Our Neighbor’s Blood

Kedoshim By :  Melissa Crespy JTS Alum (Rabbinical School) Posted On May 1, 2004 / 5764

What’s in a translation? When the translation is of a verse in the Torah – there is potentially quite a lot. Therefore, in reading the Etz Hayim Humash’s translation of Leviticus 19:16, I was struck by its rather non-literal translation of Lo ta-a-mod al dam ray-ekha. In the context of surrounding verses concerning fair and just treatment of others, Etz Hayim translates our verse: “Do not profit by the blood of your fellow”, and the commentary on the verse tells us that, in context, the verse seems to mean: “Do not pursue [your] livelihood in a way that endangers another or at the expense of another’s well-being.” (p. 696) This translation and commentary do seem to fit the context of the surrounding verses.

But a more literal translation of our verse is: “Do not stand idly by [or “on/over”] the blood of your neighbor” and most of the traditional commentaries do not apply this to a work situation. One 18th century Sephardic commentary, the Me’am Lo’ez, written by Rabbi Yitzchak Magriso, incorporates earlier Talmudic and medieval commentaries, and then adds his contemporary perspective. Rabbi Magriso writes:

Included in the commandment, ‘Do not stand over the blood of your neighbor’ is an injunction that if one sees his neighbor in danger and has the ability to do something, he must do everything in his power to help him.
For example, if one sees someone drowning or attacked by murderers or wild beasts, if he can help him or bring others to do so, he is obliged to do it.
If he hears that others are planning to kill his neighbor or harm him, he has an obligation to inform him. If he knows that a gentile wishes to harm his friend and he can reconcile them, he has an obligation do so.
It goes without saying that if one is aware that people wish to forcibly convert his neighbor to another religion, he has an obligation to save him. Forced conversion is the same as destroying a soul. Likewise, if a person has been drawn away from Judaism, and one has the power to bring him back, he certainly has an obligation to do so.
In all these cases . . . God is saying “Do not stand still and say, ‘All is well with me’ when you see your friend in danger. You must make every effort with all your power to save him.

Rabbi Magriso’s commentary, originally written in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) was first published in Constantinople in 1753. Clearly, he was still feeling the aftershocks and perhaps the last tentacles of the Inquisition which had tormented his people in Spain and Portugal (and even in the New World) for hundreds of years. In his mind, the ” blood” of verse 16 was potentially very real, and thus the imperative to teach his followers to take risks to save their fellow Jews was very concrete.

We in the U.S., fortunately, live in a country where we have great freedoms and much less to fear than Rabbi Magriso did. But we still cannot forget the Torah’s injunction not to “stand idly by the blood of” our neighbors. With sizable increases in anti-Semitism in Europe, with passions running high over Mel Gibson’s bloody film, and with terrorist attacks still plaguing Israel (not to mention Spain, Morocco and Iraq), we cannot remain complacent. The Torah tells us we cannot remain idle when our neighbor’s blood is being spilled – and Rabbi Magriso reminds us that we must do everything in our power to help. We need to be vigilant, and we need to do everything in our ability to help prevent our “neighbor’s” blood from being spilled – and when it is, we must be there to comfort and support each other.

The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.