‘You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor’ – Hebrew Meaning

In continuation of our weekly Torah portion posts which deal with the basic moral codes of a healthy and morally strong society, today we will discuss the different meanings of one of the most well-known biblical moral codes of conduct:

” You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:16)

Naturally, most people understand this moral code in the sense of not to just stand aside when you see someone who is in a need of help. And indeed, this is the common interpretation of this verse.

However, when reading this verse in the original Hebrew, it seems like there is more than just one way to understand what the Bible meant by that verse.

The biblical Hebrew phrase for ‘stand by’ is ‘La-Amod Al’ {לעמוד על} which literally means ‘to stand on or above’ and can be found in the Hebrew bible in two other scenarios. One of them is in the sense of conspiring against someone in a deadly manner as can be found in Daniel’s vision of a Ram and a Goat:

“He will destroy many and TAKE HIS STAND AGAINST the Prince of Princes. Yet he will be destroyed, but not by human power.” (Daniel 8:25)

Daniel in the Lion’s Den, c. 1615 by Rubens

And in 1 Chronicles, in the story of King David’s census that brought pestilence:

“Then Satan STOOD AGAINST Israel and incited David to number Israel.” (1 Chronicles 21:1)

The second scenario using the other meaning of the Hebrew verb ‘La-Amod’ {לעמוד} (‘to stand’) together with the preposition ‘Al’ {על} (literally ‘on’, ‘above’) which is ‘to exist by’ or ‘to survive by’ as can be found in the biblical phrase ‘ rely on the sword’ which appears in the original Hebrew as ‘Amadetem Al Charbechem’ {עמדתם על חרבכם} (Ezekiel 33:26).

The two biblical scenarios that were just reviewed here are different than the ‘mainstream’ meaning of ‘ You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor,’ mostly because they describe active actions rather than passive ones.

In other words, while the traditional meaning of this verse suggests that one should not stand aside when sees a person in need (passive) the other two biblical meanings emphasize the morally wrong actions which put the other person’s life in jeopardy (active).