Q. The spiritual leader of the Shas political party in Israel, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, recently gave a sermon which appeared to advocate attacks on Arabs.* Is there any halachic justification for this?
A. There are various reports as to what he actually said. But though Rabbi Yosef obviously knows the rabbinic maxim, chachamim hizaharu b’divreichem – “Sages, be careful of your words” (Avot 1:11), he sometimes lets rhetoric become a diatribe. Holocaust survivors, for example, will not easily forgive or forget what they regard as his slurs on the memory of the martyrs. It is remarks about Arabs that have caused the latest furore. Whether he meant all Arabs or only those who have launched violent attacks on Jews needs to be clarified, but whatever it is, his words are not likely to be helpful.
In relation to the question of whether there is any halachic justification for his sermon, it is relevant to look at a well-known Midrashic statement that is usually translated, “Kill the best of the Egyptians” (M’chilta B’shallach). An alternative version refers to the Canaanites; the tractate Sof’rim (15:9) says in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, “Kill the best of the heathens in time of war”.
The qualifying phrase was probably “a later addition to soften the harshness of the utterance (which) was called forth in a time of bitter oppression and is not to be taken as typical of Jewish ethics” (IW Slotki). When the Torah says, “Thou shalt not kill”, it means what it says. Judaism is not a warlike faith and it cannot automatically be quoted to justify aggressive attacks aiming to kill Egyptians, Canaanites, heathens or anyone else.
However, it is not clear that the translation, “Kill the best of the Egyptians”, is correct. The Hebrew reads, Tov shebamitzrim harog. If it really were a command, it would be peculiar to have a sentence structure that literally says, “The best of the Egyptians, kill!” It is more likely that harog does not mean “kill!” but “a killer”. Hence the text is commenting despairingly about the character of ancient races at those hands the Jewish people suffered so bitterly. In modern terms it would be tantamount to saying, for example, “All Germans were Nazis”, “All Poles were antisemites”, etc., which may or may not be empirically true.
* This article first appeared in 2001.