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What Does Judaism Say About Gun Control?

What Does Judaism Say About Gun Control?

Of Weapons and Wickedness

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Terrible events invite profound soul-searching as to what went wrong and how to prevent similar events from happening again.

The following essay, written in the wake of the Virginia Tech Massacre of 2007, is an attempt to explore these questions through the lens of Jewish law:

We are all devastated by the horror and senselessness of it all. As a rabbi who engages in pastoral work, I--like most of my colleagues--know that the wounds will persist in families and friends and teachers for many years to come; in fact, for lifetimes.

One of the things we have seen is an intensifying of the gun control debate by well-meaning citizens on both sides of the issue. Frankly this creates a debate within ourselves as well. Many of us appreciate and are torn between both approaches to this vexing issue.

As Jews, our teachings tell us that preserving human life is the greatest human calling, and murder the most depraved attack on man and G‑d there can be.

The question is: What does Jewish tradition and law tell us about the best way to preserve human life?

I think if we honestly look at matters we can see that, on one hand,

  1. The murderer could not have killed anywhere near the number killed had he had a weapon other than a firearm. He was outnumbered by his victims 20, 30 and 40 to 1. Only a semiautomatic weapon gave him the ability to kill so many without hindrance.

  2. If there were stricter background checks and other encumbrances in place, he may have been prevented from acquiring a handgun legally.

  3. If no one but the police and military had weapons, it would be very difficult to acquire a gun, even illegally (as is the case in Japan and the UK).

On the other hand,

  1. If weapons had been permitted on the VT campus, a student or professor may have stopped the killer before so many were killed. As it was, only a person breaking the law had a weapon available to him--the murderer.

  2. The murderer "flew beneath the radar." It is possible that no system of flagging suspicious individuals could have helped in this case, or would help in similar cases in the future.

    It is rarer by far, but determined criminals even in Japan and the UK can get illegal guns. Just the other day the mayor of Nagasaki in Japan was killed by a firearm wielded by a gang member. And with 200 million guns in this country, it may not be possible to remove every one from circulation--even if as society we wanted to. Hence maybe law-abiding citizens should have the ability to defend themselves.

  3. Even if only the police and military have weapons –what if a policeman goes on a rampage against unarmed and defenseless citizens? Indeed, in 1982 South Korean policeman Woo Bum-Kon killed 57 people, then himself, in rural South Korea using a high-powered rifle and grenades.

    There is a claim that in the United States, many people save themselves from criminal attack by the use or the threat of the use of a firearm. Judaic law would seem to direct us to ask: Can this claim be substantiated or refuted? And if substantiated, we must ask: Which approach in the aggregate saves more lives?

These are all arguments wielded by reasonable, good and caring people –who exist in large numbers on both sides of the societal divide this issue creates in our nation.

So where does Judaism stand on the issue?

I believe the issue can be argued on both sides from a Judaic point of view.

I. On one hand:

1) Talmud, Shabbat 63a:

One must not go out [on Shabbat] with a sword, nor with a bow, nor with a triangular shield, nor with a round one, nor with a spear; if he does so he is liable for a sin-offering. R. Eliezer says they are ornaments to him [and thus permitted to be worn on Shabbat], but the sages say they are nothing but a stigma, for it is written [Isaiah 2:4]: "They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-knives; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

Weapons and their possession are a reproach to mankind –and not anything desirable.

2) Talmud, Bava Kama 46a:

R. Nathan says: From where is it derived that one should not breed a bad dog in his house, or keep an impaired ladder in his house? From the text [Deuteronomy 24:8], "You shall bring not blood upon your house."

I.e., it is forbidden to have anything likely to cause damage about one's domicile.

Rabbi Shlomo Luria ("Maharshal") points out that many authorities forbid raising a dangerous dog even if it is kept chained. This would indicate that a dangerous object--such as a gun--is forbidden, even if it is supposedly safeguarded. However he points out elsewhere in the tractate (fol 83) that in a "dangerous area" one may keep a bad tempered dog that one chains by day and allows to patrol one's property by night.

In conclusion, we are commanded to avoid all danger to our lives. There is no question that a gun is fundamentally a dangerous object, designed to kill.

II. On the other hand...

In Exodus 22:1 we read:

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] is [considered] dead from the start. Here the Torah teaches you: If someone comes to kill you, kill him first. And this one [the thief] has come to kill you, because he knows that a person will not 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 [thief] would kill him [the owner]. - [From Talmud Sanhedrin 72a]"

Here we clearly see the rule, "If someone comes to kill you, kill him first." If we are told by the Almighty to defend ourselves, clearly we may possess the wherewithal to do so. In today's world 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. And law enforcement officials rarely have a chance to intervene to save a victim at the moment of the crime.

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!

We believe the teachings of the Torah--including the obligation we have to ourselves to guard our own lives--to be eternal; but the technology to carry them out should be the best available in our era.

This obligation is codified in Jewish law as part of 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 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; Talmud, Sanhedrin 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.

One can therefore make the argument that it would 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.

Yet it must be noted that Jewish law forbids the sale of arms to people who are suspect of criminal intentions. We read in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 15b):

And it has further been taught: One should not sell them either weapons or accessories of weapons, nor should one grind any weapon for them, not may one sell them either stocks or neck-chains or ropes, or iron chains — neither to idolaters nor Cutheans.

The Talmud extends this prohibition to Jewish criminals as well, clearly demonstrating the responsibility to enforce background checks on prospective arms owners.

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]" (Deuteronomy 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 Torah did not forbid flat roofs –it mandates fences. We need to be responsible with things that may be dangerous, not prevented from having them.

One more quote: There is a fascinating commentary by Nachmanides (13th Century) on Genesis 4:20-24. The verses read:

Now Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have cattle.
And his brother's name was Jubal; he was the father of all who grasp a lyre and a flute.
And Zillah she too bore Tubal Cain, who sharpened all tools that cut copper and iron, and Tubal Cain's sister was Na'amah.
Now Lemech said to his wives, "Adah and Zillah, hearken to my voice; wives of Lemech, incline your ears to my words; for have I slain a man by wounding (him)? A child by bruising (him)?
If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, then for Lemech it shall be seventy-seven fold."

What is going on over here? What is this marital spat between Lemech and his two wives all about?

Nachmanides explains: Lemech was very wise and taught one son herding, the other music, and the third metallurgy. His wives remonstrated with him that the introduction of ironworking would enable the production of weapons and bring murder to the world. Lemech responds to them: "Have I killed a man, as great-grandpa Cain has done seven generations ago? It is not the sword that kills, but the bad choice by a man. Without a sword, too, a man could kill another by wounding and battering as did Cain..."

Swords do kill – but only if they have evil intent behind them

So who was right in this debate – Lemech or his wives?

Nachmanides leaves the question unanswered.

In conclusion I leave to you, my dear reader, to judge, based on these sources, where Judaism stands on gun control.

That being said, after all of the above to the extent that these arguments might advocate granting permission to private citizens to own guns, certainly Jewish law and ethics would ask, and demand the following:

  • What type of weapons, magazines etc., do they reasonably need for self defence? Only those can be in good reason permitted.

  • How can we make sure that those with a criminal past or the mentally unstable (as in the Talmud Avoda Zarah quoted above) cannot access weapons? This would include restrictions on weapon ownership by those with whom they reside – as the unstable or criminal would then have access to the weapons as well.

  • We would be obliged to use every possible technological mean to prevent these people from aquiring arms under any circumstances, e.g a robust national system of background checks.

As per the above–qouted ruling that on the border one may keep an agressive dog, but not in more settled areas, we should accept the demographic diversity of a huge country and understand that citizens of New York City and those residing in the Southwestern cattle country might have very different needs in these regards, based on the ubiquity or lack thereof of law enforcement personnel. Thus, many of these questions should properly and ethically be devolved to as local a level as possible.

It is my prayer, which I am certain all our readers share, that we never again see parents bury children snatched from them in the very beginnings of their adult lives and that we shall very soon enter that era in which we shall no longer need to think of defense against violence 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" (Isaiah 11:6-9).

Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe is a frequent contributor of articles and media to Chabad.org, is Dean of the Institute of American and Talmudic Law in New York, N.Y., and Rabbi of Congregation B'nai Torah in Springfield. Mass. Rabbi Yaffe has lectured and led seminars throughout North America, as well as in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa.
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Zev October 15, 2017

An interesting take, but I found its reasoning to be scattered.
First, the tenets and limits of self-defense must be established, and then the extent of of arms ownership and use must be defined. Reply

Sheldon Steinlauf Park Ridge November 6, 2017
in response to Zev:

Well, Zev, if you reside in the USA, firearm possession is defined in the Second Amendment to the US Constitution. Reply

Largo USA November 6, 2017
in response to Zev:

Scattered reasoning? How could it be anything but, when we are dealing with oral law, written law, commentaries, and opinions, often at variance with each other, and no supreme arbiter to establish, definitively, what is correct.
I was given my first knife when I was 12. To some, a tool, to others, a weapon, and rarely a day goes by that I do not carry, and use one. Carrying one was even more prevalent in biblical times. When the knife is carried in self-defense, is it a weapon when carried in its sheath? If used as a tool, is it no longer a weapon? Is a firearm, carried for self defense likewise not a weapon until it is used as such? For every definition you posit, there will be scores of alternative ones, with as valid and numerous citations as yours.
The issues are both as simple, and as complex, as you wish to make them. Reply

Sheldon Steinlauf Park Ridge November 9, 2017
in response to Largo:

Well said. Reply

Largo USA October 15, 2017

•What is the prime directive? The preservation of life! To that end, we are obliged not just on our own, but also in defense of others.
•Plowshares & pruning hooks- I believe this is expressed as an aspiration rather than an injunction. It is part of a hope for a better time (possibly the arrival of Moshiach) when these implements of violence could be turned to more pacific uses.
• The vicious dog- as noted, the dog can act on its own volition. It is, in effect, an "infernal device" which requires no human initiation, and kills indiscriminately.
•Finally, we, must beware the danger of pilpul; quoting textual interpretations, then quoting more recent interpretations of those interpretations, then speculating (in turn)on their meaning, and expanding their applicabilities until finally the original text is turned on its head.
The question must be asked, is this done in the pursuit of truth or, in furtherance of a particular, personally held, viewpoint? Reply

Boyd Seattle, Wa October 12, 2017

"The murderer could not have killed anywhere near the number killed had he had a weapon other than a firearm."
I beg to differ:
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2016_Nice_attack
This happens frequently enough, without guns, that the wiki article starts with the clarification:
"This article is about the 2016 vehicle-ramming attack. For the 2015 stabbing attack, see 2015 Nice attack." Reply

Dvorah Australia October 11, 2017

Excellent article. Thank you Reply

arthur yanoff October 10, 2017

guns obviously a very complex issue. i would like to zero in on the issue of the guard dog. to shed a bit of licht on the subject of weapons and protection, an untrained dog in the hands of a person unwilling to learn how to train dogs is a potential menace. a well trained protection dog will usually only respond when danger is imminent. just as we are taught to make distinctions between meat that has been properly schechted and meat that is treifidic ,we must make well thought out decisions regarding all manner of weapons. Reply

Sheldon Steinlauf Park Ridge November 6, 2017
in response to arthur yanoff:

Too vague to be of value for the instant matter. Be more specific germane to this issue. Reply

joe tampa, fl October 10, 2017

Isaiah states: when Moshiac comes, swords will be beaten into plowshares... If the government takes away my sword (or firearm), how can I fulfill this commandment? Reply

Bob Online August 27, 2017

"As Jews, our teachings tell us that preserving human life is the greatest human calling, and murder the most depraved attack on man and G‑d there can be."

Are the Goyim considered human/man? Reply

Dr. Harry Hamburger (Reb Harry) Miami August 27, 2017
in response to Bob:

All men including Goyim are human. However, some men become so evil and depraved that they are to be considered "like an animal", and may be treated in a similar manner as a rapid dog. Reply

Anonymous Chicago September 5, 2017
in response to Bob:

Is that a serious question? What a racist attitude!!! Reply

Sheldon Steinlauf Park Ridge September 18, 2017
in response to Bob:

You missed the issue of self defense. Reply

Jay Castro October 10, 2017
in response to Bob:

Yes. This refers to man as in peoples. Reply

Margarita October 10, 2017
in response to Bob:

read carefully - human life. what is so hard to understand? Reply

Shai Jerusalem October 12, 2017
in response to Bob:

The very question is a disgrace to every Jew.
Of course the Goyim are human being just like us.If an evil Goy can be considered a dog, so can an evil Jew. Any other approach gives approval to hate against Jews and Antisemitism and is a total disgrace. Reply

Sheldon Steinlauf Park Ridge September 18, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

If you type it, own it. People who fail to identify themselves should be ignored.
Lastly, "racist", "racism" has been so overused and misused that it has lost its value. Reply

Sheldon Steinlauf Park Ridge October 24, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

You have provided a perfect example why the term "racist" no longer has any value. Race has nothing to do with the instant matter.
Moreover, why are you ashamed to provide your name? Stand up and be counted. Reply

David Sussman Potomac, MD July 1, 2017

The comparison of a dog to a firearm does not make sense to me. The dog acts on its own and can choose to attack. The firearm is only a tool and does nothing on its own, but is dangerous (rightly or wrongly) according to the choices of the one holding and operating it. Just as one must keep a dangerous dog on a short chain and keeps others away from the danger of the dog, an owner of a firearm must keep their weapons secured and inaccessible to those who would cause the weapons to be dangerous (to themselves or to others). Reply

Largo USA October 15, 2017
in response to David Sussman:

Emmes Reply

Steve Brickman Phillipsburg,NJ June 1, 2017

The gun is dangerous only to the intended target. Using it to protect yourself, your family, your neighbor,or your country is a mitzvah. Jews should take the necessary courses to learn to respect the firearm Reply

Sheldon Steinlauf Park Ridge June 4, 2017
in response to Steve Brickman:

Well said. It's most important the get the proper training in both safe use of your weapon and when it's lawful to use deadly force. Refuse to be a victim. Reply

Margarita October 10, 2017
in response to Steve Brickman:

exactly Reply

Yacob David Nation of Texas May 5, 2017

Very inspirational article! How different history would have been if Jews had their guns in 1930's Germany!
May G-d bless and preserve the 2nd Amendment!
May G-d bless the Nation of Israel! Reply

Jay Simkin New Hampshire November 5, 2017
in response to Yacob David:

Germany enacted "gun control" on 13 April 1928, before the Nazis took power. The goal: to curb fights between Nazi Party and Communist Party thugs.

When the Nazis lawfully took power in 1933, they found in police stations, lists of firearm-owners. Plainly the Nazis did not allow those whom they hated - of whom Jews were only one group - to hold onto firearms. It was not the disarming of Jews that mattered most: Jews were only one percent of Germany's population. It was the prompt disarming of other Germans - many of whom did not like the Nazis - that was critical.

The Nazis were not wildly popular in 1933. They won 43.9% of the vote in an election held on 5 March 1933. During the election campaign, Nazi party thugs terrorized other parties' candidates. Even with that help, the Nazis did not win a majority. They formed a coalition, that gave them a small majority in the Reichstag (parliament).

The disarming of Socialists and Communists enabled the Nazis quickly to get an Iron grip. Reply

Yonit Gefen NY October 30, 2016

halacha based on misinformation The "Jewish view" here - that gun control is a conservative option is based on incorrect information taken from the mainstream media. In reality, guns save many more lives than they take. antiSemitites openly declare their intent to exterminate Jews. The U.S. Jews they have murdered & maimed (Orthodox Jews esp) would be alive if they were armed. The view that Geographical differences are relevant is also based on incorrect information. In a suit brought against the police for failure to protect a murdered family (in a rural area,) the supreme court ruled that police do not have an obligation to protect specific citizens. Due to space limitations. A list of the dead/injured US jews who would be alive had they been armed is much too long to post here. If Jews defended themselves would antisemites think twice before attacking? What if German Jews had been armed in Nazi Germany or the pale or through Jewish History? Prayer is powerful.Jewish soldiers pray before war. Then they fight. Reply

Larry July 9, 2017
in response to Yonit Gefen:

The nazi/German army could not be held back even if a lot of jews had guns.

Hindsight 20/20. The Jews then did not all know it was going to turn out the way it did.

Amd many Jews did get guns. Partisans. Reply

Jay Simkin Nashua, NH September 8, 2017
in response to Larry:

Gun Control Promotes Genocide (including the Shoah) "Gun control" laws have promoted several genocides, wherein millions were murdered. Germany enacted "gun control" on 13 April 1928, before the Nazis took power. The goal: to end fights between Nazi Party and Communist Party thugs.

When the Nazis lawfully took power in 1933, they found in police stations, lists of firearm-owners. Plainly the Nazis did not let their foes - of whom Jews were only one group - to hold onto firearms.

It was not the disarming of Jews that mattered most: Jews were only one percent of Germany's population. It was the prompt disarming of other Germans - many of whom hated the Nazis - that was critical.

The Nazis were not wildly popular in 1933. They won 43.9% of the vote in an election held on 5 March 1933. During the campaign, Nazi party thugs terrorized other parties' candidates. Even so, the Nazis did not win a majority. They needed help to gain a slim majority in the Reichstag (parliament). The 1928 law was the key to Nazis quickly getting an iron grip. Reply

Dr. Harry Hamburger Miami October 25, 2017
in response to Larry:

Actually, if the United States had let the Jews in when Hitler told them to leave, there would have been NO holocaust. In the twenties a law was passed to severely limit Jewish immigration, and America got all the nations of the world except the Dominican Republic to sign off on it. So, given this history I would worry when America wants to arm its civil servants, and take guns away from civilians. Reply

Jay E. Simkin Nashua, NH November 7, 2017
in response to Dr. Harry Hamburger:

Not so. By 1939, less than 300,000 Jews remained in Germany. After the Nazis took control of Poland, they had control over some three million Poles, who happened to be Jewish. While the Nazis might have allowed some of these Jews to emigrate, few would have been able to exit, given the time needed to get Visas, etc. By end-December 1941, Germany was at war with the U.S., so shipping would not have been available.

The Nazis thus would have murdered all Jews in Poland and - after the invasion of Russia (22 June 1941) - as many Jews as could be found there. Reply

Tom Portland July 22, 2016

Samuel said it best 1 Samuel 13:19-20 Now there was no smith found throughout all the land of Israel; for the Philistines said: ‘Lest the Hebrews make them swords or spears’ but all the Israelites went down to the Philistines, to sharpen every man his plowshare, and his coulter, and his axe, and his mattock. Reply

Bill Fogel Mission May 3, 2016

Mary's new comment is interesting but I would expand her conclusion. I will give up my "G-d given right" to defend myself when Moshiach comes and the words of Isaiah come true. Till then I live on the Texas border and carry! Reply

Mary Texas April 20, 2016

Interesting conversation. Imagine crises' arise in many cities across the country all at once. There is no power, no phone, no 911 to call. ATM's are down, stores are all out of food. Imagine it stays this way for days because the govt cannot help everyone, besides we are actually broke. In hurricanes and earthquakes, often there is no water. When you can't call for help, You are responsible for your family. You. Can you see those who feel entitled to take whatever they may find in your home for themselves? I can. In any small or large crises, criminals are there to break and loot. When our govt removes all the criminals, I will give up my 2nd Amendment, but only when there are no more criminals in the world. Reply

Pedro Acosta Trinidad, Colorado January 10, 2016

Gun control Law abiding, people are not a threat to society; whether armed or not armed. It is important that we have the rights to own guns, if we choose. Reply

Dan miami January 7, 2016

Gun control? or Government Control I prefer a well armed citizenry. Here's why,good law abiding citizens don't shoot at police, criminals do. And as evidenced by many recent bad police shootings, do you really think government fares any better? How about this, more people have died at the hands of government armaments than all the homicides committed in the US alone. But society accepts the argument that innocents killed in bombing raids is acceptable. Tell that to the families. Perhaps while we talk gun control, how about government control. I can't help but think behind all this rhetoric of gun control, is the more sinister plan of keeping true Patriots of defending themselves from those who would prefer an unarmed citizenry. It appears to be lost on the collective consciousness that America was built on the ideals of liberty, rebellion, and self reliance. Gun control may be good for all other countries as evidenced by their histories, I prefer 1% nuts and 90% armed citizens. At least they can shoot back at nuts. Reply

Pedro Acosta Trinidad, Colorado May 22, 2015

The good Rabbi, leaves it up to local decision, whether to control, guns or not. He references a populous city with strict gun control, and a rural area with less and seeme to infer that it is their choice. Well, considering that most of the homicedes occur in the Liberal - run cities with strict control and very little in the rural areas and small towns, I think it would be best for cities to review their policies. And in absence of laws to control weapons in Torah and Talmud, we should then refer to the 2nd Amendment. Reply

Uriel Shlomo Florida March 12, 2015

I have my own guns As a Jew I understand that all mankind is to respect one another, but that's not what is happening. The Talmud is a Rabbinical book of set rules, but aren't Mitzvot of Hashem. Carrying a gun for self-defense is just for that unless we want to have history repeat itself like during WWII, and many other present historical event in which our people are been threaten just like sheep. Reply

Howard New Rochelle March 4, 2015

excellent texts Thank you for bringing so many relevant texts to this important issue! Reply

Bill Fogel Rio Grande Valley of Texas (on the border) February 15, 2015

Gun Controll and Today's Headlines I think we need to err on the side of being prepared, in today's society. When Moshiach arrives we can beat our weapons into plough shares. Today we need to be prepared for all eventualities. We as Jews should be in the forefront of the fight to protect our Second Amendment Rights. We, each one of us, have an obligation to carry arms and stand up and say, "Never Again". Reply

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