The Use of Weapons in Jewish Sources

This source sheet contains both sources that caution against the ownership or use of dangerous weapons and those that encourage the use of weapons in self-defense.

In reading through the sources, I'd like you to consider the following question:

What kinds of public policy initiatives (restricting weapons, promoting weapons, or both) could these sources shape that would most likely and most quickly lead to a society with less, rather than more, targeted violence towards religious institutions, schools, and public gatherings.

Section 1

Variants of the phrase "be very careful," are found three times in Deuteronomy. Read together with a command to build a wall around a flat roof, they caution that you should not have potentially dangerous objects in your home.

וְאֶת־הָעָם֮ צַ֣ו לֵאמֹר֒ אַתֶּ֣ם עֹֽבְרִ֗ים בִּגְבוּל֙ אֲחֵיכֶ֣ם בְּנֵי־עֵשָׂ֔ו הַיֹּשְׁבִ֖ים בְּשֵׂעִ֑יר וְיִֽירְא֣וּ מִכֶּ֔ם וְנִשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם מְאֹֽד׃

And charge the people as follows: You will be passing through the territory of your kinsmen, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. Though they will be afraid of you, be very careful.

וְנִשְׁמַרְתֶּ֥ם מְאֹ֖ד לְנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶ֑ם כִּ֣י לֹ֤א רְאִיתֶם֙ כָּל־תְּמוּנָ֔ה בְּי֗וֹם דִּבֶּ֨ר ה' אֲלֵיכֶ֛ם בְּחֹרֵ֖ב מִתּ֥וֹךְ הָאֵֽשׁ׃

For your own sake, therefore, be most careful—since you saw no shape when the LORD your God spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire—

רַ֡ק הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֩ וּשְׁמֹ֨ר נַפְשְׁךָ֜ מְאֹ֗ד פֶּן־תִּשְׁכַּ֨ח אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֜ים אֲשֶׁר־רָא֣וּ עֵינֶ֗יךָ וּפֶן־יָס֙וּרוּ֙ מִלְּבָ֣בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל יְמֵ֣י חַיֶּ֑יךָ וְהוֹדַעְתָּ֥ם לְבָנֶ֖יךָ וְלִבְנֵ֥י בָנֶֽיךָ׃

But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live. And make them known to your children and to your children’s children.

כִּ֤י תִבְנֶה֙ בַּ֣יִת חָדָ֔שׁ וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ מַעֲקֶ֖ה לְגַגֶּ֑ךָ וְלֹֽא־תָשִׂ֤ים דָּמִים֙ בְּבֵיתֶ֔ךָ כִּֽי־יִפֹּ֥ל הַנֹּפֵ֖ל מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃ (ס)
When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.

מתני׳ קשרו בעליו במוסרה ונעל בפניו כראוי ויצא והזיק אחד תם ואחד מועד חייב דברי ר"מ רבי יהודה אומר תם חייב ומועד פטור שנאמר (שמות כא, לו) ולא ישמרנו בעליו ושמור הוא זה ר"א אומר אין לו שמירה אלא סכין:

גמ׳ [...] היינו טעמיה דר"א כדתניא ר' נתן אומר מניין שלא יגדל אדם כלב רע בתוך ביתו ואל יעמיד סולם רעוע בתוך ביתו שנאמר (דברים כב, ח) ולא תשים דמים בביתך:

MISHNA: If the ox’s owner tied it with reins to a fence or locked the gate before it in an appropriate manner, but nevertheless the ox emerged and caused damage, whether the ox is innocuous or forewarned the owner is liable, since this is not considered sufficient precaution to prevent damage; this is the statement of Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Yehuda says that if the ox is innocuous the owner is liable even if he safeguarded it appropriately, since the Torah does not limit the required safeguarding for an innocuous ox. But if the ox is forewarned, the owner is exempt from paying compensation for damage, as it is stated in the verse describing damage by a forewarned ox: “And the owner has not secured it” (Exodus 21:36), and this ox that was tied with reins or behind a locked gate was secured. Rabbi Eliezer says: An ox has no sufficient safeguarding at all other than slaughtering it with a knife; there is no degree of safeguarding that exempts the ox’s owner from liability.

GEMARA: [...] [T]his is the reason for the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer: As it is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Natan says: From where is it derived that one may not raise a vicious dog in his house, and that one may not set up an unstable ladder in his house? As it is stated: “You shall not bring blood into your house” (Deuteronomy 22:8), which means that one may not allow a hazardous situation to remain in his house. Similarly, a person should not keep a forewarned ox in his possession, as it is dangerous. This is why Rabbi Eliezer rules that no level of safeguarding is sufficient for it; the ox should be slaughtered so that it will not cause damage.

מתני׳ לא יצא האיש לא בסייף ולא בקשת ולא בתריס ולא באלה ולא ברומח ואם יצא חייב חטאת רבי אליעזר אומר תכשיטין הן לו וחכ"א אינן אלא לגנאי שנאמר (ישעיהו ב, ד) וכתתו חרבותם לאתים וחניתותיהם למזמרות ולא ישא גוי אל גוי חרב ולא ילמדו עוד מלחמה

MISHNA (6:4): The Sages said that a man may neither go out on Shabbat with a sword, nor with a bow, nor with a shield [teris], nor with an alla, nor with a spear. And if he accidentally went out with one of these weapons to the public domain he is liable to bring a sin-offering. Rabbi Eliezer says: These weapons are ornaments for him; just as a man is permitted to go out into the public domain with other ornaments, he is permitted to go out with weapons.

And the Rabbis say: They [weapons] cannot be seen as anything other than reprehensible and in the future they will be eliminated, as it is written: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not raise sword against nation, neither will they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).

(ח) וכן כל מכשול שיש בו סכנת נפשות מצות עשה להסירו ולהשמר ממנו ולהזהר בדבר יפה שנאמר השמר לך ושמור נפשך ואם לא הסיר והניח המכשולות המביאים לידי סכנה ביטל מצות עשה ועובר בלא תשים דמים:

(8) Likewise, one has a positive duty to remove and guard oneself of any life-threatening obstacle, as it is said "beware and guard your soul". If one did not removed said obstacles, one has cancelled a positive commandment and transgressed "do not bring bloodguilt" (Deut. 22:8).

Section 2

This next set of sources speak positively about the use of weapons for saving or protective lives.

(יד) וַיִּשְׁמַ֣ע אַבְרָ֔ם כִּ֥י נִשְׁבָּ֖ה אָחִ֑יו וַיָּ֨רֶק אֶת־חֲנִיכָ֜יו יְלִידֵ֣י בֵית֗וֹ שְׁמֹנָ֤ה עָשָׂר֙ וּשְׁלֹ֣שׁ מֵא֔וֹת וַיִּרְדֹּ֖ף עַד־דָּֽן׃

(14) When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he mustered his retainers, born into his household, numbering three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.

(יח) וַיַּסֵּ֨ב אֱלֹקִ֧ים ׀ אֶת־הָעָ֛ם דֶּ֥רֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּ֖ר יַם־ס֑וּף וַחֲמֻשִׁ֛ים עָל֥וּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

(18) So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds. Now the Israelites went up armed out of the land of Egypt.
(י) וַיְהִ֣י ׀ מִן־הַיּ֣וֹם הַה֗וּא חֲצִ֣י נְעָרַי֮ עֹשִׂ֣ים בַּמְּלָאכָה֒ וְחֶצְיָ֗ם מַחֲזִיקִים֙ וְהָרְמָחִ֣ים הַמָּגִנִּ֔ים וְהַקְּשָׁת֖וֹת וְהַשִּׁרְיֹנִ֑ים וְהַ֨שָּׂרִ֔ים אַחֲרֵ֖י כָּל־בֵּ֥ית יְהוּדָֽה׃ (יא) הַבּוֹנִ֧ים בַּחוֹמָ֛ה וְהַנֹּשְׂאִ֥ים בַּסֶּ֖בֶל עֹמְשִׂ֑ים בְּאַחַ֤ת יָדוֹ֙ עֹשֶׂ֣ה בַמְּלָאכָ֔ה וְאַחַ֖ת מַחֲזֶ֥קֶת הַשָּֽׁלַח׃ (יב) וְהַ֨בּוֹנִ֔ים אִ֥ישׁ חַרְבּ֛וֹ אֲסוּרִ֥ים עַל־מָתְנָ֖יו וּבוֹנִ֑ים וְהַתּוֹקֵ֥עַ בַּשּׁוֹפָ֖ר אֶצְלִֽי׃

(10) From that day on, half my servants did work and half held lances and shields, bows and armor. And the officers stood behind the whole house of Judah (11) who were rebuilding the wall. The basket-carriers were burdened, doing work with one hand while the other held a weapon. (12) As for the builders, each had his sword girded at his side as he was building. The trumpeter stood beside me.

אִם־בַּמַּחְתֶּ֛רֶת יִמָּצֵ֥א הַגַּנָּ֖ב וְהֻכָּ֣ה וָמֵ֑ת אֵ֥ין ל֖וֹ דָּמִֽים׃

If the thief is seized while tunneling, and he is beaten to death, there is no bloodguilt in his case.

גמ׳ אמר רבא מאי טעמא דמחתרת חזקה אין אדם מעמיד עצמו על ממונו והאי מימר אמר אי אזילנא קאי לאפאי ולא שביק לי ואי קאי לאפאי קטילנא ליה והתורה אמרה אם בא להורגך השכם להורגו

GEMARA: Rava says: What is the reason for this halakha [law] concerning a burglar who breaks into a house? He explains: There is a presumption that a person does not restrain himself when faced with losing his money, and therefore this burglar must have said to himself: If I go in and the owner sees me, he will rise against me and not allow me to steal from him, and if he rises against me, I will kill him. And the Torah stated a principle: If someone comes to kill you, rise and kill him first.

(טז) לֹא־תֵלֵ֤ךְ רָכִיל֙ בְּעַמֶּ֔יךָ לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ אֲנִ֖י ה'׃
(16) Do not deal basely with your countrymen. Do not profit by the blood of your fellow: I am the LORD.

מתני׳ ואלו הן שמצילין אותן בנפשן הרודף אחר חבירו להרגו ואחר הזכר ואחר הנערה המאורסה [...]

גמ׳ ת"ר מניין לרודף אחר חבירו להרגו שניתן להצילו בנפשו ת"ל (ויקרא יט, טז) לא תעמוד על דם רעך והא להכי הוא דאתא האי מיבעי ליה לכדתניא מניין לרואה את חבירו שהוא טובע בנהר או חיה גוררתו או לסטין באין עליו שהוא חייב להצילו ת"ל לא תעמוד על דם רעך אין ה"נ.

MISHNA: And these are the ones who are saved from transgressing even at the cost of their lives; that is to say, these people may be killed so that they do not perform a transgression: One who pursues another to kill him, or pursues a male to sodomize him, or pursues a betrothed young woman to rape her. [...]

GEMARA: The Sages taught in a baraita: From where is it derived that with regard to one who pursues another in order to kill him, the pursued party may be saved at the cost of the pursuer’s life? The verse states: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of another” (Leviticus 19:16); rather, you must save him from death. The Gemara asks: But does this verse really come to teach us this? This verse is required for that which is taught in a baraita: From where is it derived that one who sees another drowning in a river, or being dragged away by a wild animal, or being attacked by bandits [listin], is obligated to save him? The Torah states: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of another.” The Gemara answers: Yes, it is indeed so that this verse relates to the obligation to save one whose life is in danger.