The Jewish View on Weapons
As we debate gun policy in the wake of Newtown, we should heed the wisdom of the Jewish sages
The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School has sparked passionate debate about whether or not we need stricter gun-control laws in this country—and the Jewish community is no exception. For every organization like the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which aggressively advocates for strict gun control, there are others like Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, who call gun control “code words for disarming innocent people.” Both camps, of course, claim that Judaism is on their side.
Who’s telling the truth? What does Judaism actually have to say about guns? The question can’t be answered with the perfect passage from the Torah or the Talmud, in part because the rabbis could never have fathomed the destructive nature of modern guns, like the ones that took the lives of 27 people in Newtown last Friday. To understand what our sages would have thought about our modern problems of unlimited ammunition and semiautomatic weapons, we have to examine their perspective on the dangers of their time—such as swords, dogs, stumbling blocks, and snakes. Their wisdom remains eerily relevant.
Swords and Other Weapons
There is little doubt that our rabbinic forebears lived in a violent world: The Talmud is full of stories and rules regarding ropes, chains, stocks, swords, and shields. Yet their views on these implements were not monolithic. On the one hand, the 13th-century Spanish commentator Nachmanides says that when Lemach, Adam’s great-great grandson (mentioned in the fourth chapter of Genesis) taught his son to smelt metal, his wives protested. They worried that through this simple act, Lemach was bringing death into the world since now humans would be able to make swords. However, Lemach, according to Nachmanides’ interpretation, replied to the wives that murder existed well before weapons. After all, his great-grandfather Cain killed his brother Abel with his bare hands. The story is perhaps the oldest variation on the phrase made famous on so many bumper stickers: Swords don’t kill people. People kill people.
But the story of Lemach is not even close to the Jewish tradition’s last word on the matter. The Mishnah, in Tractate Shabbat, records a debate between Rabbi Eliezer and a group of rabbis called the sages about whether one may carry weapons on Shabbat. According to Eliezer, weapons like swords, bows, or cudgels were considered “adornments” like jewelry or hair ribbons. Since these items are essentially like one’s clothing we don’t have to worry about them violating the prohibition against carrying on Shabbat, he argues.
The sages disagree. They call these weapons a “disgrace” and point to the most famous prophetic text from the book of Isaiah to show that humanity’s goal is to someday make these weapons disappear: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” The sages ultimately win this debate; later authorities rely more heavily on their opinion.
For most of our ancient ancestors their view of weapons fell somewhere between these two extremes. In ancient days, the sale of weapons was heavily regulated. Selling weapons to enemies was strictly forbidden since they might use them against you (Avodah Zarah 15b). Where these laws become interesting is over the question of who is worthy to buy weapons. Jewish law permits one to sell weapons to friendly neighbors and even to allied nations (Avodah Zarah 16a). However one cannot sell weapons of any kind to someone who has committed murder or to a “cowardly thief.” While the former limitation is obvious, it is less clear why selling weapons to a coward is condemned. The answer, our tradition teaches, is that it is a coward’s nature to panic when caught in a stressful situation. Weapons may not inherently be dangerous, but in the wrong hands they are uncontrollable.
The Dangerous Dog
While swords and spears featured heavily in the world of our forefathers, it was not uncommon for a person in the fifth or sixth century to keep a dangerous animal, usually a wild dog, on his property to protect himself from robbers. However, the owner of such a dog was not given full freedom to do as he wished with his animal. It is written in the Shulchan Aruch, the preeminent 16th-century Jewish law code, that in a normal city it is forbidden to raise a dangerous dog unless he is tied up with a metal chain (Choshen Mishpat 409:3). The thinking behind this ruling is that while a barking dog can deter robbers, the liability of letting the dog go free is too much since we don’t know whom the dog might attack.
This ruling differs starkly, however, in the outskirts of a village. Here, the Shulchan Aruch says, one may keep the dog untied at night as long as he is tied up by day. Here, because the nights were dark, help was far away, and danger was more prevalent, your dog could keep watch despite the risk.
In a way, the example of the village dog follows the general Jewish view that people have a right to defend themselves despite the risks to others. Classical Jewish law permits killing for self-defense: The Talmud teaches that if someone breaks into your house, you have a right to defend yourself, even if it is not clear that they mean to kill you (Sanhedrin 72a). However, the principle of self-defense isn’t limitless. The village dog still must be tied up by day because of the liability associated with letting it roam free. When danger is not at its most acute, societal accountability trumps personal protection.
Although the case of the dog lends itself to pragmatism, the case of the snake does not. According to classical Jewish law, there are a number of animals that are considered too dangerous to keep. In Mishnah Bava Kamma 1:4, the sages list these animals as wolves, lions, bears, leopards, panthers, and snakes. Falling into a legal category called mu’ad, these animals are known as dangerous by nature. If they attack someone, their owner can’t claim that it was in any way an accident. He is assumed liable because he shouldn’t have them in the first place. And yet, in the discussion of these animals, Rabbi Eliezer, our pro-weapon enthusiast from above, jumps in. He argues that all these animals are trainable except one, the snake.
This week, the Talmud’s rabbis explore possible holy day violations to determine the nature of the sinner