Oz Torah: Killing idolaters – Ask the Rabbi.


Q. Is it true that the Talmud says something about killing idolaters?

A. In a number of versions there is a statement that reads in Hebrew “tov sheba’akum harog”, usually translated “Kill the best of the idolaters”.

Instead of “idolaters” other versions say “mitzrim” (Egyptians), “k’na’anim” (Canaanites), and “goyim” (gentiles).

Why there are so many versions is because rabbinic references to gentiles were repeatedly subjected to censorship and the original reading is not always easy to ascertain.

It may be that the nearest we can come is “mitzrim”, in view of the context in which the saying comes in Rashi’s comment on Exodus 14:7, quoting the Mechilta, an ancient Midrash.

Though the statement as usually translated seems ethically offensive, it is severely limited by the sages to killing in wartime.

But it may be that the common translation is wrong and that there is no command about killing idolaters or anyone else. The Hebrew word “harog” may not be an imperative after all (“kill!”) but a verbal noun meaning “a killer”, in which case the saying is a bitter reflection on Jewish experience with outsiders – “The best of the idolaters is a killer”.


Q. Which is better – a gregarious rabbi or one who is a loner?

A. What do you mean by “better”? A rabbi who loves people and mixes easily creates a good feeling. But in some ways it makes rabbinic leadership rather difficult.

To be “one of the boys” can put the rabbi in a bind when he really should stand aloof and be more judgmental but he knows this might affect his good relationship with people. That’s one reason why popularity can be a drawback.

But looked at more deeply, aloneness is part of any form of leadership. Abraham is “ha-ivri”, the Hebrew, because by a play on words one can say that he had the courage to be on one side (“eiver”) of civilisation, the side that rejected idolatry and unrighteousness. His descendants, the people of Israel, are praised by the heathen prophet Bilam as “the people that dwells alone”.

When you are a thinker you cannot always go where the crowd goes. Lord Jakobovits said that when Rav Soloveitchik wrote his classic, “The Lonely Man of Faith”, he was really writing about himself.

How Goodly are Your Tents, O Israel…” – Chabad.org

On the other hand, the communal rabbi cannot cut himself off from the people. He must know and love them, care for them and feel their joy and their pain. The same Bilam who recognised Israelite individuality also recognised their communality as seen in the tents and dwelling places of Israel, the synagogues and schools that drew them together and made them a people.


Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, is an anthology on the art of wise living. One of its notable sayings is a proverb of three Aramaic words – “l’fum tza’ara agra”, “According to the effort is the reward” or “According to the pain is the gain” (5:26).

The author was Ben Heh-Heh, a convert and disciple of Hillel. His difficult decision to leave Roman society in order to become a Jew reflected his belief that anything important requires effort but is proved worthwhile in the end.

His advice is especially pertinent in the lead-up to Rosh HaShanah, when God assesses His creation and we assess our own achievements and failures.

So often in the past year – and in every year – we have tried the easy way. We have looked for a maximum of reward for a minimum of effort. Finally of course we have sadly recognised that nothing really worthwhile was ever attained without perseverance and hard work.

Longfellow said,
The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.

The artist Whistler, when asked why he charged such high fees, said that he charged not for the few hours’ work of painting but for the lifetime of experience which trained him to become a skilled artist.

The Kotzker Rebbe made a similar point about the art of prayer. “Why do the prayers one utters seem so ineffective?” he was asked.

His answer was that just as a workman can take all day to prepare for the job he does (for example, a woodcutter spends hours sharpening his saw and only a short time actually cutting the wood), so prayer, too, is a craft for which one has to prepare painstakingly and carefully.

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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