Some Commentaries on Weapons, Violence and Responsibility

For study and discussion

This study sheet contains a brief sampling of rabbinic literature on violence, weapons, etc.  Others far more knowledgeable than I have done more thorough studies on these topics. Hopefully it is enough to demonstrate how the issues we wrestle with today have a long history in our tradition. SH.

Sanctity of Life:
Torah:   The seventh commandment states, “You shall not murder.” (Exodus 20:13)
Talmud: “Anyone who takes a life it is as though he has destroyed the universe and anyone who saves a life it is as though he has saved the universe.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5.)

The concept of Lifnei Iver:

In Leviticus 19:14 we read:
You shall not curse a deaf person.
You shall not place a stumbling block before a blind person.

ידלֹֽא־תְקַלֵּ֣ל חֵרֵ֔שׁ וְלִפְנֵ֣י עִוֵּ֔ר לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן מִכְשֹׁ֑ל

Lifnei iver, placing a stumbling block before the blind, also refers to the prohibition against taking any action which would allow another person to “fall” -- that is, to sin.  Based on Leviticus 19:14, placing any kind of prohibited temptation in front of someone is forbidden.

Selling weapons to potential criminals:
An example from Nedarim 62b [source:]

רב אשי הוה ליה ההוא אבא זבניה לבי נורא א"ל רבינא לרב אשי האיכא (ויקרא יט, יד) לפני עור לא תתן מכשול א"ל רוב עצים להסקה ניתנו:

Rav Ashi had a particular forest, and he sold it for its wood to the temple of fire worship. Ravina said to Rav Ashi: Isn’t there the prohibition: “You shall not put a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14), which prohibits assisting others in committing transgressions? And yet you are providing assistance to an idolatrous cult. He said to him: Most of the wood they use is for kindling, not for their ritual service. Consequently, I need not be concerned that the particular wood that I have sold them will be used for idolatry.*

According to this text, Ravina’s argument against selling wood to fire-worshipping idolaters is based on the concept of lifnei iver - by selling wood to them, he is contributing to their ability to practice their idolatrous ways.   Rav Ashi’s counter-argument states that most of the wood will be used for kindling and not for idol-worship, therefore it is acceptable to sell them the forest

Does Rav Ashi’s case support the argument in favor of gun sales, if it is thought that most guns are sold for the benign purpose of self-defense while some might indeed be used for murder?

*selctions from the Talmud cited in this document are found on words in bold are from the Talmudic source, framed in translation-clarification by Sefaria.

Elsewhere we find the argument that it is forbidden to sell weapons to someone whom you know will use them for harmful purposes: 
Avodah Zarah 15b:  

ועוד תניא אין מוכרין להם לא זיין ולא כלי זיין ואין משחיזין להן את הזיין ואין מוכרין להן לא סדן ולא קולרין ולא כבלים ולא שלשלאות של ברזל אחד עובד כוכבים ואחד כותי

And furthermore, it is taught… One may not sell weapons to gentiles or the auxiliary equipment of weapons, and one may not sharpen weapons for them. And one may not sell them stocks used for fastening the feet of prisoners, or iron neck chains [kolarin], or foot chains, or iron chains. *

Note: the prohibition against selling weapons specifically to gentiles – idolaters --  is based on the belief in those days that a non-Jew, one who does not follow God’s commandments, is more prone to violence.    A later passage from Avodah Zarah 15b makes it clear that it is equally forbidden to sell weapons to a Jew who is a “bandit” – a Jew who is known to be prone to violence:

א"ר דימי בר אבא כדרך שאסור למכור לעובד כוכבים אסור למכור ללסטים ישראל ה"ד אי דחשיד דקטיל פשיטא היינו עובד כוכבים

Rav Dimi bar Abba says: Just as it is prohibited to sell to a gentile, it is prohibited to sell to an armed bandit who is a Jew. The Gemara clarifies: What are the circumstances of this prohibition? If the thief is suspected of killing, isn’t it obvious that it is prohibited? After all, he is the same as a gentile. Providing a Jew who might kill with weapons is no different from giving a weapon to a gentile, as in both cases one violates the prohibition: Do not place a stumbling block before the blind.*

Presumably an “armed bandit” has commited violence before, therefore it is forbidden to sell them a weapon.  An ancient case for background checks?

What is our responsibility?
Nehama Leibowitz, the renowned Bible teacher (1905-1997), offers an even broader view of lifnei iver:
"…the Torah teaches us that even by sitting at home doing nothing, by complete passivity and divorcement from society, one cannot shake off responsibility for what is transpiring in the world at large… By not protesting … you have become responsible for any harm arising therefrom, and have violated the prohibition: "Thou shalt not put a stumbling block before the blind…"  (Leibowitz, Nehama (1983). Studies in Vayikra (Leviticus). Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization)

If you sit fenced off in your apathy, says G*d, 
If you look at the stars and yawn,
If you see suffering and do not cry out,  
Then I created you in vain, says G*d.

From the poet Aaron Zeitlin (1898 Belarus – 1973 nyc)

[ Cantor Sandy Horowitz - New York March 2018 - Nisan 5778 ]

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