Are There Any Limitations In Self-Defense According To Judaism?

Dear Jew in the City-

I have a question about taking up arms to defend oneself. What if an attacker is shot, but later dies from the wounds; does that violate pikuach nefesh, and the Talmud telling us it’s better to give up our life than take a life or does that mean instantly taking a life? Am I understanding this correctly?



Dear Cheryl,

Thanks for your question. It seems that you’re conflating a number of different ideas and mixing up the pieces. Let me sort things out for you:

1. Pikuach nefesh refers to saving a life. This overrides most mitzvos as per Leviticus 18:5, “Keep My laws and My statutes because, if a person does this, he will live in them” – a person is meant to live because of mitzvos, not die because of them. Therefore, while we’re not allowed to drive on Shabbos, we can drive someone seriously ill or injured to the hospital because of pikuach nefesh;

2. There are times when we are permitted, or even obligated, to take a human life. We kill in war. We kill when executing dangerous criminals. We kill to eliminate an imminent threat. What we’re not allowed to do is murder, which is to kill an innocent person;

3. While we may violate most mitzvos to save a life (i.e., for pikuach nefesh), there are three exceptions. One of these is that we may not murder an innocent person in order to save ourselves. This is based on a simple logical premise: who says that your life is more important than the other person’s? You don’t have the right to sacrifice him to save yourself (Yoma 82b and Sanhedrin 74a). [It’s important to note that if you’re lost in the desert with the only canteen, you wouldn’t be permitted to give it away (see Baba Metzia 62a) – after all, who says the other guy’s life is more important than yours? We don’t play God in these zero-sum situations.]

4. If person beats his slave, there’s a difference in Biblical law based on whether the slave dies as an immediate consequence of his injuries or several days later (see Exodus 21). You may have been thinking of that but it’s pretty far afield from your question. The “dies instantly” vs. “later from his wounds” really doesn’t enter into things.

With all this in mind, let’s return to item #2 above: there are times we are permitted or even obligated to kill. The ones that interest us now are called “ba bamachteres” (one who comes in a tunnel) and “rodeif” (a pursuer). These are cases where we kill in self-defense and in the defense of others.

The case of “ba bamachteres” is one of home invasion and it’s described in Exodus 22:1-2: “If a thief is discovered breaking in and is struck so that he dies, (the homeowner) is not liable for his death. But if it’s apparent that he is in no danger, then he is responsible for the death….” We see from this that one may kill in self-defense.

The case of the rodeif is inferred from Deuteronomy 25:11-12, where we see that one may do whatever is necessary to save one who is imperiled. (This is what Moshe did in Exodus chapter 2 when he killed the Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a Jewish slave.)

In the case of a rodeif, one may only kill the pursuer so long as he presents an imminent danger. Once the danger has passed – or if the threat never rises to the level where killing is necessary – then it is prohibited as murder (Hilchos Rotzeiach 1:13). In practical terms, one may shoot and kill a terrorist who presents a threat but not one who has already been subdued.

So to answer your question, if an attacker is endangering innocents, he should be disabled; if that requires killing him, so be it. While I would call this “hatzalas nefashos” (saving lives), I wouldn’t call it “pikuach nefesh” because that implies violating a law to save a life and here one is observing the law to stop a rodeif by whatever means necessary. The Talmud’s statement about dying rather than killing only refers to the murder of an innocent, which the attacker is not. The “dies instantly or later” thing doesn’t enter into it at all. (If you have an indentured servant in this day and age, regardless of whether or not you beat him to death, that’s going to open a whole other can of worms!)

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
Follow Ask Rabbi Jack on YouTube

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