How Torah law takes aim at gun violence

How Torah law takes aim at gun violence

On Tuesday, an 18-year-old shot and killed at least 19 elementary school students and two adults in Uvalde, Texas, according to information available at press time. According to the magazine Education Week, which tracks only incidents that happen in K-12 school settings, there have been 27 elementary school shootings so far this year, leading to the deaths of 23 children and two adults (including Uvalde), and to 40 people injured (not including Uvalde, because that information was not available at press time.

From January 1 through Tuesday, there have been 212 mass shootings here (four or more victims injured or killed), including 48 mass murders, 10 of which occurred in Buffalo on May 14, and 21 of which occurred on Tuesday in Uvalde.

Through this Tuesday, 508 youths from 12 to 17 have been killed by guns (17 just since Sunday) and another 1,303 have been injured (34 since Sunday). There also were 143 children under 12 who were killed during this time (including those in Uvalde) and 287 who were injured.

More than 17,000 people in the United States so far this year have died by a gun. Statistically, for every 40 minutes I will spend writing this column, more than three people will die by a gun.

Gun violence in America is an epidemic. Yet so many of our politicians on all sides of the aisle cry “Second Amendment” and refuse to do anything to bring this epidemic to an end. For more than two decades—and taking their lead from the National Rifle Association—too many have even refused to allow the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention or the National Institutes of Health to study gun violence here. They also refuse to support legislation requiring that only so-called smart guns may be sold in the United States—guns that only an authorized user can fire (for example, by requiring fingerprint authorization on the trigger).

Guns, of course, are mentioned nowhere in the Torah or in the corpus of rabbinic law based on it until well after the invention of firearms. There are laws in the Torah, however, that apply nevertheless. These “laws” serve as “chapter headings” for whole bodies of law. Among the ones relevant here are the sanctity of a life, the ox that gored, the open pit, the stumbling block, not standing idly by when someone is in danger, and the law of the parapet. By digging beneath the surface of these “chapter headings,” we find where the Torah and Jewish law stand on gun control.

The Torah addresses the sanctity of life in many places, but our Sages of Blessed Memory focused on one verse in particular, Deuteronomy 4:9: “Take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously.”

As the Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative Code of Jewish Law, notes, this verse, among other things, “is a positive commandment” to remove and destroy anything that poses a possible danger to life. (See the Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 427:8.)

The goring ox and the open pit laws are found in Exodus 21:29-36. This section begins with an ox that habitually gores “and its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it.” The open pit deals with someone digging a hole in the ground and leaving it uncovered, leading to the injury or death of a person or an animal.

These verses deal with instances of carelessness that lead to harm. The ox that gores represents anything we own that we either suspect or know can cause injury to people or property.

The open pit represents any public hazard we create, such as parking in a crosswalk, which forces people to go outside the crosswalk to cross the street or forcing cars into the opposite lane of traffic by double-parking on a busy two-lane street.

Taken together, the ox and the pit are relevant to the gun control issue. Guns can injure and they can kill, and the owner knows that. He or she is no different than the forewarned owner of the ox. A person (especially a child or teenager) who handles a gun with no adequate safety device is encountering an uncovered pit. The same goes for leaving a loaded gun unsecured.

That lack of a safety device also violates two laws in Leviticus 19, “You shall not…place a stumbling block before the blind” (verse 14), and “You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor” (verse 16).

In its narrow sense, putting a stumbling block before the blind is creating a situation that may cause harm to an unsuspecting (and therefore “blind”) person. In its broader sense, among other things, it is misleading someone into doing something inappropriate or worse that could cause harm to that person or someone else. Leaving a loaded gun with no adequate safety device on it in an unsecured place is covered by both senses.

Standing by the blood of someone, in its narrow sense, means not being effectively proactive in saving someone in distress. For example, a person comes across someone who is drowning. He or she calls 911 to help save that person, even though that help clearly cannot arrive in time, but otherwise does not try to rescue the drowning person or in some effective way help that person to at least stay afloat until help does arrive. In its broader sense, this “chapter heading” requires us to be proactive in preventing anything that can put life in jeopardy. That includes which politicians and organizations we support in any way. Again, a loaded gun with no adequate safety device on it in an unsecured place is covered by both senses.

Perhaps the most relevant Torah commandment is the law of the parapet (see Deuteronomy 22:8), because it brings all of the laws already mentioned into the home itself. “When you build a new house, you must make a parapet [a high-enough guardrail or some other protective device] for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone [or anything] should fall from it,” especially, in the case of a fallen object, if someone below is injured or killed. This law has broad implications. As Rabbi Natan, one of our most revered mid-second century C.E. sages, explained, it includes prohibiting us from keeping anything in our homes that can be classified as a potential hazard, including a broken ladder or a vicious animal. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Bava Kamma 15b. Also see BT Ketubot 41b.)

That opinion has been universally held ever since. We see it, for example, in the writings of the mid-13th century commentator known as Chizkuni (Rabbi Chizkiyah ben Manoah; see his commentary on that verse). We see it again in the commentary of the late 19th century’s Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who adds another layer to it. This law is so strict, he wrote, that it may be “enforced even by intervention of the court,” which could order the removal of a potentially dangerous item.

This is startling considering the Torah’s concern for the right to privacy. If a person wants to keep a broken ladder in his or her home, so be it. Hirsch, however, was only clarifying something Maimonides, the Rambam, inferred in the 12th century. Rambam notes that “there is no difference between a roof or anything else that is dangerous and likely to cause death to a person.” Anything “that is a danger to life must be removed as a matter of positive duty and extremely necessary caution. The sages have prohibited many things because they are dangerous to life. If anyone disregards them [the sages] and says: ‘What business is it of others if I choose to risk my own life…,’ [that person] should be flogged for disobedience….” (See Rambam’s Laws of the Murderer and the Preservation of Life 11:4-5.) Hirsch may have seen this as a warrant for outside intervention.

In the 20th century, Rabbi J. David Bleich and Prof. Arthur J. Jacobson put the privacy vs. preservation rule bluntly in their book, “Jewish Law and Contemporary Issues”: “[W]‌hen preservation of life comes into conflict with other values, it is preservation of life that must triumph.” (See their insightful discussion beginning on page 185.)

The world in which the Torah was given never heard of a gun, but the Torah and the laws that flow from it have much to say about the issue—and none of what they say supports guns that lack adequate safety devices, or guns being placed in the hands of criminals or unstable persons, such as the Buffalo shooter on May 14 (the Talmud deals with this as well; see BT Avodah Zara 15b, for example), among other issues.

It does say, however, that we must be proactively engaged in all efforts, political and otherwise, to control gun violence. That includes not just voting in primaries and elections but voting intelligently by researching candidates and issues, and not supporting organizations such as the NRA, or the candidates it supports for public office.

Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is