Carrying a Gun on Shabbos: The Issues and Some Possible Conclusions
The following essay is an examination of some of the issues in the halachos of self-defense, and weapons on Shabbos in and out of an eruv. This discussion is entirely my opinion and should not be considered as a psak halacha. For a practical halachic ruling in this matter, please consult with the halachic authority of your choice and tradition.
I AM NOT A POSEK! I am a college physical science professor and semicha student, specializing in hilchos Shabbos, with an academic interest in halachic issues in self-defense and contemporary applications of halacha. This essay’s purpose is to stimulate further discussion of these issues and to encourage the interested to approach their halachic authorities for rulings on this matter, and indeed on any major halachic issues. DO NOT USE THIS ESSAY AS A SOURCE FOR PRACTICAL HALACHA WITHOUT CONSULTING A COMPETENT HALACHIC AUTHORITY!
I grant permission to redistribute this essay so long as this introduction is included unaltered, and the text is not altered in any way.
The Torah (Shemot 22:1-2) gives the law of the sneak thief in one’s house, who is permitted to be killed at night, but a daytime burglar is not. The gemara in Sanhedrin, 72a, comments on this that “The Torah commands, ‘If one comes to kill you, kill him first.” Rambam in Mishneh Torah, Hichos Geneivah, 9:7, comments that the law of killing a thief applies day or night, on Shabbos or during the week, and one is permitted to kill the thief by any means available to you. Continuing, Rambam explains in 9:8 that the verse’s remark of the thief who sneaks in at night is a stereotypical formulation: thieves typically work by sneaking around at night. Rambam in 9:9 then explains that the permit to kill a thief is granted because it is human nature to want to defend your home and property, and the Torah thus allows us to act. The daytime thief, who one is not permitted to kill, Rambam comments (9:10), is if you recognize the thief as someone who has absolutely no murderous intent, such as one’s own father. The commentary Magid Mishneh remarks that these are all relative statements: if you are certain that your father would kill you, you may respond with deadly force.
We see then that one is allowed, within one’s home, to kill even in defense of his property. What about self-defense elsewhere? Vayikra 19:16 states “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” A Jew is not permitted to stand idle while someone is trying to kill someone else. Rambam gives mitzvas asei 247 as “To save the pursued, even at the cost of the life of the pursuer.” Needless to say, this is in keeping with the Talmudic dictum in Sanhedrin, quoted above. One certainly should not stand idly while his own blood is at risk.
Having established that self-defense is not only permitted by the Torah, but obligatory, we can turn to methodology of defense. We can see from the case of the sneak thief that one is permitted to use whatever means is available to defend himself.
Guns on Shabbos
The primary issue with carrying a gun on Shabbos is the muktze status of the gun. A gun fires the projectile by igniting a primer compound which then ignites the gunpowder. Igniting the primer and powder is forbidden on Shabbos under the prohibition of ריבעמ, igniting a fire. Therefore, firing a gun recreationally would be forbidden on Shabbos. However, is firing the bullet the primary purpose of a defensive firearm? Studies have shown that somewhere between 50000 and one million times a year, the mere presentation of a firearm serves to deter commission of a crime. It can therefore be argued that intimidation, rather than shooting, is the main use for a gun. (One could then argue that a precision target rifle used only for competition would be muktze as chisaron kis, due to its sole use for competition, but this is beyond the scope of this essay.) If a gun is muktze, carrying it, and indeed even moving it, would in most cases be forbidden.
R’ Shlomo Zalman Aurbach is quoted in Shemiras Shabbos Ke-Hilkhasah, ch. 20 n. 28, as commenting that a gun’s primary purpose is intimidation, and that therefore a gun is not muktze since it is a permitted use.
Rabbi Shlomo Goren in Meshiv Milchamah vol. 2 pp. 53-54 comments that the vast majority of uses for a gun is to save a life, either indirectly (through the intimidation factor) or directly, thus a gun is not muktze because it is a matter of pekuach nefesh.
I was not able to find many sources that hold guns to be muktze.
In Hilchos Tzava by Rabbi Zachariah Ben Shlomo, (p. 304 n. 1), comments that an item's muktze status is determined by what it is made for. A gun is made to be shot, which is forbidden on Shabbos, so it is muktzah. This would be directly contradictory to the conclusions of both R. Aurbach and R. Goren.
I saw R. Shlomo Min Hahar (Dinei tzava U-Milchamah, par. 220) quoted as ruling directly that a gun is considered a k'li she-melachto le-issur, an object whose primary purpose is forbidden on Shabbos, and therefore cannot be used or handled on Shabbos. I haven’t been able to locate this source to be able to read it directly (see http://hirhurim.blogspot.com/2008/09/guns-on-shabbos.html?m=1 for the reference).
The Mishnah Berurah (Hilchos Shabbos 308) discusses muktze status, and concludes that in order for an object to be a kli she-melachto le-issur, two conditions must be met: the object’s primary purpose must be forbidden and the majority of its uses must be prohibited actions. Based on this, a gun meets the first criterion but not the second, as the most frequent uses of a gun are for intimidation rather than firing the bullet. Thus, by this standard, a gun is not a kli she-melachto le-issur. The Mishnah Berurah’s opinion on muktze seems to be the standard most frequently accepted today.
The shulchan aruch, aruch hashulchan, and the or zarua all rule that a weapon is not a tachshit, an ornament and thus can't be carried outside an Eruv under normal circumstances, but they all appear to assume that a weapon is not muktze. One would assume that if a weapon were muktze, there would be no need to discuss whether a weapon is a tachshit. The Gemara in Sanhedrin mentioned above clearly concludes that a weapon is NOT an ornament and thus not permissible to carry outside an eruv, but gives no indication that such would be assur on Shabbos inside an eruv. I will discuss this issue further later on.
It seems therefore, based on these considerations, that a gun is not muktze on Shabbos, and would therefore be permitted to handle and carry on Shabbos within an eruv.
Carrying a gun outside an eruv on Shabbos
The Gemara in Shabbos 63a brings the Mishnah which forbids carrying weapons or a shield on Shabbos (without an eruv). Rabbi Eliezer in the Mishnah says that they are ornaments. The sages disagree, quoting the verse in Yeshaya 2:4: “And they will beat their swords into plowshares…”, arguing that weapons will not be needed in the messianic era and therefore cannot be ornaments. In the gemara following, Abayei comments that a weapon is like a lit candle in the day, meaning having no practical value.
However, the gemara in Eruvin 45a discusses what happens if a Jewish town is besieged. R’ Yehuda in the name of Rav says that the townspeople are forbidden to desecrate Shabbos because of this, but only in the case if they came for money. If they came with intention of harm, the people can fight them. If the town is a frontier area, they can fight against the invaders regardless of the cause. The Or Zarua (II.84:13) comments on this Mishnah. He mentions the Jews of Bohemia, who would put on their armor and weapons on erev Shabbos (presumably wearing them into Shabbos) in case they were called to do guard duty on the walls of the city. However, he continues that the reason the gemara in eruvin allows fighting against invaders in frontier areas in any case is that if they aren’t stopped, they will do greater damage elsewhere in the country. For this reason, he rules that it is impossible to tell if bandits are out just to plunder or to kill, and therefore, if there are bandits around, one is permitted to carry weapons on Shabbos to counteract the pikuach nefesh, risk to lives. As justification, he cites the gemara in Shabbos 61a, which allows one to wear an amulet, even an unproven one, on Shabbos even in a Reshus Harabbim, a public domain (which cannot be enclosed in an eruv).
The implication of the Or Zarua is that if one can wear an unproven amulet on Shabbos to protect one’s life, even in a reshus harabbim, then certainly one should be allowed to wear a sword/weapon even in an area without an eruv when lives are at risk.
The issue of pikuach nefesh, risk to lives, is central here. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 328:13) states that whoever is quick to violate Shabbos when there is a risk to lives is praiseworthy. We see from this that we take risks to Jewish lives extremely seriously in Halacha: there is an obligation to desecrate the Shabbos if there is even a remote risk to a life. It should be emphasized that when a risk to life situation exists, almost all halachic prohibitions are suspended, with the exception of idolatry, sexual impropriety, and murder (which is distinct from killing in self-defense).
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe Orach Chaim 4:81) permits members of Hatzalah to wear their radios in the normal way on Shabbos, without an eruv, because they are involved in saving lives. He also argues based on the gemara in Shabbos 63a, that we mentioned above, that an object that is not normally considered ornamental can be an ornament if indicates someone’s rank or honorable position. He states that a haztalah radio is a mark of honor for the wearer because it indicates their involvement in the great mitzvah of saving lives. He remarks that weapons would be ornaments, but for the gemara’s citation of the pasuk from Yeshaya.
It should be noted that R’ Eliezer in that gemara quotes Tehillim 45:4 saying “Gird your sword upon your thigh, mighty one, your glory and your splendor”. This would imply that a sword is a glory for a mighty one, and thus weapons can be ornamental. The gemara presents no answer to this verse. Along these lines, the Aruch Hashulchan (Hilchos Shabbos, 301:51) comments that weapons are an ornament to a soldier and are therefore considered part of his clothing (and would therefore be permitted to be worn outside an eruv).
Pikuach Nefesh is very subjective and every posek, rishon, and Acharon seems to have a different view of where to draw the line. I am not able to reach a firm conclusion on the subject, so I have to fall back on the Gemara in Yoma פ״ד:א where there is a discussion of a doubtful risk to life on Shabbos, and the Gemara is pretty clear that even is a doubtful risk we can violate Shabbos. I was always taught that we should be fairly proactive in protecting life and health ("we're not lenient on Shabbos, we are strict on protecting life", said one of my teachers). I feel it is not possible to provide a general statement on what comprises sufficient pikuach nefesh to allow for a violation of Shabbos. Hence, I feel that it is up to an individual to decide if sufficient risk to life exists, in consultation with his halachic advisors.
In an eruv – guns are not muktze, according to the majority of the authorities. If this is in fact the case, one would be permitted to wear a gun on Shabbos. This is in fact common practice in Israel, where many men carry their guns on Shabbos.
Outside an eruv – One may only violate Shabbos if pekuach nefesh exists. I tend toward a liberal interpretation of pekuach nefesh. The question of what degree of potential pekuach nefesh is needed to justify a violation of Shabbos is a large and involved question independent of this one, and must be decided in consultation with halachic authorities.
It is my fervent hope that the verses from יואל are fulfilled very soon, so that we will not need to discuss this issue further. וה' מציון ידאג ומירושלים ייתן קולו ורעשו שמים וארץ וה' מחסה לעמו ומעוז לבני ישראל. וידעתם כי אָנִי ה' אלוקיכם שכן בציון הר קדש' והיתה ירושלים קדש וזרים לא יעברו בה עוד. –יואל ד: ט"ז-י"ז.
And The LORD shall roar from Zion and give His voice from Jerusalem and the heavens and earth shall tremble, but The LORD shall be a refuge for his nation and a stronghold for the Children of Israel. And you will know that I am The LORD your God, who dwells on Zion, my holy mountain. And then Jerusalem will be holy, and strangers shall not pass through evermore. – Joel 4:17-18