By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
The horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, by someone with an affiliation to an anti-Semitic group, has caused the entire nation to reexamine gun laws. It has caused the majority of Americans to call for stricter mental screening of those who can purchase guns. It should also lead us to deal with some pertinent halachic questions: Are guns ever allowed in shul? Are guns muktzah on Shabbos? How should America deal with the growing problem of school shootings? What is the Torah view on the Second Amendment—the right to bear arms?
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 rather than psak 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, focusing on the fact that it states “arose from the congregation,” explains that from here we see that a weapon is forbidden in the beis midrash.
Does the current situation in the United States and the world warrant that well-trained members of shuls (who are properly mentally screened) should legally arm themselves with guns at this point? This author believes that, where legal and warranted, poskim should consider it. In Eretz Yisrael, this is certainly the case.
Here is why. 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 Torah commandments—not die by them.
Secondly, having armed individuals in shuls will save lives, and saving a life is a fundamental mitzvah. What is the source of this mitzvah? The verse in Parashas Ki Seitzei (Devarim 22:2) discusses the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah—returning an object, with the words, “va’hasheivoso 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 “va’hasheivoso lo.” In other words, 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.
There is also a negative mitzvah of not standing idly by your brother’s blood—“lo sa’amod al dam rei’acha.” This is mentioned in Shulchan Aruch (C.M. 426:1) and in the Rambam.
There is yet another negative commandment associated with the positive commandment of hashavas aveidah, and that is the verse in Devarim (22:3), “lo suchal l’hisaleim”—you cannot shut your eyes to it. This verse comes directly after the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah. The Netziv (HeEmek She’eilah) refers to this mitzvah as well.
In addition, the Sheiltos (Sheilta #37), based upon the Gemara in Bava Metziah 62a, understands the command “v’chai achicha imach” to indicate an obligation to save others with you. The Netziv in his He’Emek She’eilah 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.
Finally, the Ramban, Toras HaAdam Shaar HaSakana (p. 42–43) understands the verse of “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha”—and love your 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 just 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.
There are authorities (Rabbeinu Peretz, TaZ 151:2 and Eliyahu Rabbah 151:10) who write that the halachah about bringing a knife or sword into a shul 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 (Yechave Daas 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.
Are Guns Muktzah On Shabbos?
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt’l, (Shulchan Shlomo 308:3) deals with the issue as to whether guns have the status of a kli shemelachto l’issur, forbidden-purpose vessel, or a kli shemelachto l’heter, permitted-purpose vessel,.
A kli shemelachto l’heter refers to any object that, generally speaking, is used for a permitted use on Shabbos. It may be moved for the following purposes:
- Its general-purpose use, l’tzorech gufo
- In order to prevent it from being stolen or ruined
iii. It may not be moved for no purpose at all
A kli shemelachto l’issur refers to an object that, generally speaking, is used for a purpose that is forbidden on Shabbos, or is used to assist in an act that is forbidden on Shabbos. This does not mean that the object is never used for a permitted act—it is just that it is mostly used for a forbidden act on Shabbos. It may be moved for the following purposes:
- For the needs of itself
- For the needs of the space it occupies
Rav Sholmo Zalman rules that in peacetime, a gun is used mostly for deterrent purposes. Therefore, it has the status of a kli sh’malachto l’heter. This can be seen from the Biur Halachah (308 Divrei HaMaschil “kardom lachtom bo.”)
From a theological perspective, we have entered what Chazal term as 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 both 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—a period 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 hides His face, so to speak. “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. Shomer Yisrael shemor she’eris Yisrael.
As Americans, it seems pretty simple that we should adopt the protocols of a typical Israeli shopping center—metal detectors, armed guards, and concrete barriers in front of schools. Israelis have learned to live with these things; we can learn to do so in this country, too.
Finally, what is the Torah view on the Second Amendment? This is a huge question that cannot be adequately discussed without a full treatment of the topic. We can perhaps divide the question into two realities. The first is one where we can effectively prevent the crazed, mentally unfit, and hateful people from getting hold of guns. Under such circumstances, it would seem that the idea of “lo samim damim b’veisecha (Dvarim 22:8)—do not have dangerous things in your home,” could be applied on a macro level to eliminate such guns in the country. The Gemara in Kesuvos (41b) applies it to a dangerous ladder; certainly, it would apply to dangerous weapons.
The second reality is one in which we cannot effectively prevent the crazed, mentally unfit, and hateful people from getting hold of guns. Under such circumstances, the Talmudic dictum (Sanhedrin 72a) of “ha’ba l’hargecha hashkeim l’hargo,” one who comes to kill you, kill him first, would seem to indicate that one should also be able to defend oneself. That dictum would thus indicate that at least when others have access to guns, the Second Amendment is something that halachah supports. ¢
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.