Yitro: Weapons on Shabbat

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18 Jan 2011

The Shulchan Arukh writes that a sword (or other weapon) is not considered an ornament, and therefore may not be worn on Shabbat outside the eiruv (SA OC 301:7).

This halakha is the topic of a fascinating discussion in the mishna and gemara (Shabbat 63a). Rebbe Eliezer’s view is that a sword is considered an ornament. Historically, in many times and places a sword was considered a vital accompaniment for a gentleman; it was a symbol of his status and independence. It was not worn primarily for protection against any kind of common threat. In fact, the Sages acknowledge this fact; their claim is that a weapon is a disgrace and not an ornament because in the future, in Messianic times, weapons will be abolished, as the Prophet tells us, “And they will beat their swords into plowshares” (Yishayahu 2).

Rebbe Eliezer acknowledges that in the future weapons will be unnecessary, but as long as they are needed they are a kind of ornament. Furthermore, the gemara points out that it is far from obvious that weapons will be abolished in Messianic times. According to Shmuel, who states that the only difference between our era and the time of Moshiach is the subjugation of Israel to the nations, even in Messianic times weapons will still exist! They will be abolished only in the more distant “world to come”. Furthermore, Rebbe Eliezer can bring support from a verse in Tehillim (45) which tells us that a sword girded on a man of might is his splendor and glory.

It is important to note that the dispute is not if weapons are necessary or important in the current historical time. The Sages do not dispute this fact, and don’t forbid carrying a weapon on weekdays, or inside the eruv. The question is if a weapon can be considered an ornament, something that dignifies its wearer. On the one hand, a sword does demonstrate a positive character trait, namely courage. On the other hand, ultimately the sword is used to destroy, and this is certainly not very dignified.

Rav Kook in Ein Ayah gives some profound insights into this complex topic. The basis of his explanation is that an essential part of HaShem’s plan for the world is for human beings to live in harmony, not in monotony. That is, the differences between individuals and even between nations should be preserved and cultivated, not eliminated. But these differences need to coexist in harmony; one trait or nation should not strive to negate or eliminate others.

Weapons thus have an ambiguous significance. Since in the current historical period weapons are used by nations to oppose and dominate others, they are a negative phenomenon. Yet weapons are also used for protection; ultimately weapons are a force that helps preserve diversity. Most people, and nations, are armed for protection rather than aggression, so we may say that the primary use of weapons is to preserve the precious and essential distinctions among nations. We could even view them as a symbol of independence, which dignifies humanity.

Yet ultimately even this use is necessitated only because of man’s violent nature. In the distant future, whether in Messianic times or in the world to come, each nation will know to esteem the unique characteristics of the others. No nation will seek to dominate others; it follows that no nation will feel a need to defend itself against aggressors.

Despite all of the proofs which the gemara brings to defend the position of Rebbe Eliezer, and despite the fact that the Rambam explicitly adopts the view of Shmuel, the ruling is in accordance with the Sages. From an ethical point of view, Judaism is reconciled to the fact that weapons are a necessary means to safeguard freedom and diversity. But from an aesthetic point of view, the inherent connection of weapons to violence and aggression means that we can never consider them an ornament that dignifies us; ultimately, weapons are an affront to our inner nature.

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.