When does Jewish halacha permit one to take a life
An Overview of Self and Other Defense

By Rabbi Shlomo Nachman © November 06, 2017 (last update, April 27, 2023)

Jewish Maxims:
"Kill him who unlawfully attempts to kill thee"
"The act of breaking in is the burglar's death warrant"

"Rashi" is an acronym for Rabbi Solomon bar Isaac, who lived from 1040 to 1105. He is one our most important biblical literalist commentators and one of my main sources for understanding the Tanach properly. Rashi writes that killing a burglar is lawful only when the burglar is "in the very act of forcing the entry." In such a case, there is no blood guilt, for the burglar "has been dead from the very beginning of his criminal act."

Rashi explains:

Here the Torah teaches you the rule: "If one comes with the intention of killing you, be quick and kill him."— And this burglar actually came with the intention of killing you, for he knew full well that no one can hold himself in check, looking on whilst people are stealing his property before his eyes and doing nothing. He (the thief) therefore obviously came with this purpose in view—that in case the owner of the property would resist him, he would kill him.

Jewish law says: "Kill him before he kills you or another."

Rambam goes farther. The great Jewish legal scholar Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, a/k/a "Rambam" (1153-1204) takes a more expansive view of self-defense than Rashi. Maimonides agrees with all the earlier scholars that the rationale for killing the burglar, the main category of law discussed in this area, is the presumption of danger. Specifically, the rationale is explained as "[the burglar] thought to enter with the intention to murder someone [at least if caught].

When a burglar breaks in, the victim has no way of knowing his/her intention, to just illicitly profit, to kill, to kill only if caught, or not to kill regardless. Torah commands us to Choose Life. The life of the innocent always outweighs the life of the perpetrator, so the weight here is given in defence of innocent life. The realistic perception of the threat is enough, halachically speaking.

The fourteen-volume Mishneh Torah ("Repetition of the Torah") by Maimonides elaborated on the law regarding self-defense against burglars:

7. When a person breaks into [a home] —whether at night or during the day—license is granted to kill him. If either the homeowner [OR] another person kills him, they are not liable."

This tells us that if the wrongdoer has the INTENTION, the WILLINGNESS, and/or the OPPORTUNITY, if caught in some misdeed, to murder another person that person can and indeed should be killed in defence of the innocent. Such a "killing" is not "murder" under direct halachic rulings. Our mandated compassion does not override the protection of innocent life.

Although Exodus 22:2 speaks of "the sun shining upon him," this is interpreted by our sages, as explained in Halachah 10, as referring to a person who one KNOWS will not kill him, and not to a thief, a terrorist, etc. and literally to an event that takes place during the day.

One may NOT take a human life in the absence of perceived willingness or ability of the wrongdoer to take a life. When willingness or ability to take a human life is present one may in good conscience take that person's life to save his own or that of another. Indeed to do otherwise is forbidden.

Maimonides continued:

The license to kill him applies both on the Sabbath and during the week; one may kill in any possible manner available.
[The license to kill] applies to a thief caught breaking in or one caught on a person's roof, courtyard or enclosed area, whether during the day or during the night...
Why does the Torah permit the blood of such a thief [to be shed] although he is only attempting [to steal] money? Because it is an accepted presumption that if the house-owner arises and attempts to prevent [the thief from stealing], [the thief] will slay him. And thus the thief entering his house to steal is in effect a pursuer seeking to killing another. Therefore, he SHOULD be killed, "whether he is an adult or a minor, or a man or a woman."
BUT if it is clear that the thief [who breaks in] will not kill him and instead is only seeking financial gain, it is forbidden to kill [the thief].

Realistically the presumption must the potential victim's to make, whether or not a threat of death is present. In a public place of course this decision is more difficult to make. Seeing someone with a bulge revealing a possible concealed weapon for instance is certainly not a justification, G-d forbid, but if that weapon is taken out and the person begins to threaten and G-d forbid to shoot people, then the case is clear and action may and indeed should be taken given opportunity to save innocent life. And again, while we are commanded to show compassion and forgiveness, preserving life trumps this.

Samuel Mendelsohn was a late nineteenth and early twentieth century Jewish rabbi and halachic commentator. For an English language audience he provides a good summary of what the more prestigious commentators like Rashi and Rambam have concluded. Summarizing up various portions of the halacha Mendelsohn wrote that the taking of human life is justifiable under the following conditions:

In the execution of condemned criminals by the legal executioners of legitimate government (i.e. not by vigilantes or individual volition).

In the defense of human life; thus if one attempts the life of another, as in the case of these terrorist attacks, the crime SHOULD be prevented, if necessary, by killing the would-be criminal or terrorist. Such actions are not "murders" they are justified "killings." according to the halacha.

In defense of chastity, which is to say, killings to prevent rape, adultery, incest, or sexual abuses done to minors. I'd add to protect minors from any and all serious abuses where killing is the only way to protect the child.

    Note that unlike most other legal codes, Jewish halacha makes no distinction between rape and adultery. It imposes an affirmative obligation on everyone (not just a relative of the woman in question) "to prevent by all necessary force the commission of the crime." Under Jewish Law adultery is viewed as rape and carries the same severe sentences.
And in cases of self-defense, and that not only when one directly attempts another's life, but again also when he discovers a burglar on his premises during the night (Mendelsohn does not elaborate on the day verses night debate but I assume he agrees with Rambam and Rashi here).

Mendelsohn elaborates that in self-defense circumstances, the killing must be for the purpose of preventing a crime, rather than revenging a completed crime, and deadly force can be used only when other means, such as "maiming the culprit," would not suffice. While Rashi specifically advocate taking the life of the culprit immediately, this halachic permission extends for as long as the threat of death is present. Wisdom suggests taking needed action sooner than later.
If, therefore, an active terrorist appears in a shul or church, a shopping mall or elsewhere, it is halachically permissible to use any force necessary to stop him, and to defend innocent life, whether your own or that of another.

Being properly trained and armed is therefore completely Torah and halachically compliant and given the current state of affairs eminently intelligent. It is (past) time that we as civilized people stand up and declare loudly for all the enemies of civilization to hear "We have had enough! With the help of the heaven we will not tolerate this insanity any longer!

"I Won't Back Down"

"I Won't Back Down"

Well I won't back down, no I won't back down
You could stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won't back down

Gonna stand my ground, won't be turned around
And I'll keep this world from draggin' me down
Gonna stand my ground and I won't back down

Hey baby, there ain't no easy way out
Hey I will stand my ground
And I won't back down

Well I know what's right, I got just one life
In a world that keeps on pushin' me around
But I'll stand my ground and I won't back down

Hey baby there ain't no easy way out
Hey I will stand my ground
And I won't back down
No, I won't back down

References used for this piece: The Torah and Self-defense, by Dave Kopel.

USA: Worst Religious Community Shooting in our history, Fox News Report

Click Here For Our Content Page

Click Here For Our Beit Emunah Shul Page

Got Questions or Comments?
Let us know

AllFaith.com in Exile

Be the Blessing you were created to be
Don't let the perfect defeat the good

index sitemap advanced
search engine by freefind
index sitemap advanced
search engine by freefind