Ask the Rabbi: May a Jew own a gun store?
The tragic mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, has drawn renewed attention to Jewish attitudes toward gun control policy.
Lahav gun store Photo: Ben Hartman
The tragic mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, has drawn renewed attention to
Jewish attitudes toward weapons and gun control policy. In a series of articles
in Jewish Ideas Daily, I have tried to postulate what policies one might derive
from Jewish law and values. This essay will focus on the level of responsibility
a gun seller has for the way his customers use their weapons.
forbids selling weapons to pagans because they are prone to using them
immorally. “One should not sell to idolaters either weapons or accessories of
weapons, nor should one sharpen any weapon for them, nor may one sell them
stocks, neck-chains, ropes or iron chains.”
Some Sages even pondered
whether one may sell protective gear, such as shields, to idolaters, because
they might also be used for aggressive purposes. Ultimately, protective wear was
excluded from the ban, but all agree that it is prohibited to sell raw materials
that are used exclusively for making weapons. The Sages also added to the list
of prohibited items wild animals or other beasts that threaten the public
Medieval commentators gave various explanations for these
regulations. Some were anxious that hostile neighbors would turn on the Jewish
community and use these weapons against them; others more broadly feared the
general destruction brought upon the world by the unethical use of weapons.
Several noted that Noahide Law prohibits homicide and that as a general rule,
Jews are proscribed from aiding and abetting in any sinful
Based on this latter principle, the Talmud adds that one may
not sell a weapon to a Jewish robber who we fear will use his weapon in the
course of the intrusion. The Sages further prohibited selling weapons to
scheming Jewish middlemen who would then sell them to these suspect gentiles. As
such, is is clear that the notion that a salesperson may simply close his eyes
to the harmful use of weapons is foreign to Jewish law. One may not sell a
weapon to any person – Jewish or gentile – who one suspects will use it
Yet the Talmud also notes that in Babylonia, Jews sold
weapons to gentile neighbors who used them to protect their cities. Some
medieval commentators deemed this a realpolitik dispensation: we need their help
in protecting us, and hopefully they will not later use the weapons against us.
Yet many medieval commentators understood this clause as a more principled
statement: One may sell a weapon to someone with whom we have friendly relations
and who we believe will use it responsibly, such as for the sake of
self-defense. Of course, such evaluations are subject to time and place and will
change in different societies.
Writing in the first decade of Israel’s
existence, Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Toledano (d. 1960), former chief rabbi of Tel Aviv
and Israel’s religious affairs minister, prohibited Israeli gunshop owners from
selling guns to local non-Jews (presumably from neighboring Arab villages) who
he feared, based on past violent incidents and continued animosity, would come
to use the weapons against Israel’s Jewish citizens. In contrast, the current
head of Jerusalem’s rabbinic courts, Rabbi Eliyahu Abrizal, has asserted that in
the contemporary climate, one is only prohibited from selling weapons to known
criminals. Otherwise, gun sales remain permissible to Jews and non-Jews alike.
Abrizal’s permissive stance seemingly relies on the assumption that the gun
shop’s customers have legitimate intentions for their purchase, such as
self-defense. He might further only be addressing the situation created by
Israel’s relatively successful gun control regulations, leaving unclear what he
would rule in a different country.
Abrizal also buttresses his position
with a significant legal caveat to the prohibition of aiding and abetting: one
is only liable if the person would have otherwise been unable to purchase the
item. If a gun (or other prohibited object) could be purchased elsewhere, then
the seller is absolved from definitive responsibility. Many medieval Jews were
involved in selling merchandise relating to Christian rituals, even as they
would normally be forbidden from trading in another religion’s artifacts. Not
all medieval decisors were comfortable with this principle, arguing that Jews
remain culpable, albeit on a lower level, for aiding in other people’s sins,
especially with regard to severe infractions like idolatry. Toledano and others
have contended that no such dispensation applies when it comes to weapons sales,
since a Jew is held liable for any role he played in helping someone commit
Given the debate over the use of this dispensation, it remains
difficult to allow Jews to sell weapons unless one can be very confident that
local gun control regulations will ensure that the buyer will use them
responsibly. This highlights the importance for Jews, both in Israel and around
the world, to lead the call for gun control regulations that will allow for
self-defense but do the utmost to ensure that weapons do not fall into the wrong
The writer teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and directs the Tikvah
Israel Seminars for post-high school students. Facebook.com/RabbiShlomoBrody.