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How To Take the Law Into Your Own Hands

How To Take the Law Into Your Own Hands


My upstairs neighbor was having a rooftop garden put in. Fine and dandy, except for the fact that his special drainage system was not yet installed, and the unremitting drip-drip descending from above was driving us bananas. Worse yet, a cloud of mosquitoes hovered above the muddy patch under our bedroom windows, so that each morning my three beautiful daughters woke up covered with ugly insect bites.

I asked the guy in charge of the renovations up there to please stop the water torture. He patiently explained that the potted trees and shrubs (which included some very delicate ferns especially imported from some exotic sub-tropical country) had to be fed a small but steady stream of nutrient-enriched water, which must not be interrupted, ever. But they're working on a solution to divert the water by some less vexatious route. He referred me to the gardener/landscape artist in charge of the project for further elucidation.

"I don't care what you're doing up there and how you do it," said I, not ungraciously. "Just stop the dribble of water, ok?"

But the dribble didn't stop. I spoke with the guy's plumber, his foreman, his gardener, his secretary (who said that he's in San Francisco). I begged, I pleaded, I cajoled. Tears sprang to my eyes as I described the suffering of my family. I yelled, I threatened. Weeks went by, and the drip-drip of nutrient-enriched water and the buzz of nutrient-enriched mosquitoes continued.

So one Friday afternoon, after all the workers had left for the weekend, I clambered into a small dark closet under the stairs and shut off the water to the upstairs apartment.

Come Monday morning there was a pounding on my door. A shouting match ensued. He called me a criminal and I rejoined that there are situations in which an ordinary citizen is justified in taking the law into his own hands. He threatened to sue me, and I welcomed the suggestion. By the end of the week, a hose had been rigged up to send the water elsewhere.

But before I had a chance to properly savor my satisfaction over how I had handled the situation, I discovered The Three Fundamental Rules on How To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands. To my dismay, I found that I failed to meet all three requirements.

The three fundamental rules on how to take the law into your own hands are:

1) There has to be a truly extraordinary compelling need—e.g., tens of thousands of people are dying in a plague, and hundreds of thousands more will die unless drastic action is taken to stop it.

2) You must be prepared to pay the price. The law will not protect you from the consequences of your deed. You must be willing to sacrifice all—including your righteousness.

3) It must be completely against your nature to act this way, and it must pain you no end that you are forced to do so. In other words, if you enjoy doing this, then you shouldn't be doing this.

(In case you're wondering where I found these Fundamental Rules, it's all in the precedent of Pinchas' slaying of Zimri, as described in the Bible and discussed in the Talmud and the commentaries.)

Well, that nipped my career as an outlaw in the bud. Though it was fun while it lasted.

Editor's Note: This article is not intended to be a halachic treatise on the complex subject of taking the law into one's own hands. A rabbi should be consulted in case of actual need.

By Yanki Tauber; based on the teachings of the Rebbe.
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citizen fairfield, CT via April 27, 2012

which law? Why do you classify this as taking law into your own hands? Wouldn't the Torah allow this activity as permissible? Which halacha did you go against? Reply

Rabbi Shmary Brownstein August 14, 2011

Re: Choose life is right! Catherine, There are times that the Torah tells us to fight (back). That is the good inclination, and the right thing to do. Usually, we have to follow the law of the land, provided we live in a society governed by a rule of law that applies equally to all its citizens, the Torah requires us to comply with it. If life is not in danger, it is rare indeed for someone to legitimately "take the law into their own hands".
But we should use our evil inclination to fight those parts of ourselves which need to be dealt with. We can use our pride to keep ourselves from doing the wrong thing because "it is below our dignity", or use our passion to do good.
Don't forget the disclaimer at the end of the article. Reply

Catherine NY, NY August 10, 2011

Choose life is right! Never let a bully take control of your life. Of course there are all kinds of reactions. Try the nice ones first. However if the action against you is evil, (abuse of any sort, violent behavior etc.) then God gave us the evil inclination to be used against the Evil Inclination. In other words, the way to eliminate the harm may require action. Fight fire with fire. Do you let the people rioting and looting in England just do it, as the police are just standing there? Ridiculous, then the police are participating in the destruction. They have to use force to stop it. Sometimes innocent people have to stand up to evil. The law is not perfect, and will not always protect you. I am of course assuming you don't enjoy it, but you must do it. Use your own evil inclination to destroy real evil. I believe it could be a G-d given tool. Israel will fight to the end to protect itself....BRAVO! Reply

Patti Silver Spring, MD, USA July 10, 2009

Taking the law into your own hands Brilliant essay! And funny, too. Reply

sheldon park ridge, il July 9, 2009

Protecting your space What a bunch of wimps! First, ask nice. Then if no compromise, take the minimum amount of action required to stand up for your rights.. Let the self-centered folks prove that you did something. Refuse to be a victim! Reply

J.L. Plainview, New York via April 1, 2008

Fundamental Rule #2 Does the consequences of your deed include forfeiting legal action against the other party? In other words, are you deemed to have elected a remedy by having taken the law into your own hands? This assumes that equitably, you have not attained a remedy. Reply

Anonymous East Moline, IL May 7, 2007

everything Trying to take the law into your own hands is not a very good suggestion. you could end up in a lot of trouble. try talking it out with the person you have a conflict with and see if you can do something to help. Reply

Ahava Ojai, CA January 19, 2007

I agree! I agree with the comments!
It can be dangerous to let inactivity lead to passivism.
In this case, you were protecting your family.
Perhaps there was a better (absolutely legal) way, but if you couldn't see it at the time, then protecting your family is more important!
Isn't this taking the "letter of the law" too far!
Did you consult with anyone else who is familiar with Jewish law as to what to do? Instead of taking an obscure reference and using it for a possible incorrect conclusion...
Point taken, that there may be an issue with "taking the law into your own hands" but when the life of your family is at stake--due to viruses, don't all of you deserve a second opinion?
Please take this in a positive way. I am not putting you down personally, just disturbed by the potentials of thinking in such a narrow manner. Reply

Anonymous Southampton, Pa December 9, 2006

Taking the law in your own hands The 3 fundamental rules are interesting. But I believe above all else, we protect life and our family. since Mosquitos can cause disease and not just West Nile Virus, you had an obligation to find a solution. You took all the right avenues and when they did not work, you did the right thing. Oh well! They had the chance to fix it before you did. Your duty is to protect your family. Great article! Reply

Anonymous Houston, TX July 8, 2004

you met the qualifications It doesn't sound to me like you enjoyed the act of taking the law into your own hands. You tried every possible solution within your means to get the problem fixed. From my standpoint you met all 3 of the qualifications you listed.. but who knows what your nature is but you. But to be honest, I would have done the same thing if I was in your shoes rather than be a victim. Reply

H. Hudspeth July 8, 2004

With, not at I started laughing when I got to the part about the 'nutrient-enriched mosquitoes.' After that I laughed through the rest of this article, without stopping once, I believe.

I laughed WITH you. And I loved doing so, just as I love it when someone laughs with - never at - me.

Thank you for writing this. Reply

Richard M. Marcus Philadelphia, Pa. USA July 8, 2004

Three Ways... The example is typical of the way many Jews (in particular) attempt to solve problems of the world: by wringing their hands, imploring, and suffering. In this case the problem would have been solved by giving the owner or his contractor 72 hours to solve the problems or see him in court. Moral: direct action often works best. Reply

Anonymous NY, NY, USA July 8, 2004

an alternative view West Nile disease, malaria, torment by sound, torment by insect bite, possibility of other infections --- if you didn't save your family from this onslaught you would have made a mistake. I would have called a bet din or the police. Mosquitos are a deadly menace and pools of water in which they breed are deadly. If the bet din were absent, if the police would not interfere, I would have turned off the water. Choose life!

We were kids. His name was David. He said that I was not following the Torah. "Huh?" I responded. I only met him a minute before and already he's saying that I didn't follow the Torah? What did I do? He said that I was riding my bike on the sidewalk, a violation of local laws. Further, he related, the Rabbis said that we should follow the local laws. I had to admit that the logic was there. But I defended my actions. 'The cars and trucks do not respect the bike rider. They threaten my life. I follow the Torah, because I choose life!" And so there we rode side by side, he in the street and me on the sidewalk.

Two blocks later, right in front of the Synagogue, a bus ran over him, killing him.

(This happened in Bayside, NY, on 48th Ave. West of Bell Blvd. some 40+ years ago. I don't let my kids ride in the street. And I wouldn't let a pool of water form under my window either. Choose life.)