I am puzzled by the Mishnah's original text of the famous Jewish idea that "whoever saves one life [...] saves an entire world" (Sanhedrin 4:5). The English from sefaria.org reads thus:

"It was for this reason that man was first created as one person [Adam], to teach you that anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world." And also, to promote peace among the creations, that no man would say to his friend, "My ancestors are greater than yours." And also, so that heretics will not say, "there are many rulers up in Heaven." And also, to express the grandeur of The Holy One [blessed be He]: For a man strikes many coins from the same die, and all the coins are alike. But the King, the King of Kings, The Holy One [blessed be He] strikes every man from the die of the First Man, and yet no man is quite like his friend. Therefore, every person must say, “For my sake ‎the world was created.”‎

...But the Hebrew reads thus:

לפיכך נברא אדם יחידי ללמדך. שכל המאבד נפש אחת מישראל. מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו איבד עולם מלא. וכל המקיים נפש אחת מישראל מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קיים עולם מלא. ומפני שלום הבריות. שלא יאמר אדם לחבירו אבא גדול מאביך. ושלא יהו מינין אומרים הרבה רשויות בשמים. ולהגיד גדולתו של הקדוש ברוך הוא. שאדם טובע כמה מטבעות בחותם אחד וכולן דומין זה לזה. ומלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא טבע כל אדם בחותמו של אדם הראשון ואין אחד מהן דומה לחבירו. לפיכך כל אחד ואחד חייב לומר בשבילי נברא העולם.

Please excuse me if there is some flaw in my understanding of the Hebrew, but it seems to me that the English omits a stipulation within the famous sentences that the life saved be Jewish ("מישראל"). Moreover, whenever I have seen this idea quoted or referenced in a non-textual source--including in shiurim given by rabbis--the "Jewish" stipulation is omitted in translation. (I even specifically asked a fifth-year yeshiva student whether this discussion referred to Jewish life or to all humanity, and he said all humanity.)

I looked a bit further and found that some Hebrew-edition Mishnaios(?) put the word "מישראל" in brackets, but all seem to contain it. So:

1) Why do the English translations leave this word out? Is it just for darchei sholom/political correctness? That seems strange (unto dishonest...)

2) Why is the word bracketed in some texts? Is there any doubt about its accuracy?

3) Why would the original text stipulate "מישראל" in the first place, considering the context? (Adam is, after all, an ancestor of "every man," as clearly acknowledged by the mishnah. How would the argument make any sense if it were limited to Jews?) [I am no longer sure about this, since having learned that a mention of "adam" in Torah usually indicates Jewry. But then someone told me that this only applies to Tanakh, or maybe Chumash.]

My best guess is that all three of these are cleared up in the commentary, but unfortunately it's way beyond me to read that...Could someone please help?

  • 5
    for what it's worth, / as a historical rather than theological point, the quran says that the children of israel were given the teaching that if you save a life it's as if you saved the entire world
    – barlop
    Commented Jul 31, 2016 at 22:07
  • 2
    @kouty for our purposes it tells us that Jews around mohammed's time (at least according to mohammed's understanding), didn't have it down as only saving a jewish life, but just a life / saves a person. the verse 5:32 is discussed very clearly at this link answeringmuslims.com/2010/05/…
    – barlop
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 13:37
  • 3
    @barlop The Quran often makes mistakes about what Jews believed or what it says in Jewish scriptures, such as its mistaken portrayal of the story of the m'raglim in that very surah.
    – Fred
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 21:06
  • 1
    @Fred sure, take it FWIW. I'm aware that mohammed would mix up time periods and midrashim. I don't think those kind of mix ups are that relevant to the question of whether it's save any life or save a jew. Of course the Jew(s) that told him about the teaching may have stated it wrongly, and he did add words like "mischief in the land" and corrupted it. Of course i'm not looking at it as some kind of prooftext!
    – barlop
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 21:19
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    Forgive me if this is repetitive or in any way impolitic: I'm new here. I wondered if this learned piece would be of use to you? mosaicmagazine.com/observation/2016/10/… Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 4:25

6 Answers 6


In the manuscript Parma 3173 there is no "מישראל";

In the manuscript Budapest Kaufman A50 no more.

The Mishna of Mechon Mamre, Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5 based on Rambam manuscript idem;

לפיכך נברא אדם יחידי בעולם, ללמד שכל המאבד נפש אחת, מעלים עליו כאילו איבד עולם מלא; וכל המקיים נפש אחת, מעלים עליו כאילו קיים עולם מלא. ‏

In Shinuye Nussachaot Shas Mishnayot Vilna, the divergence between versions is signaled.

So the translation in English is not so strange, and may be based on one of the above-cited manuscripts.

  • 3
    can you include the dates of these manuscripts?
    – barlop
    Commented Jul 31, 2016 at 22:06
  • I guess rambam's mishneh torah hilchot sanhedrin 12:7 too, mechon-mamre.org/i/e112.htm though would be getting it from the mishna
    – barlop
    Commented Dec 18, 2016 at 6:47
  • This answer doesn't address the actual 3 points outlined in the question at all. It only points out that there were textual variants (differing nusachot) of the Mishnah as late as the early Acharonim. How can some variants be general and refer to Adam HaRishon while others specify Jews, meaning souls from Israel? Is one version wrong or are they all saying the same thing with different emphasis? Commented Mar 22, 2018 at 22:20
  • 1
    This topic and question is explored in the following article which I found interesting: mosaicmagazine.com/observation/history-ideas/2016/10/…
    – monex0
    Commented Aug 22, 2019 at 16:49

The Bavli [Sanhedrin 37a] does say "a Jewish life": enter image description here But the Yerushalmi [Sanhedrin 4:1 (22a)] does not: enter image description here

When the two Talmuds disagree, the Bavli wins. But here they do NOT disagree. One is simply more general than the other.

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    I don't see why somebody would downvote this answer. To me it almost explains why the m'Yisrael is in brackets in some translations, and certainly points out that there were either 2 different rules, or a dispute about how the principle applies. Commented Mar 13, 2022 at 6:04

Given the context of the Mishnah - the process by which someone is put to death by the Sanhedrin - I had always assumed it referred to a Jew because only Jews can be killed by the Sanhedrin, as non-Jews are not bound by Torah law, but that the statement is true of non-Jews as well. I hadn't looked too far into the sugya until I saw this question (thanks for that), and I noticed the Tosfos Yom Tov on the later quote of the Mishnah, bishvili nivra ha'olam - everyone must keep in mind that it was for his sake the world was created. Why? Says the Tosfos Yom Tov that if it was created for his sake, he won't remove himself from the world because of one petty little sin - again referencing the fact that non-Jews aren't bound by Torah law.

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    Non jews are bound by certain Torah laws and indeed they can get killed for violating them.
    – Double AA
    Commented Jul 31, 2016 at 13:49
  • I don't have a source, but isn't there a Gemara somewhere that says that at some point non-Jews were no longer bound by the Sheva Mitzvos Bnei Noach, which is why Geirei Toshav are held in such high regard?
    – DonielF
    Commented Jul 31, 2016 at 14:11
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    @DoubleAA But if there is a capital case for a non-Jew violating one of the sheva mitzvos, the case doesn't have to tried by a Jewish court. This seems like an interesting answer to explain divergent versions of the Hebrew text; the context of the Mishna is more pointedly referring to Jews (so some versions add that word), while the principle applies broadly to everyone (so some versions omit that word). It would be nice if a source was added to this answer, but +1 in the meanwhile.
    – Fred
    Commented Jul 31, 2016 at 17:54
  • Another +1 for this answer from me...great interpretation, thanks
    – SAH
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 3:29
  • 1
    @SAH Probably does, and that's covered by Sanhedrin 56b. (I think. Somewhere around there.) The Gemara concludes that non-Jews require one witness, not two; one judge, not three or twenty-three; and they don't even require warning. Why those criteria are true would definitely merit another question.
    – DonielF
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 14:25

This article in Mosaic The Origins of the Precept "Whoever Saves a Life Saves the World" at https://mosaicmagazine.com/observation/history-ideas/2016/10/the-origins-of-the-precept-whoever-saves-a-life-saves-the-world/addresses the issue in detail and includes the following two paragraphs by way of summary:

In an article published in 1971 in the Hebrew journal Tarbitz, available at https://www.academia.edu/42800765/Ephraim_E_Urbach_Kol_Ha_Meqayyem_Nefesh_Ah_at_Development_of_the_Version_Vicissitudes_of_Censorship_and_Business_Manipulations_of_Printers_Tarbiz_vol_40_no_3_April_1971_268_284_Hebrew_ the Israeli scholar of rabbinic thought Ephraim Urbach addressed this question by carefully comparing a large number of ancient and medieval rabbinic texts and manuscripts and their early print editions. His conclusions were clear-cut: the original version of the “Whoever saves a life” precept was the one without the limiting phrase of “in Israel,” which was a later interpolation [emphasis added].

At first, Urbach argued, the words “in Israel” were probably inserted because the situation discussed in Sanhedrin applied only to Jews; in Mishnaic times, Jewish courts in Palestine had no jurisdiction over Gentiles. In the course of time, the addition came to be regarded by many copyists and commentators as an intrinsic part of the precept, to which a more particularistic interpretation was then given.


Your question is a good one and is timely as we approach the festival of Passover. It is answered easily understanding what it means to be Yisrael.

In parshat Bereshit, and discussed in Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah among others) it introduces a concept that the creation of Adam, meaning Adam HaRishon, is a parallel model to the creation of the entire universe (HaAdam hu domeh l'Elyon) like is found in Ramban to Bereshit 1:26:1 and also Pri Haaretz to parshat Tazria 4. This follows the statement found in this discourse on parshat Bereshit from Aish HaTorah.

This conceptual understanding has a basis in the world of Midrash. The Torah describes the birth of Seth by saying that he was in the image of his father Adam who in turn was in the image of God:

In modern language, it is a fractal relationship. G-d makes a system or structure and that structure repeats throughout all aspects of existence. In the same way, the structure of the Mishkan and Mikdash follow that same fractal like is found in Torat HaOlah from Rabbi Moshe Isserles.

It is from this relationship that the equating of destroying or saving a single (Jewish) life is equated with destroying or saving the entire universe/world.

The concept that Yisrael (however you choose to understand that title) preceded the creation of the universe (by 2000 years according to Chazal) is because both Yisrael and Torah are called Reishit like is discussed in Bereishith Rabbah 1:4; Tana d’Vei Eliyahu Rabba 14; Zohar 2:119b; R. Dov Ber of Mezheritch, Ohr Torah 2c-d. This idea and sources for it can also be seen in this discourse from Chevrat Pinto.

The plan was that Adam HaRishon and his descendants would acquire the name/title Yisrael. Another good source in English with sources outlined to discuss this subject can be found at Aish HaTorah on Bereshit.

The sign for that inheritance was that Adam HaRishon was placed on the dry land that appeared from the midst of the waters at the beginning of his creation.

Because of the various transgressions that followed across many generations, that inheritance of Adam HaRishon, the title of Yisrael, was going to be limited to only a certain line of his descendants. Those who were the Tzaddikim. And that line is highlighted throughout Sefer Bereshit through Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaacov. But Avraham had a tradition that Moshe Rabbeinu followed, which said that when this title was actually assigned, all descendants of Adam HaRishon would have the opportunity to claim it again. All of this is discussed in great detail by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato in Derech HaShem 2:4:1-6. And this follows like what is found at Jewish Virtual Library which says:

The message of the Torah is for all mankind. Before giving the Torah to Israel, God offered it to the other nations, but they refused it; and when He did give the Torah to Israel, He revealed it in the extraterritorial desert and simultaneously in all the 70 languages, so that men of all nations would have a right to it. Alongside this universalism, the rabbis taught the inseparability of Israel and the Torah. One rabbi held that the concept of Israel existed in God's mind even before He created the Torah. Yet, were it not for its accepting the Torah, Israel would not be "chosen," nor would it be different from all the idolatrous nations.

At the giving of the Torah, specifically at the splitting of the Yam Suf, G-d demonstrated who would be the inheritors of that blessing to Adam HaRishon. It was only the congregation of Yisrael who walked through the waters on dry land, the same sign which distinguished Adam HaRishon at his creation. That included the blood kin of Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaacov and the entire Erev Rav who came out with them.

The Erev Rav are the individuals from the nations that the Torah refers to as Moshe's people because Moshe insisted that they be allowed to come along to accept the Torah, fulfilling the tradition of Avraham. The Zohar emphasizes that Moshe's decision was in direct violation of G-d's instruction to him to leave the Erev Rav in Egypt. The Mitzrim were turned away and not permitted to follow them through the sea. And as is recorded in Talmud, all the other nations rejected the Torah.

And it is for this reason that the saying of our Sages adds the word Yisrael to the phrase.

Wishing you a Chag kosher v'sameach!



Some people say Sefaria should never be used at all because it is has non Orthodox translations.

Even according to those who say there are some situations where one can use it, one should not use or trust their translations.

Torah musings:

Sefaria is not, and has never claimed to be, Orthodox. Its founders are passionate and talented Jews who do not affiliate as Orthodox. Sefaria holds a Jewish Women Scholars’ Writing Fellowship which includes Orthodox, Open Orthodox and Conservative women, many of whom are rabbis (possibly Reform also but I am not sure).


Sefaria always contained non-Orthodox texts but kept them in a separate section. This allowed Orthodox users who are uncomfortable with non-Orthodox texts to easily avoid them. Over the years, this has changed and non-Orthodox texts are included in various categories. For example, under the Mishnah category, you find all the tractates plus many commentaries, including one by the Rosh Yeshiva of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Under the list of Talmud commentaries, you find “Rereading the Rabbis; A Woman’s Voice” listed just before “Reshimot Shiurim” of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

In 2022, Sefaria added the 2006 JPS “gender-sensitive” translation as its default English translation of Chumash and more recently as its Navi translation, as well. This highlighted a change. While Sefaria used to have non-Orthodox texts available to users who want to find them, it then moved those texts to be immediately at hand. Now the non-Orthodox texts are the default. Put differently, non-Orthodox texts used to have to be pulled by the users; now they are pushed to all users, unless you sign in and change your settings


Additionally, many other terms are translated in a gender neutral way. This leads to incredibly awkward renditions and some really bad translations. For example, JPS 2006 begins the Sotah passage with, “Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: Any party whose wife has gone astray and broken faith with him” (Num. 5:12). Note how the phrase “ish ish,” which means “any man,” is translated as “any party.” Regarding a father selling his daughter into slavery, an obviously uncomfortable passage to people today but that is a separate discussion, the JPS 2006 translates it: “When a parent sells a daughter as a slave” (Ex. 21:7). This is an inaccurate, cringe-worthy translation that should never have been published.


In 1953, JPS began work on a new translation of the Bible and invited respected Jewish academic scholars as well as rabbis from the three major Jewish movements to join. The RCA presented before Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik the question of whether or not they should allow a representative of their organization to participate. He replied in opposition to the Orthodox joining the effort because he expected the product would be contrary to Jewish tradition (Community, Covenant and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications, pp. 110-11). Rav Soloveitchik was correct about the resulting 1962 JPS translation and even more-so about its 2006 translation.


Rav Moshe (Maharam) Schick (19th cen., Hungary; Responsa, Orach Chaim, no. 66) responds to a question about how Jews should treat Christian missionary Bibles. In a postscript to that responsum, he discusses Bibles with non-Orthodox commentary. Maharam Schick offers two approaches:

  1. He believes that the Hebrew text is fine but the commentary should not be used.
  2. He quotes Rav Chaim Halberstam (Divrei Chaim, Yoreh De’ah, no. 60) who believes you should burn the entire text. A third approach is taken by Rav Yosef Zechariah Stern (19th cen., Lithuania). He argues that a mature scholar can read non-Orthodox texts and take the good while setting aside the religiously problematic material (Responsa Zeikher Yehosef, Yoreh De’ah, no. 173; see also Sedei Chemed, Pe’as Ha-Sadeh, vol. 1, Letter alef, no. 64). (I expand on the different views on this subject at greater length in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society.)

According to Rav Stern, a mature Orthodox scholar can use Sefaria and evaluate the non-Orthodox texts on their merit. According to Maharam Schick, you can use Sefaria but you should actively turn off the non-Orthodox texts. That is not always easy. It took me time to learn how to change the default translations. According to Rav Halberstam, you may not use Sefaria because it contains non-Orthodox texts.

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    – Isaac Moses
    Commented Jun 5 at 17:51
  • @IsaacMoses How does this answer the question?
    – Double AA
    Commented Jun 5 at 18:08
  • @DoubleAA The question is why a translation appearing on Sefaria doesn't appear to be faithful to the Hebrew. The answer is "Sefaria is evil." I don't like the answer or think it's fair or correct but I think it's facially responsive to the question, so I haven't jumped to mod-delete it.
    – Isaac Moses
    Commented Jun 5 at 18:12
  • @IsaacMoses There's one delete vote already. Please use mine to make three.
    – Double AA
    Commented Jun 5 at 18:13

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