyone asks me to share a few words, as you can almost always bring in Matan Torah into the discussion (i.e. this week's Parshah is the beginning of the plagues, which culminates in Bnai Yisrael leaving Egypt and receiving the Torah, etc) ;) Jan 5, 2016 at 1:34
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    R JB Soloveitchik also says this. (And I too opened this thread to post his version of this answer.). I heard RJBS explain that just as every choq contains some elements we can understand, every mishpat contains elements that we cannot. Were there no verse, using our native moral compass alone, could we decide whether euthanasia is murder? Abortion? Etc... Jan 5, 2016 at 10:51
  • @Salmononius2 Feel free to edit your comments into my answer.
    – LN6595
    Jan 5, 2016 at 17:03
  • You're referring to the 7 noachide laws or the Eisaven Constitution? If the first, then you can't rationalize, and if the second, who said that it's forbidden altogether? Jan 5, 2016 at 18:46

If not for the prohibition, murder would carry no defined penalty in civil courts. The Torah prohibition makes murder always a capital crime. Same with stealing - if there was no explicit mitzvah, there would not be a set punishment entrusted to earthly courts.

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    Particularly since being eligible for punishment requires being warned by witnesses and verbally accepting their warning (so as to be sure it was heard), and the warning must include appropriate chapter and verse. Jan 5, 2016 at 10:48

R. Yechiel Michel Epstein writes that the "rational mitzvot" (mitzvot sichliot) were commanded because we are supposed to do them precisely because they were commanded by God and not because they are inherently obvious.

Aruch Hashulchan Y.D. 240:2

כיבוד אב ואם היא מהמצות השכליות ונתפשטה בכל אום ולשון וגם הכופרים בתורה נזהרים בה מפני השכל והטבע ואנחנו עם בני ישראל נצטוינו על כל מצוה שכליות לבלי לעשותה מפני השכל אלא מפני ציוי הקב"ה בתורתו הקדושה ועל זה נאמר והיה עקב תשמעון את המשפטים האלה וגו' דמקודם כתיב ושמרת את החוקים ואת המשפטים וגו' ולזה אומר והיה עקב תשמעון את המשפטים האלה כלומר דהחוקים וודאי תעשו מפני שאתם שומעים לקולי אבל עיקר השכר הוא שגם המשפטים שהם המצות השכליות תעשו מפני השמיעה כלומר מפני שאני מצוה אתכם ולא מפני השכל וזהו שאמר דוד מגיד דבריו ליעקב חוקיו ומשפטיו לישראל וזהו עיקר גדול במצות התורה

He writes this idea elsewhere as well, and there he says that it is a fundamental principle of the religion that we observe mitzvot not because they are rational but because God commanded us.

Aruch Hashulchan O.C. 1:13

ומיסודי הדת להאמין בשכר עוה"ב ובעונש הגיהנם ובביאת משיח ובתחיית המתים וכן מיסודי הדת לעשות כל המצות לא מפני שהשכל מחייב כן כגון במצות שבין אדם לחבירו אלא מפני שהקב"ה צוה אותנו לעשות כן ולכן נאמר בדברות האחרונות בשבת ובכיבוד אב כאשר צוך ה' אלהיך משום דזה מוסכם בכל אום ולשון שהאדם צריך לנוח יום אחד בשבוע כדי לחזק כחותיו וכן ההסכמה בכל אום ולשון לכבד הוריו ולזה אמרה תורה שמור את יום השבת לקדשו כאשר צוך ה' אלהיך כבד את אביך ואת אמך כאשר צוך ה' אלהיך כלומר ולא מפני שהשכל מחייב כן ובדברות הראשונות קודם חטא העגל לא הוצרכו לאזהרה זו לפי שהיו כולם במדרגת מלאכים כדכתיב אני אמרתי אלהים אתם ובני עליון כולכם


R. Yosef Bekhor Shor addresses each of your examples in his commentary to Exodus Chapter 20:

כבד את אביך. ואת אמך אף על פי שאמרתי לך שלא תכבד ותעבוד כי אם אותי אביך ואמך כבד

Even though I told you not to honor and serve anyone but Me, honor your father and mother.

Apparently, the concern here is that the previous four commandments focused so much on God being the only object of worship/honor that you might have thought that even honoring parents would be an infringement.

לא תרצח. שלא תאמר מאחר שאמר הקב"ה שלא אכבד כי אם אותו ושבת ואבי ואמי כל אדם שיעשה לי שלא כרצוני אכנו נפש

So that you shouldn't say that since God said that I should not honor anyone except Him, Shabbat and my father and mother, anyone that does something to me that I don't like I will strike his soul.

Apparently, the concern here is that the previous few commandments which emphasize that honor is for God, Shabbat, and parents, might make you think that regular people don't deserve any respect and you can therefore kill them on a whim.

לא תגנוב. שלא תאמר על רציחתו ועל ניאוף אשתו אני נזהר שמא אוליד ממזר ונמצאתי לתת כל יגיעי ועמלי לממזר אחד שאינו בני אבל לגנוב אותו או ממונו כדי להשתכר מותר

So that you should not say "I am warned against murdering him and adulterizing his wife lest I bear a bastard and it will turn out that I have placed all my toil and effort into one bastard that is my son. But to steal him or his money in order to profit would be permitted.

Again, it seems that the concern is that the existence of the previous commandments might make you think that something not as bad would be permitted.

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