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Some Judaic Sources on the Right to Bear Arms.

By Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe


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It has often been suggested that Judaic tradition supports the idea of negating the right of law abiding citizens to possess arms. It is my hope to demonstrate that there are ample sources within Jewish Law and tradition – which is simply fully explicated Biblical law and ethics- to suggest quite the contrary.

I think this article may be of interest to many Americans of all backgrounds: Many individuals in our society look to Biblical values for guidance in their lives. Our American institutions are based to a large part on the teachings of the Bible as to Liberty, Responsibility and Justice flowing from a transcendent Authority e.g. "We hold these truths to be self-evident … They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights" (Declaration of Independence), "One Nation under G-d" (Pledge of Allegiance), "In G-d we trust" (found on every piece of our currency and coinage by act of Congress).

"Lest the Hebrews make sword or spear." (Samuel I 13:19)

This quote from the book of Samuel describes how the Philistines controlled and oppressed the children of Israel. The full quote is as follows " Now, not a smith was to be found in all the land of Israel, for the Philistines said, "Lest the Hebrews make sword or spear." And all Israel went down to the (land of) the Philistines to sharpen each man his plowshare … And it was on the day of war, that neither sword nor spear was found in the possession of all the people who were with Saul and with Jonathan, but Saul and Jonathan his son had them." The Bible relates how an improbable victory was won over the Philistines, notwithstanding the minor problem of having only two weapons to stand against a heavily armed enemy. This however, was a miracle. There is an important dicta in Jewish law[1] "We may not rely on a miracle" and we must take rational steps to protect our lives and property.

It is indeed a cardinal principal of belief that " If G-d does not guard a city for naught did its watchman exert himself" (Psalms 127:1) –but we need to do the "guarding" and we hope that our efforts will be a vessel for G-d’s[2] help.

Deborah the Prophetess in lamenting the weak situation of the people of Israel before she led them to do battle with Sisera and his hosts, describes (Judges 5:7-8) " Until I arose as a mother to Israel … there was not a sword or spear to be found when 40,000 (enemies) arrayed themselves against Israel". The common thread in both of these narratives is that being disarmed when danger threatens is seen as a national disaster and a cause for lament. Disarmament of individual citizens is a problem – not a solution.

This theme applies also to individuals. In Exodus we read (Chapter 22:1): If, while breaking in, the thief is discovered, and he is struck and dies, [it is as if] he has no blood. Rashi, the greatest commentator on the Tanach (the original, Jewish name for the 24 books of the Bible) who gathers together millennia of interpretation, comments: "He has no blood. [This signifies that] this is not [considered] murder. It is as though he [the thief] was [considered] dead from the start. Here the Torah teaches you [the lesson]: If someone comes to kill you, kill him first. And this one [the thief] has come to kill you, because he knows that no one [can] hold himself back and remain silent when he sees people taking his money. Therefore, he [the thief] has come with the acknowledgement that if the owner of the property were to stand up against him, he [the owner] would kill him [the thief]. - [From Talmud Sanhedrin. 72a]". As you can see we are obliged to defend ourselves - "If someone comes to kill you, kill him first". If we asked by the Al-mighty to defend ourselves, clearly we may possess the wherewithal to do so. In today’s day and age there is no better tool- if G-d forbid it comes to this- than a firearm. Only with a firearm is the proverbial little old lady living alone, a match for the hulking thug. A baseball bat won’t give her much of a chance. We believe these teachings to be eternal - but the technology to carry them out should be the best available in our era.

We indeed yearn for the time of the Final Redemption when "They shall beat their swords into plowshares" but it is a very poor idea to do this unilaterally before that point in history!

As far a relying on Law enforcement – since rarely do they intervene to save a victim at the moment of the crime they are irrelevant to the question of the obligation we have to ourselves to guard our own lives. This obligation is codified in Jewish Law for a range of obligations centered on preserving our health and well being, as well as the obligation to defend ourselves or a third party against aggression.

Under Jewish Law there is an absolute obligation for a private citizen to assist another in trouble: "You shall not stand by [the shedding of] your fellow’s blood. I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:16)" and as Rashi comments, quoting the legal texts of the Talmud "You shall not stand by [the shedding of] your fellow’s blood. [I.e., do not stand by,] watching your fellow’s death, when you are able to save him; for example, if he is drowning in the river or if a wild beast or robbers come upon him. [Torath Kohanim 19:41; Sanh. 73a]"

We cannot exempt ourselves of this obligation – even though in this country we have a wonderful and dedicated corps of law enforcement officers and other emergency personnel. We should respect them and support them in every way possible, as they have devoted their lives to the rescue of their fellows –but our obligation to our fellow remains –if we see someone in trouble we cannot absolve ourselves of our obligation by the fact that "professionals" exist somewhere.

Again: all the above must be done in the most effective manner possible. It would therefore be wrong to deprive citizens of the "tools" most suited to this task, e.g. firearms. Our Sages have a saying "A broken wall calls out to the thief (to come in)". If the law dictates that a citizen may not be armed –the criminals will arm themselves and be unafraid of opposition –as those who abide by the law will be defenseless (the "broken wall")

Jewish law forbids the sale of arms to people who are suspect of criminal intentions by personal history or otherwise. From this it is understood that the sale of arms to the law abiding is something entirely acceptable.

What of the dangers inherent in improperly stored and handled firearms? We are taught "When you build a new house, you shall make a guard rail for your roof, so that you shall not cause blood [to be spilled] in your house, that the one who falls should fall from it [the roof] (Deut. 22:8)" The Rabbis derive from this that we must create "fences" in all dangerous situations to prevent "blood spilled" in your house. However the Bible did not forbid flat roofs –it mandates fences. We need to be responsible with things that may be dangerous, not prevented from having them.

When the Jewish People left Egypt on a journey from slavery to liberty we read that "The children of Israel were armed when they went up out of Egypt (Exodus 13:18)." Liberty includes the right to preserve that which G-d gives us. A free person who understands that we are given liberty by G-d to do what is right, just and ethical - can always be trusted – even with firearms.

It is my prayer the we shall very soon enter that era in which we shall no longer need to think of defense as it is written: "And a wolf shall live with a lamb … They shall neither harm nor destroy on all My holy mount, for the land shall be full of knowledge of the Lord as water covers the sea bed. (Isaiah 11:6-9)"

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[1] A note on Biblical and Judaic Law: Judaism understands that when G-d gave the Law to Moses, a process that began in the presence of millions at Mount Sinai, he also gave him a system of interpretation that was transmitted by word of mouth through the community of scholars, students and ordinary Jewish people throughout the ages. This is known as the Oral Law and by applying it to the often terse language of the Tanach (Bible) we arrive at an understanding of G-d’s Law. I refer to the results of this labor as "Judaic law" and it was later redacted in the Talmud and Codes. We see both components as parts of a seamless whole and they are treated as such in this article.

[2] It is traditional Jewish practice to spell "G-d" with a dash so as not to write out the Divine name in full on a piece of paper that may go into the trash – something that would be disrespectful to it.

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