It's Not Quite That Simple

For the week ending 22 March 2014 / 20 Adar II 5774


by Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Greenblatt
Library Library Library

Danny breaks into Jack’s house. Can Jack kill Danny?

Taking the life of another human is one of the most serious crimes which can be committed. It is one of Judaism’s “Big Three” - the three cardinal sins so abhorrent that a Jew must give up his life rather than commit (along with idolatry and certain intimate immorality). If someone places a gun to Jack’s head (G-d forbid) and tells him to kill someone or be killed, he has no right to kill to save his own life. As the Talmud puts it, “How do you know that your blood is redder than his?” That is, who are you to decide which of you should live and which should die? Be killed and do not kill.

Back to the case of the burglar. It would seem that even if he fears for his life, Homeowner Jack has no right to kill Burglar Danny. After all, be killed and do not kill.

Well, as with everything in Judaism, it’s not quite that simple! Let’s examine what the Torah has to say about killing in self-defense.

Let us begin with two verses from Shemot:

  1. If a thief is found sneaking in and is beaten to death, there is no charge of manslaughter.
  2. (But) if it the sun shone upon him, there is a charge of manslaughter.

The Talmud explains the first verse:

Rava asked, “What is the reason for the law regarding a sneak thief? It is widely known that a person will not stand idly by while his property is taken. The thief must have thought to himself, ‘If I break in, the owner will confront me and prevent me from stealing. If he does, I will kill him.’ The Torah therefore teaches, ‘If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first’.”

In other words, the Torah’s intention in framing the laws regarding a thief as it does is to illustrate the principle of pre-emptive killing in self-defense in a case where there is a presumption that the other party has murderous intent. Danny the Burglar, it is assumed, would kill if necessary, and therefore Jack the Innocent Homeowner is permitted to kill him if necessary. Danny is halachically termed a rodef - a pursuer - and his life is forfeit.

Rashi, the indispensable 11th-century commentator, brings up an interesting issue. According to the reasoning our Sages give, in a case where it cannot be assumed that Danny would kill Jack, for example, where Danny is Jack’s father, there is no provision for Jack the Son to kill Danny the Father, even if Daddy Danny steals all of Little Boy Jack’s possessions. Indeed, Rashi, quoting a midrashic source, explains that this is the real meaning of the curious expression ‘the sun shone upon him’ in the second verse. It is not literal, but rather a metaphor for the relationship between Danny and Jack. If, says Rashi, it is as ‘clear as the sun’ that Danny has no murderous intent, Jack would be liable for killing him.

The Rambam, the first codifier of the entirety of Jewish Law, writes:

A sneak thief, whether by day or at night, does not warrant a charge of manslaughter… If it is clear that the thief would not kill him he is forbidden to kill the thief, as the Torah states, ‘If the sun shone upon him’, (meaning) if it is as clear to you as the sun that the thief is peaceable to you, you may not kill him. Therefore a sneak thief stealing from his son may not be killed by him, for it is certain that he (i.e. the father) would not kill him. But a sneak thief stealing from his father may be killed.

Clearly, the Rambam, in line with the Talmud and with Rashi, understood the Torah to be referring to Jack and Danny’s relationship and not to the actual sunshine! Rabbi Vidal of Toulouse in his Maggid Mishneh, one of the classic commentaries on the Rambam, remarks that the exemplary case of father and a son was given only because it is so unlikely that any father would kill his son. But of course, if it is obvious that Pappa Danny is insane enough to kill his own son (say, for instance, he has killed other sons), then Jack may kill him. Likewise, if there is another water-tight reason to presume that Danny would certainly not kill Jack, Jack may not kill him.

It is interesting that an underlying assumption of all this is that fathers (at least, normal ones) never kill sons, whereas there is no such automatic presumption that sons never kill fathers (or at least, according to the Maggid Mishneh, the probability of a son killing a father is much higher than the probability of a father killing a son). This is a reflection of the fact that parents, again probabilistically speaking, love their children more than vice versa. Why should that be so?

Rabbi Dessler, in his classic work Kuntres Hachesed, explains that real love does not simply come into being. Rather, it is created by acts of giving - difficult, selfless giving. Of course, there is a certain element of love which just exists, but it must be fostered and nurtured. The more you give to someone, the more you love him. Real ‘love at first sight’ is an oxymoron. Real love requires work. You were born a helpless infant. Your parents brought you into this world, raised and educated you, ceaselessly giving. It is no wonder they love you more than you could ever love them. And one day (if not already) you will love your children more than they can ever love you.

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