A Jewish Mandate to Prevent Gun Violence

(In observance of National Gun Violence Shabbat Weekend)

There is a little-known custom of removing metal knives from the table just prior to reciting Birkat Hamazon (the blessings said after eating a meal).  The custom is based on a verse at the end of Parashat Yitro which relates that stones used to build an altar should not be cut with metal tools (Exodus 20:22).  Since the Talmudic sages created an analogy between the altar in the Temple and our dinner table, suggesting that the table upon which we eat is an altar of sorts from which we offer our gratitude to God, the custom developed to remove metal utensils before offering our prayers.  (Interestingly, the verse in Exodus gave rise to the legend of the “Shamir,” a worm that had the capability of cutting stone by inching along its surface.)

But why does the Torah prohibit the use of metal tools to cut stones for the altar?  One answer is that metal tools are easily converted to implements for conducting war and committing acts of violence.  The Torah seems to be teaching us that an object made from metal, one that could very well be used to kill someone, should not be used to build a temple where people gather to come into the presence of God.  While it’s true that we sometimes must defend ourselves using weapons, the dominant Jewish teaching is that we ought to distance ourselves from weapons and violence.  By removing knives from the table before reciting Birkat Hamazon, we symbolize the reluctance all people should feel to pick up and use weapons that can injure and kill others.

Teachings such as this help to form the foundation of a Jewish stance against gun violence.  Jews accept the need for self-defense.  We are taught that if someone comes to kill you, rise up and prevent him from doing so even if he has to be killed (of course, the rabbis debated how one would know with certainty that it was someone’s intent to kill).  But, even more strongly, Judaism teaches us to be concerned about the welfare, health and safety of others.  Numerous laws, such as the one requiring that a homeowner build a parapet around the perimeter of his roof to prevent people from falling off, guide us to safeguard the well-being of others.  The spirit of these laws translates into a strong Jewish stance that seeks to curtail gun violence through common sense legislation.

Lest anyone think that gun violence isn’t an epidemic in the United States, let’s consider some of the statistics.

  • Roughly 91 people are killed each day by guns. Of those, approximately 7 are children and teens. Approximately 33,000 people are killed each year by guns.
  • Data from the National Crime Victimization Survey indicates that between 2010 and 2014, there were an estimated 43,000 hate crimes committed in the United States that involved guns.
  • People on the terror watch lists legally purchased guns over 2,000 times over 11 years—because the FBI had no authority to block those sales.
  • Young black men, particularly those in impoverished, dense urban areas, are especially at risk of gun violence. Constituting just 6% of the US population, black men account for more than 50% of all gun homicides each year. Firearm homicide is the leading cause of death for black males ages 15–34.
  • Every 16 hours between 2006 and 2014, an American woman was fatally shot by a current or former romantic partner, totaling 544 deaths annually.
  • In 2015, on average, a toddler in America shot someone once a week. Between 2007 and 2011, an average of 62 children age 14 and under died each year in reported unintentional shootings. But strong evidence shows that the actual count is a shocking 61% higher.
  • Americans are 25 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than people in other developed countries.
  • Over the past 5 years, more Americans have been murdered with guns than with all other weapons combined.
  • Suicides account for about 2/3 of all gun deaths in the United States. Roughly 14 veterans kill themselves each day with a firearm. If the time between the often impulsive decision to commit suicide and access to a gun can be lengthened, then the chance of a suicide attempt can be greatly decreased. Limiting access to guns by keeping them unloaded, locked, or out of the house can save lives.

These statistics are alarming and should cause every reasonable person to pause and consider how to stop gun violence and how to pass laws that ensure that lives our saved without compromising our need for self-defense.  This is the essence of Jewish wisdom—to cherish and protect life.

This weekend has been designated as National Gun Violence Prevention Shabbat, to be observed by Jewish, Christian and Muslim Houses of Worship across the nation.  I urge you to visit Rabbis Against Gun Violence, where you can find resources and information about what you can do as an individual to prevent this terrible plague from taking innocent lives.  Of the many poems and readings in the resource packet on their website, I found this one stirring:

Weary  (By Rabbi Sara O’Donnell Adler) 

Weary of doling out comfort scattering sympathy like dandelion seed. It’s too much to look into the empty pool of a mother’s eyes not knowing what to name that blank stare knowing she will never again return to herself. 

So we look away. 

Widows, orphans, they get their own words but what of the mothers, the fathers of children gunned down? What word to describe that screaming and silent devastation?

Our tradition teaches that we are not permitted to refrain from trying to accomplish a worthy task solely because it requires a great deal of effort and attention.  No person should feel that they must accomplish such a task alone, but neither are we free to hesitate to get involved and help the cause along.

What task is more deserving of our time and attention than saving lives?


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