By Rabbi Yair Hoffmancover - gun img400070 flipped
The horrific tragedy in Har Nof this past Tuesday should cause us, perhaps, to rethink the manner in which we observe a certain halachah. It is not that halachah should change. Rather, changing circumstances in Israel lead us to the application of different aspects of halachah. There is an intifada happening now, and this creates new realities in shuls, schools, and yeshivos.
The Talmud (Berachos 54b) tells us that tefillah, prayer, lengthens a person’s life. A long knife or sword, on the other hand, shortens a person’s life. The Orchos Chaim cites the Maharam of Rottenberg that, based upon this dichotomy, a Jew should not bring a sword or long knife into shul. The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 151:6) rules in accordance with this view, although some poskim have told me that this ruling of the Shulchan Aruch is really more of a piece of ethical advice than p’sak halachah.
The Gemara in Sanhedrin (82a) cites the fact that Pinchas arose from the congregation and he took a spear in his hand. The Gemara explains that from here we see that a weapon is forbidden in the beis midrash.
But does the current situation in Israel warrant that a number of well-trained members of shuls and yeshivos should arm themselves with guns? This author believes that there is no question that it should. And that the halachos found in O.C. 151 are still applicable in America, but not for Israel in the midst of an intifada. Here is why.
V’chai ba’hem. First and foremost, the issue of pikuach nefesh supersedes the halachah of not bringing a weapon into shul. The Torah tells us v’chai ba’hem–and we shall live by the mitzvos of the Torah–not die by them.
Vahasheivoso lo. Having armed individuals in shul will save lives, and saving life is a fundamental mitzvah. The need is widespread, with some yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael having as many as eight different batei midrash. To properly defend against any possible onslaught, it would require two guards at each of the eight batei midrash. Such manpower could perhaps be paid for or provided by the city on a temporary basis, but what about for the long-term? Parashas Ki Teitzei (Devarim 22:2) discusses the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah–returning an object–with the words, “Vahasheivoso lo–and you shall return it to him.” The Gemara in Sanhedrin (73a), however, includes within its understanding of these words the obligation of returning “his own life to him as well.” For example, if thieves are threatening to pounce upon him, there is an obligation of “Vahasheivoso lo.” This verse is the source for the mitzvah of saving someone’s life. It is highly probable that it is this general mitzvah that the Shulchan Aruch refers to in Shulchan Aruch Orech Chaim 325.
Lo sa’amod al dam rei’echa. A negative mitzvah of not standing idly by your brother’s blood is mentioned in Shulchan Aruch (C.M. 426:1) and in the Rambam. Collectively, if we adopt such a policy in having armed people in every beis midrash in Eretz Yisrael, we can ensure that we do not stand idly by our brother’s blood.
Lo suchal l’hisaleim. Another negative commandment associated with the positive commandment of hashavas aveidah is in Devarim (22:3), “You cannot shut your eyes to it.” This verse comes directly after the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah. The Netziv (He’Emek She’ailah) refers to this mitzvah as well.
V’chai achicha imach. The Sheiltos (Sheilta #37), based upon the Gemara in Bava Metziah 62a, understands these words to indicate an obligation to save others with you. The Netziv in his He’Emek She’ailah understands it as a full-fledged obligation according to all opinions. He writes that he must exert every effort to save his friend’s life–until it becomes pikuach nefesh for himself.
V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha. The Ramban, Toras haAdam Sha’ar HaSakanah (pp. 42—43) understands the verse of “And love thy neighbor as yourself” as a directive to save him from danger as well. Although he discusses the issue of medical danger, it is clear that this is an example, and it would apply to danger from physical enemies as well. Even without the Ramban, however, it is clear that defending and protecting someone from danger is a fulfillment of this mitzvah.
Modern-Day Applications
There are authorities (Rabbeinu Peretz, TaZ 151:2, and Eliyahu Rabbah 151:10) who write that the halachah is limited to a long knife or a sword that cannot be covered. If it is a smaller and coverable knife, these poskim are lenient. It would seem that a handgun may be similarly covered and thus would not present a problem according to these authorities. And while this may be a minority view, when dealing with issues of danger to life, one may rely upon minority opinions.
Both Rav Eliezer Waldenburg (Tzitz Eliezer Vol. X #18) and Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yechaveh Da’as Vol. V #18) rule that Israeli soldiers may hold on to their guns in shul when necessary. The idea presented here is merely an extension of that ruling in light of the new dangers in this intifada.
Just like we have fire exits in this country, the hanhallah of our mosdos in Israel should consider making sure that there are adequately trained staff members or kollel members who are both present and armed. There should be an armed presence 24 hours a day.
A Time Of Anger
From a theological perspective, we have entered what Chazal term an “Idna d’rischa.” One of my rebbeim, Rav Dovid Kviat, zt’l, once explained that there are two manners in which Hashem judges the world. He judges with middas ha’din, the attribute of strict judgment, and with middas ha’rachamim, the attribute of mercy.
Generally speaking, Hashem judges us with middas ha’rachamim. However, there are times in Jewish history known as an idna d’rischa, periods of Divine anger. The Gemara in Menachos (43a) tells us that generally Hashem does not punish people for abnegating a mitzvas assei, a positive mitzvah in the Torah. We are only punished for violating negative prohibitions. However, in a period of Divine anger, we are punished for negating positive mitzvos too.
Rav Kviat, zt’l, explained that there is an idea found in Sefer Devarim (31:18) of “hester panim,” where Hashem, so to speak, hides His face. “I shall surely Hide My face on that day.”
In an idna d’rischa, Hashem ceases to judge with middas ha’rachamim, He judges instead with middas ha’din. Middas ha’din is almost unfathomable to the mortal mind in terms of its sheer strictness. No one wishes to be judged with the middas ha’din.
What Hashem did during the Holocaust, a period of idna d’rischa, was to invoke the idea of hester panim–where He hid himself. Hitler and his Nazis could use their freedom of choice here because it was an idna d’rischa and there was Divine hester panim. The hester panim, however, is limited to the point of middas ha’din.
With such dangers facing Klal Yisrael, we must take steps to ensure the safety of our shuls and bnei yeshiva in whatever way we can. May Hashem bring yeshuos and nechamos to His nation and end this period of Divine anger.
The author can be reached at

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