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    Interesting article about self defense and Jewish Law


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    Interesting article about self defense and Jewish Law

    Post  Arik on Thu Apr 08, 2010 12:38 pm

    Rabbi R. Mermelstein
    Weapons and Self Defense in Jewish Law
    copyright by
    Rabbi R. Mermelstein
    13 March 2005

    Last month I excused myself from writing a concise pamphlet addressing Jewish law and the obligation to defend life. My reasoning, in full, can be read at

    Within a couple of days, a very persuasive reader of our Ask the Rabbi column wrote that, my reasoning notwithstanding, there was a need for information of this nature. Little new appears here. I've spelled out nearly every point that follows throughout many posts found on this website, but never before did I compile them in one place.

    Jewish law, our ancient legal system derived from the Torah (the biblical books of Genesis through Deuteronomy), codified by the Mishneh, and further clarified and refined in the Talmud and the works of its latter day commentators, is quite adamant regarding the preservation of innocent life even at the expense of killing another individual whose intentions are murderous.

    The biblical source for the obligation to defend oneself against an unprovoked attack is Exodus 22:1. Other English bible versions, the King James Version for example, number this verse as 22:2. There the bible states, "If a thief is found breaking in, and is killed, no liability (guilt) is incurred."

    The bible does not instruct how the intruder is to be killed, only that the homeowner may kill him. The logic is that the thief, knowing that the home is occupied and nobody will stand around like a dolt as his possessions are being carted away right before his eyes, is prepared to murder the homeowner if necessary to burglarize the home.

    The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 72A states, "Since the burglar is going to kill you, rise up (overcome your meekness and reluctance to be violent) and kill him first."

    Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, often referred to as the RAMBAM-1135-1204 CE), in Hilchos G'neiva (Laws Pertaining to Theft), Chapter 9, explains further.

    Sub-chapter 7: "A burglar, whether by day or night, has neither blood nor soul with regard to anyone killing him. It does not fall solely to the homeowner to kill him. Anyone may do so. The burglar may be killed on an ordinary weekday or on the Sabbath (during which time even the killing of an insect is prohibited). Any means available may be used to kill the burglar, since by his exercise of free choice his life has lost all value."

    Sub-chapter 8: "It is irrelevant if the burglar actually breaks through a door and actually enters the home or is found in the homeowner's garden, courtyard or fenced area (where property is stored). It is equally irrelevant if the break-in occurs during the day or night. Why, then, does the Torah use the language "break in"? In most cases burglaries are break-ins under cover of darkness."

    Sub-chapter 9: "What is the reason that the Torah permits the burglar to be slain, since his intent is only the theft of property and not murder per se (nowhere else in the Torah do we find the crime of property theft to be punishable by death)? There is a valid assumption that the homeowner will attempt to prevent the theft, leaving the burglar no option but to kill him. This places the burglar in the category of 'a pursuer with the intent to murder' and must therefore be killed, whether the burglar is an adult, youth, male, or female."

    Thus the Torah affirms the sanctity of one's home, personal property, and life against the aggression of an intruder.

    The Torah also obligates us to act, not stand idly by, if another person's life is endangered. Leviticus 19:16 states "Do not circulate gossip or stand by idly when your brother's life is endangered."

    The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 73A says it explicitly: "Where is it taught that it is obligatory to save someone who is being pursued by another with the intent to murder? The Torah teaches "Do not stand by idly when your brother's life is endangered."

    This injunction applies to saving a woman (or man) from being raped, as the Torah equates murder and rape. Deuteronomy 22:26 states (regarding a betrothed woman who is violated in a field, outside of town, where no one can hear her cries for help and come to her aid) "The woman is blameless (and cannot possibly be suspected of an adulterous relationship), because just as a man rises up against another man to murder him so is the case of a helpless woman." Obviously, the same law applies to a single woman. The thread in that Torah passage is speaking of betrothed women. Nothing can be taken out of context.

    Maimonides, in Laws Pertaining to Murderers and the Preservation of Life, Chapter 1, sub-chapter 10, explains Deuteronomy 22:26 further:

    "But if someone is nearby to save the woman from being violated, that person must stop the rapist even if it involves killing him if no lesser force will suffice."

    In no instance does the Torah condone 'vigilante law'. Once a murder has been committed, and there are witnesses to the act, they may not take it upon themselves to kill the murderer. There must be a trial, as is required by Common Law jurisprudence. However, if someone is pursuing another with violent intent and is ordered to desist by witnesses yet the pursuer ignores the warning, anyone must stop him by any means possible, including lethal force. If lesser force is sufficient, though it involves grievous and permanent injury to the pursuer, taking his life is not justified. (Maimonides, Laws Pertaining to Murderers and the Preservation of Life, Chapter 1, sub-chapter 7.) Common Law generally applies this principle when determining whether lethal force was justified in acts of self defense or the prevention of violence to a third party, either for law enforcement officers or private persons.

    Anti-gun municipalities and ranking law enforcement officials stress preventive measures and non-lethal alternatives for citizens to ensure their personal safety: Walking in groups at night, loud whistles, martial arts training, pepper sprays, home security systems, barking dogs, taser guns that electrically stun an attacker at a short distance (not approved for private citizens in all states), etc. From the perspective of Jewish law, all these things are useful to a point but ultimately fail when the attacker is not deterred or repelled through their application.

    The taking of a human life, while repugnant to all civilized people, is often not only justified but obligatory within the framework of biblical law. The firearm is the most efficient of modern tools to preserve life. A firearm is a deterrent to violent crime, light years ahead of high pitched whistles or sirens screwed on to canisters of compressed air (when was the last time you ran outside to investigate a loud alarm blaring somewhere in your neighborhood?), barking dogs that miraculously shut up and wag their tails when thrown a piece of meat (cooked or raw, no less!), trick martial arts maneuvers learned from VHS tapes or DVDs as demonstrated by experts with years of training that you will never acquire, or pepper sprays that make a rapist's eyes shed copious rivulets of water and enrage him, but do not stop him from raping.

    In spite of common sense and logic, many people are obstinately and inflexibly opposed to private citizens owning firearms and learning a basic level of proficiency in their safe and effective use. These same people are quick to praise the rapid response time of local law enforcement agencies that are under no legal burden to protect anyone. As far as the 9-1-1 emergency hotline is concerned, it can be assumed with complete safety that nobody in its history ever told the operator to dispatch only unarmed cops. It might come as a mild shock to people who would never lay a hand on a firearm, as if it were some sort of ticking time bomb liable to discharge and kill on its own without forewarning yet at the same time are quite comforted by the sight of a handgun in the holster of a police officer, if they were to learn that the average patrol officer has less proficiency with his or her firearm than the semi-enthusiastic citizen gun owner who makes it a point to get professional training over the course of several weekends and then practices at the local shooting range once every two months.

    Here are a few of the most common flawed arguments against firearms ownership used by schooled Jews and rebuttals to each one.

    1. A firearm is a dangerous device. Since the Torah prohibits owning a vicious dog that may attack others (unless it is restrained with a chain), or even possessing a defective ladder that may break and injure the user (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Kama 15B), owning a firearm is likewise prohibited. ("You shall not bring blood upon your home."-Deuteronomy 22:8.)

    A vicious dog acts according to its nature and a rickety ladder by its condition is a mindless object that is an accident waiting to happen. A firearm is an inanimate object just like a ladder in perfect condition (read the label on the top step: "NOT A STEP-DO NOT STAND"). It certainly cannot act according to its "vicious inclination", since it has no inclination. No firearm can discharge without being acted upon. This requires a human action. We are permitted to use toxic household chemicals, power tools, kitchen knives, scissors, etc, all of which are capable of taking a life if they fall into the hands of children, or mentally defective or chemically intoxicated adults. Common sense dictates that firearms either be stored in a locked container or under the immediate and constant supervision of a responsible person knowledgeable in their use. Families with small children even attach safety covers on electrical outlets to prevent curious hands from inserting metal objects in them with resultant electrocution. Infants learning to walk have been known to overturn pots on the stove, causing severe and often fatal burns. And of course, there is a bathtub and sometimes a swimming pool. The home, even devoid of a firearm, is a dangerous place. Parents and older family members with common sense take every precaution to thwart disaster. Bringing a firearm into the home merely adds to existing and essential items that must be kept out of the wrong hands. In and of itself, a loaded firearm is completely harmless. It can even save lives.

    2. Weapons are associated with Esau, the eldest son of the patriarch Isaac, who was a hunter ("a man of the field" - Genesis 25:27) and a murderer. Jews should not emulate this sort of person.

    Equating murder with the taking of a life to defend a life is comparing apples and oranges. Hebrew, the language of the Bible, uses two distinctly different words for murder and killing. Hunting for sport is prohibited (Rabbi Yehuda Landau [1713-1793], Noda B'Yehuda, Yoreh Deah, Madura Tinyana, 10). Owning, and using, a firearm for self defense is neither murder nor hunting. If a firearm in the hands of a trained person is the most efficient tool to defend life, simple logic would dictate that owning a firearm is not merely permissible but an obligation according to Jewish law. Of course, in many major American cities where Jews reside obtaining the necessary permission to have a firearm is either very difficult or impossible. In that case it would be advisable to master the art of aimed knife throwing and keeping a pointy one handy. The police have no obligation to save you; the unarmed and scared witless neighbors are ignoring your screams and burglar alarm, and your watchdog is busy munching a piece of tasty steak thrown at it by the intruder.

    3. The Torah is so concerned with the safety of people that it mandates a fence around the perimeter of a flat roof to prevent anyone working up there from falling to the ground (Deuteronomy 22:Cool. How much more so should we ensure safety within the home!

    See Fact 2. Keep any potential hazards secured and out of the wrong hands. Responsible behavior is the buzzword here. An adult without the sense to be proactive and prevent accidents shouldn't be trusted to make a bottle for the baby in the middle of the night. That person could confuse the milk container with the container of Liquid Plumber.

    It is noteworthy to mention Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, often referred to as the RAMBAN- 1194-1270 CE) in his classic commentary on the Torah (Genesis 4:22) wherein he expounds on the deeper meaning of Tuval Cain, the name given to one of Cain's descendants. "Tuval" is a form of the Hebrew word for "spice" and "flavor enhancer"-he enhanced the art of making swords, spears, lances, and implements of war (weapons!), thereby following in the footsteps of his forebear Cain, the world's first murderer. Observes the RAMBAN, "The sword does not murder, and there is no sin in making one." Advocates of armed self defense did not coin the bromide "Guns don't kill people; people kill people". Nachmanides advanced the concept nearly 800 years ago, and he wasn't a beer swilling, gun waving redneck from a red state driving a pickup truck bearing a National Rifle Association bumper sticker. He didn't even display a Confederate flag or listen to country music! Is that unbelievable, or what?

    I promised that persuasive reader that I would take her good counsel and compile in one place, suitable for printing, the correct Jewish view of armed self defense and firearms ownership. If there are anti-gun Jews or Christians who will benefit from this information written at her behest, she can take all the credit.

    Rabbi R. Mermelstein

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