Toledot: Hunting and Guns in Judaism

“When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors.”  Genesis 25:27 

It’s hard to think of an area that more starkly contrasts American and Jewish culture than hunting and guns.  They are hugely popular in America.  According to statista.com, there were 15.49 million paid hunting license holders in the US in 2017, and more than 16.9 Americans went hunting between spring 2016 and spring 2017.  The number of guns in America is estimated at substantially over 300 million – essentially a gun for every man, woman, and child.   

Judaism, on the other hand, forbids both eating “game” that has been killed with a weapon (Mishna Beitza 3:1-2) (as distinguished from trapped) and hunting as a game, that is, for sport and recreation.  Judaism views hunting as “the occupation of the evil Eisav (Esau), which shows a quality of cruelty in preying on animals and killing G-d’s creations.”  Amsel, (cited below), pg. 125. 

Hunting needlessly causes pain to animals and is inherently violent, whereas peace and life are Judaism’s highest values.  In sum, it is, according to the most famous discourse on the Jewish opposition to hunting, disgusting, cruel and dangerous, and utterly forbidden for all Jews.[1]    

What about guns, more generally? Judaism does not forbid owning or using guns.  Applying legal principles that governed weapons – including keeping dangerous animals -- before guns were invented, Judaism holds that one can shoot or otherwise kill a nighttime intruder (Exodus 22:1) unless it is known that only theft is intended, an attacker (of oneself or another)(Talmud, Yoma 85b), or an enemy soldier (Numbers 25:16-18).   However, in neighborhoods with low crime rates, it is questionable whether keeping a gun at home is permissible, and even if so, certainly no more than one.  That one gun cannot be more powerful than necessary for legitimate defensive purposes, thus precluding an assault rifle or machine gun (these are considered analogous to untamable wild animals, such as poisonous snakes). 

Lethal force is never justified if defense can be effective without it, or when the danger has passed (such as a burglar who is running away).  Similarly, Judaism does not permit one to “take the law into his own hands,” such as killing a murderer who has just run out of ammunition.  He must be apprehended and turned over to authorities for legal proceedings.  A gun enables and therefore tempts the owner to use it in impermissible circumstances. 

Nor may one endanger oneself or others by keeping guns that are not properly secured, or by participating in sporting events that could result in an accidental shooting.  I would argue that even air rifles and BB guns (which kill several people each year) and “harmless” gun games such as paintball are “unJewish” because they promote, glorify, or legitimize the use of firearms for non-defensive purposes.

What about the fact that guns seem to be prevalent in Israeli society, not only among active "citizen" soldiers but among security guards and residents of settlements?  Actually, 80% of applications for gun permits in Israel are rejected, need must be shown before a permit is approved (as well as background checks), and private ownership of automatic weapons is prohibited.  These differences between America and Israel help explain why, in Israel, mass-shooting of civilians by lone deranged individuals, unrelated to Arab terrorism, are rare. 

In short, in Judaism, hunting is forbidden, and guns are at best a necessary evil. The ultimate hope us that all weapons will be converted to agricultural implements (Isaiah 2:4).

Shabbat shalom!

Source: Most of this information is excerpted from “Gun Control – The Jewish View” in Nachum Amsel, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values, Urim Publications (Jerusalem) 2015.


[1] Amsel, 126, citing Rabbi Yechezkel Landau (1713-1793) Responsa Noda BeYehudah Mahadura Tennina, Yoreh De’ah 10. 

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