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The Shootings: A Halachic Analysis

By BJLIfe/Rabbi Yair Hoffman

Posted on 02/23/18

The horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, by someone with an affiliation to an anti-Semitic group has caused many people in the nation to re-examine the 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 two pertinent halachic questions:


Are guns ever allowed in shul?  Are guns Muktzah on Shabbos?


Two further questions pertaining to the entire nation are: 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? But first, let’s deal with the two halachic questions.


The Talmud (Brachos 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 (OC 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 Halacha.


The Gemorah in Sanhedrin (82a) cites the fact that Pinchas arose from the congregation and he took a spear in his hand. The Gemorah, 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 haMidrash.


The question is, does the current situation in the United States and the world warrant that, when legal, well-trained members of shuls (who are, of course, properly mentally screened) should arm themselves with guns at this point?


This author believes that, where legal and where warranted, Poskim should consider it.  In Eretz Yisroel, this is certainly the case.


Here is why.


First and foremost, the issue of Pikuach Nefesh supersedes the halacha of not bringing a weapon into shul. The Torah tells us v’chai Bahem – and we shall live by the Torah – not die by them.


Secondly, having armed individuals in shul will save lives, and saving life is a fundamental Mitzvah. What is the source of this Mitzvah? The verse in Parshas Ki Taytzai (Dvarim 22:2) discusses the Mitzvah of Hashavas Aveida – returning an object with the words, “Vahashaivoso lo – and you shall return it to him.” The Gemorah 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 “Vahashaivoso lo.” In other words, this verse is the source for the Mitzvah of saving someone’s life. It is highly probable that it is to this general Mitzvah that the Shulchan Aruch refers to in Shulchan Aruch Orech Chaim 325.


Lo Saamod Al Dam Rayacha


There is a negative Mitzvah of not standing idly by your brother’s blood as well. This is mentioned in Shulchan Aruch (CM 426:1) and in the Rambam.


Lo Suchal l’hisalaym


There is yet another negative commandment associated with the positive commandment of Hashavas Aveida, and that is the verse in Dvarim (22:3), “You cannot shut your eyes to it.” This verse comes directly after the Mitzvah of Hashavas Aveidah. The Netziv (HeEmek Sheailah) refers to this Mitzvah as well.


V’Chai Achicha Imach


The Sheiltos (Sheilta #37), based upon the Gemorah 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’Rayacha Kamocha


The Ramban, Toras haAdam Shaar HaSakana (p42-43) 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.


There are authorities (Rabbeinu Peretz, TaZ 151:2, and Eliyahu Rabbah 151:10) that write that the halacha 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) Rav Ovadiah 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 Forbidden Purpose Vessel - Kli Shemelachto l’issur or a Permitted Purpose Vessel - kli shemelachto l’heter.


As a reminder, a Permitted Purpose Vessel – refers to any object that, generally speaking, is used for a permitted use on Shabbos. It may be moved for the following purposes:


i.              It’s general purpose use, l’tzorech gufo.


ii.             In order to prevent it from being stolen or ruined


iii.            It may not be moved for no purpose at all.


A Forbidden Purpose Vessel – 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:


i.              For the Needs of Itself –


ii.             For the Needs of the Space it Occupies


Rav Shlmo Zalman rules that in peace time 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 Halacha (308 Divrei HaMaschil “kordam lachtom bo.”)


Theological Perspective


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 Midas HaDin – the attribute of Strict Judgement and with Midas HaRachamim – the attribute of Mercy.


Generally speaking, Hashem judges us with Midas HaRachamim. However, there are times in Jewish history known as an idna derischa – periods of Divine Anger. The Gemorah 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 Dvarim (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 derischa, Hashem ceases to judge with Midas HaRachamim – He judges instead with Midas HaDin. Midas HaDin is almost unfathomable to the mortal mind in terms of its sheer strictness. No one wishes to be judged with the Midas HaDin.


What Hashem did during the holocaust, a period of idna derischa, 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 derischa and there was Divine Hester Panim. The Hester Panim, however, is limited to the point of Midas HaDin.


With such dangers facing Klal Yisroel, we must take steps to ensure the safety of our shuls and Bnei Yeshiva in whatever way we can. Shomer Yisroel shmor sheris yisroel.


As Americans, it seems pretty simple that we should adopt the protocols of a typical Israeli shopping center.  1] Metal detectors 2] Armed guards 3] Concrete barriers in front of schools.  Israelis have learned to live with these three things, we can learn to do so in this country too. 


Finally, what is the Torah view on the Second Amendment? This is, of course, a huge question that cannot adequately be 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 bevaisecha (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 Gemorah 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 “haba lehargcha hashkaim lehargo” – 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 halacha supports.


The author can be reached at yairhoffman2@gmail.com