Be Prepared to Save a Life; Don’t Shirk Responsibility

When I was a young boy, we regularly visited the Babbe, my mom’s mother and our only grandparent who survived the Holocaust. On one occasion, my dad, of blessed memory, and I were waiting at the elevator to go up to her apartment in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. What happened next was a life-defining moment.

The elevator doors opened to a horrible scene of a young man violently assaulting an older woman. My dad’s reaction was instantaneous. He wrestled the man away and the villain promptly fled away. The scene made a lasting impression. My dad was a hero, who had saved a person; but to him it was just what ordinary people did, when chancing upon others in danger. Running and hiding or ignoring the situation was not an option; immediate and decisive action was required to save the life of another.

As we grew up on the streets of Brooklyn and Queens, we faced many similar challenges. My dad taught us the basics of how to handle ourselves and we learnt more from our friends, in youth groups and at school. The theme was be prepared to defend yourself and others, when necessary.

To my dad, a Holocaust survivor, who miraculously survived the horrors of Auschwitz, the blessed land of America was the home of the free and the brave. It was not like the old country, where, as he bemoaned, there just was no choice. Jews were forbidden to defend themselves or others. Those who did were usually severely beaten and killed by the Nazis or the local police, acting in concert with them. Freedom in America meant not only the right to work hard, study and succeed; it also meant the freedom and ability to help those in need. How could we not train and be prepared to do so?

It certainly came in handy one day, when my wife and I were traveling to Manhattan by subway. I was working for Mayor Ed Koch’s administration at the time and he urged everyone to use public transportation. We were off to see a Broadway play and, living in Brooklyn then, we took the subway. We were alone in one of the cars when a man came aboard. He pulled out a knife and hovered over us threateningly. He saw my yarmulke and said, “Oh Jews! I like Jewish blood” and came at us. He must have been somewhat inebriated, because when I pushed him down, he stayed away. We quickly exited at the next stop. I still shudder when I think of what might have happened, if we just cowered in the corner impotently or begged for mercy.

It’s now more than four decades later and all that’s really changed is that, in the current milieu of shamelessness and lawlessness, simmering latent anti-Semitism has become patent and even more violent. The devastating murderous attacks on innocent Jewish souls, HY”D, at the Pittsburgh and Poway Synagogues were horrendous. As bad as it was, the death toll would have been even worse, but for the heroic actions taken by a few brave and able individuals. However, it didn’t end there. We are now witness to a series of violent anti-Semitic attacks in Crown Heights. It is hard to believe these are isolated incidents by a few deranged individuals. The muted response by many, ostensibly because the perpetrators were not white supremacists, is galling. Even more pernicious are the lame excuses bandied about by some, in an effort to afford cover to their intersectional cohorts, ascribing the violence to backlash from gentrification. I guess they just ignore the fact that these kinds of attacks don’t typically occur in the many other burgeoning areas of New York City.

Anti-Semitism is not rational and neither are these contrived explanations. We must face up to the fact that anti-Semitism exists on the right and left of the political spectrum and in between. Our charge is to be prepared and able to intervene to save those in harm’s way.

The Bible[i] obligates a person not to stand by while another’s blood is shed. The Talmud[ii] juxtaposes this verse with another Biblical verse[iii] about not shirking responsibility and derives an important lesson. The prescribed standard of appropriate conduct applicable to aiding a person in mortal danger is very high. A person is enjoined to do what it takes to save another’s life[iv], even if it means the person has to take some level of risk to his or her own life[v].

As I read the Talmudic discussion, I couldn’t help but contrast it with the modern approach to dealing with a life-threatening situation. Everyone is advised to run or hunker down, as opposed to confronting the evil, directly. This appears to be good advice, given the absence of weapons and lack of training to deal with this kind of a situation. However, is intentionally maintaining a lack of readiness, because of an inflexible attitude of disdain for weapons, a morally correct posture? Of course it’s repugnant to allow criminals to be armed. It is immoral to permit them to prey on innocent souls with impunity. But, what about the good guys; how are they to be expected to intervene to save someone from an armed killer, unless they are trained and properly equipped to do so? Indeed, is there a duty to be prepared?

The Talmud[vi] records that a parent is, among other things, required to teach a child Torah, a means of earning a living and, according to some[vii], how to swim. The Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael[viii] adds another category to this obligation. It records that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi also required a parent to teach a child a variety of life skills[ix] to sustain, develop and preserve the society and polity. This would perforce include the skills needed for the defense of the nation.

The Talmud[x] explores the matter of studying martial skills and derives the obligation to do so from a number of verses in the Prophets and Bible. Thus, it notes that after Saul was killed by enemy archers, from a distance and not in close combat with a sword, David insisted that all the people of his tribe of Judah master archery[xi]. The Talmud goes on to trace this obligation back to the Book of Genesis[xii], where Jacob[xiii] blessed both the hands of Judah with martial skill. The Talmud reasons what kind of weapon requires use of both hands; it is the bow. In modern parlance, the analogy might be to a rifle[xiv], which also requires use of both hands. The Talmud also cites other sources for the obligation to have weapons training. This includes in Judges[xv], where the people of Israel are instructed[xvi] to study the art of war[xvii].

As to the matter of carrying weapons, Nehemiah[xviii] describes the obligation to do so, as a part of a mutually supporting system of self-defense. The context was the building of the Second Temple and the need to defend those working on the project against terrorists. Everyone involved in the project was required to be armed.

The Talmud discusses certain restrictions on the sale of arms that are most enlightening. Thus, it cautions against selling weapons to armed robbers or those who might use them offensively to menace the public[xix]. It also restricts the sale of weapons to an avenging blood relative in a City of Refuge, because of the risk it might wrongfully be used against a person entitled to sanctuary there[xx]. However, weapon sales are not otherwise generally prohibited. Carrying weapons is also permitted, subject to certain restrictions, such as those relating to the Sabbath, subject however, to numerous qualifications, when they are needed for self-defense[xxi].

One of the principles underlying the defensive doctrine of being armed is the notion of its deterrence value[xxii]. This principle animates a number of Halachic rulings[xxiii] permitting firearms to be carried on the Sabbath. Weapons are generally viewed as a necessary defensive tool. In this regard, as Nachmanides[xxiv] notes, it is important to remember, it’s the killer, not the weapon or its maker, who causes harm. Nevertheless, there are also general safeguards under the Halacha that must be followed when dealing with any dangerous instruments to avoid unintended harm[xxv]. These are analogous to the best practices for the safe storage of weapons and gun safety standards.

Of course, there must also be compliance with the legal requirements and standards governing bearing of firearms and their actual use under applicable federal, state and local laws. Similarly, coordinating with our excellent local police department, which serves us so well. The combination does not detract from, but rather serves to enhance, the performance of the Biblical duty to come to the aid of others.

The Biblical theme is most cogent and relevant to our times. Deluding ourselves into believing that we are somehow immune from the resurgence of overt and violent anti-Semitic attacks and ignoring the plight of others is antithetical to our traditions. As Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik advised[xxvi], when Jews are in jeopardy we must raise a hue and cry. The situation is dangerous and there is compelling reason for learning self-defense techniques and the legal, safe and proper use of arms. How else to satisfy the noble duty of coming to the aid of another when in mortal danger? There is no virtue in being unprepared and unable to save oneself[xxvii] or another[xxviii].

Our Synagogue has taken this duty very seriously. A security committee was formed and a group of trained men and women of our Synagogue work with armed security guards to patrol the perimeter of the Synagogue and assure our safety during services. They are to be commended for their dedication and skill. Seeing them standing their post with a seriousness of purpose is inspiring. The team of trained and motivated people stands ready to intervene and defend anyone in extremis. They are also a visible deterrent to anyone contemplating any mischief or harm. It is a model worthy of emulation.

May we be prepared to save others in danger; but never have to use those skills. Best wishes for a happy, healthy and safe new year.


[i] Leviticus 19:16.

[ii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 73a.

[iii] Deuteronomy 22:2-4.

[iv] The Talmud also discusses the right to self-defense in Mishna Sanhedrin 8:6, as well as, Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Sanhedrin (page 72a) and Yoma (page 85a). It derives this duty from Exodus 22:1. See also Mechilta D’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 22:1. See further Malbim commentary on Leviticus, Kedoshim 41.

[v] The nature and level of the risk a passerby is required to assume to save the life of another is a critical part of the discussions in the Talmud. In this regard, it is important to note that the obligation is not absolute and unqualified. See for example Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia, at page 62a.

[vi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, at page 29a, as well as, Tosefta Kiddushin 1:8.

[vii] See Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael 13:13, which ascribes this teaching to Rabbi Akiva.

[viii] Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael 13:13.

[ix] Encapsulated by the Hebrew term, ‘Yishuv Medina’.

[x] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Avoda Zara, at page 25a.

[xi] See II Samuel 1:18. See also the Abarbanel commentary thereon, as well as, the Mezudat David and Radak.

[xii] Genesis 49:8. See also Ramban commentary on Deuteronomy 33:7.

[xiii] The Bible expressly notes the martial skills of our forefathers Abraham (Genesis 14:14-15) and Jacob (Genesis 32: 25-29 and 48:22).

[xiv] Also like a bow, it is not a weapon of choice in close combat and can be used most effectively from a distance.

[xv] Judges 3:2. See also Malbim and Metzudat David commentaries thereon.

[xvi] See also King David (Psalms 18:35 and 144:1). King David also counsels that can’t just trust weapons alone, must pray to G-d (See Psalms 44:7-8 and Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra, at page 123a).

[xvii] Interestingly, the Philistines, in their effort to conquer the Land of Israel eliminated production of iron implements (i.e.: arms makers) so that weapons could not be produced (see I Samuel 13:19 and Rashi commentary thereon).

[xviii] Nehemiah 4:10-12. See also Malbim and Metzudat David commentaries thereon, which note that everyone involved in the building project was armed.

[xix] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Avoda Zara, at page 15b, as well as, Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Laws of Idolatry 9:8 and Laws of Murder and the Preservation of Life 12:12, 13 (which expressly permits the sale of weapons to local citizens for self-defense) and 14.

[xx] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Makkot, at page 10a and Rashi commentary thereon.

[xxi] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Shabbos, at page 73a, as well as, Eruvin, at page 45a.

[xxii] See, for example, the story of Resh Lakish saving Rabbi Issi, who had been kidnapped, reported in the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Terumot 8:4 (page 84b of Artscroll edition). While some urged restraint to avoid others being captured and killed, Resh Lakish could not abide doing nothing. Instead he set out to save him, at the risk of his own life. He was prepared to fight and this was no mean threat given his superb martial skills. (See Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Moed Katan 3:7, at page 21a of Artscroll edition, describing how Resh Lakish was able to handle himself well in a fight and throw a decisive punch, when necessary and to good effect.) He managed to persuade the captors to free Rav Issi, without having to resort to the use of force.

[xxiii] See, for example, Shmirat Shabbat Ke-Hilchato 20:28; Rav Shlomo Goren’s Responsa, Meshiv Milchama 2:61; Shulchan Shlomo, Orach Chaim 308:16; Rabbi Eliezer Waldman’s Responsa, Tzitz Eliezar, Volume 10, Section 18; Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef’s Responsa, Yechaveh Daat, Volume 5, Section 18; Rabbi Yekutiel Halberstam’s Responsa of Divrei Yaziv, Orach Chaim, Section 148; and Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz’s Responsa, Melomdei Milchoma, Shabbat 68. There are those who disagree with this approach.

[xxiv] In his commentary on Genesis 4:23.

[xxv] See Mishna, Bava Kamma 7:7, as well as, Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Bava Kamma (page 34a) and Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Kamma (pages 79b and 83a), which permit a vicious attack dog in the home, so long as it is chained. Cf. Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Bava Kamma (page 46a) and Nedarim (page 41b), citing Deuteronomy 22:8 (which requires the requires the safeguard of a parapet being installed on a roof, to protect those using it from accidentally falling). Maimonides (Mishne Torah, Laws of Damages to Property 5:9) and Rabbi Yosef Karo and the Rema (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 409:3) permit such an attack dog in the home so long as it’s chained. In this regard, it might be noted that Deuteronomy 22:8 does not prohibit use of the roof, because it is inherently dangerous; rather, it requires that appropriate precautions be taken to safeguard those using the roof. It is suggested the Halachic rulings noted above apply a similar safeguard standard, instead of absolute prohibition.

[xxvi] In a meeting where the author was present.

[xxvii] See the Mishna (Sanhedrin 8:6 and Rashi commentary thereon) and Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Sanhedrin, at pages 72a-b and Yoma, at page 85a), which take the matter of self-defense very seriously. The Biblical verse (Exodus 22:1) cited in the Talmud deals with a thief breaking into a home and the right to use lethal force.

[xxviii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 37a, declares saving even one life is the equivalent of preserving the entire world

About the Author
Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.
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