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How could Moshe kill an Egyptian during exile? Is a war of self-defense ever permitted?

Feb. 4 2008

Dear Rabbi,

Apparently, Moshe was wrong for going out of the palace and killing the Egyptian who was beating a Jew. He should have realized, like Olmert, that it must be because of our sins that that Egyptian was beating the Jew. He should have ignored the beating and told the Jews to start looking from within and repent of their sins.

Says the Chasam Sofer: "Moshe is a man who cannot tolerate injustice. On the first day he goes out to his brethren, he witnesses an Egyptian committing a wicked deed, and kills him. Although the Egyptians ruled over the Jews, Moshe, who possessed a proud love of truth, could not stand the sight of oppression. On the second day as well, he proved himself in the realm of injustice even where his own brethren were involved. Finally he acted even to stop local Midianite shepherds from mistreating Yisro's daughters. Although Moshe at the time was a wandering stranger fleeing for his life, he still rose to save them. He asked no recompense, going on his way until summonted to eat with Yisro's fmaily. Moshe loved truth and uprightness above all else."

How does this square with the idea of fighting enemies who oppress or whom we know intend to oppress us such as the nation of pera adam? An act of kefira? In your quote, you are putting the oaths on the side, and simply saying that taking hishtadlus to protect Jews is an act of kefira since we have to only look within ourselves as to the reason why we are being oppressed. Not true. The Jews of Egypt were not worthy people. They were on the 49th level of tuma. They had yet to do teshuva nor had they received the Torah. Yet we see what Moshe's attitude was. For that matter, he saved even non-Jews whom he saw being oppressed by the cruel. He didn't have the attitude of "Oh well, you all have to start looking from within yourselves to rectify your sins, because it is those sins that is causing your problems..." He understood and acted properly and he taught us how to understand and act properly.

Shimshon B.

Dear Reb Shimshon,

You asked why Moshe killed the Egyptian if they were in exile. Even in exile the rule of "if someone is coming to kill you (or any other Jew) get up and kill him first" applies, and Moshe was simply fulfilling that rule. If I were in Europe during WWII and I saw a lone German about to kill a Jew in the middle of the forest somewhere, and I had a gun, I would kill the German. Note that Moshe looked back and forth first to make sure no one was watching, otherwise his act would have led to a bigger conflict with the Egyptians. And note that at no point did Moshe or any other Jew launch a general rebellion against the Egyptians. Had they done so, and especially if they had said, "Never again will the Jews be weak and defenseless and subject to slavery!" then it would have been a denial of the Divine nature of the Egyptian exile.

In short, to defend a Jew in danger within the context of exile is good. But to say that we must change the state of exile on our own and that will benefit the Jews is wrong.

I may be mistaken here, or perhaps there are differing opinions, but I
believe that the halacha says not merely that one may defend oneself if one
is being actively chased after with weapon in hand, but that even if one
knows that someone intends to kill you, you may get up earlier and kill him
first, i.e. if you know of their intentions, you may kill the person
first. And I do believe that the issue I was commenting on was one which
involved such a case (i.e. Arabs launching rockets from Gaza and Olmert's
reprisals as an attempted preventative of such rockets; for sure Olmert is
not doing this to reconquer Gaza, so it can only be viewed as an act of self
defense, a paltry one but nevertheless that is his thinking).

An added note here: You recall that you mentioned to me that the
Chofetz Chaim ruled that when there is a gezeira against the Jewish people,
that is classified as a milchemet mitzvah? I believe the Rambam in hilchot
Ta'aniot, 2:3, also classifies such a situation as a milchement mitzvah. If
so, it is important to learn the halacha's of warfare. One of which is
that when there is such a gezeira, even if one is not being chased in hot
persuit by the enemy, one can presume his intent and kill him first. In
other words, at the point in time the nation made the decree against Jews,
that turned their people into a collective enemy instead of an individual
enemy, and the rules of milchemet mitzvah applied towards them. Just as it
does against the collective nation known as "Amalek."

Reb Shimshon, the Chofetz Chaim didn't say that any gezeirah against the Jewish
people in exile is justification for fighting back. He said this only
regarding a gezeiras shmad - where the gentiles are trying to convert
the Jews or make them give up observing part or all of the Torah.

The Chofetz Chaim's case in point is that the Hasmoneans fought a war
because of gezeiras shmad, whereas the gezeirah of Haman did not
warrant a war, and the Jews did not act against their enemies until
they received permission from the king.

Also, you take the law of "get up and kill him first" and apply it to
Israeli defense against rocket attacks. But the difference is that when
the defense is done on a national level, by an army representing Jews
against a group representing Arabs, that is already a departure from
the status of exile.

I don't believe that the manner of explaining the Jews
asking Achashverosh for permission to defend themselves needs to be
explained in terms of the oaths being the halachic impediment of their
ability to defend themselves which therefore would have made it necessary to
get the king's permission.

For example, it may rather be explained in sync with halachah l'maase
that as long as the original decree was in force, were the Jews to defend
themselves and end up killing a gentile anti-semite while the first decree
was still in force, they would have ended up automatically getting arrested
and punished by the government. In other words, the decree made it illegal
for Jews to defend themselves, but that does not mean that Jews could not
have and would not have defended themselves as best as they could have, it
is wrong to say that they would have been in violation of halachah for doing
so. However, I believe that the correct p'shat is that once the new
decree that the Jews could defend themselves was put in force, then should
the Jews defend themselves by killing the gentile anti-semite, they would
not be automatically punished by the Persian government. The Me'Am Loez
brings a Rabbi Elisha Gallico who explains it this way (Esther 14, 8:7,8).

Furthermore, the new decree not only made Jewish self defense legal,
it also permitted the Jews the legal right to kill any attacker along with
his entire family; just as Haman had included women and children in his
decree, so the Jews would deal with their enemies. Since families would be
held hostage, it would be impossible to organize guerrilla bands against
the Jews (see Esther 8:10-12, Yad HaMelekh). Since such collective
punishment is not normally legal, it needed the decree of the king to make
it legal. The decree also gave the Jews permission to take their enemies'
property, yet another detail that is not the norm of simple self defense
situations, that was meant to intimidate any potential anti-semite.

There was also a hope here that by waiting till the last minute, the
13th day of Adar to attack their enemies, the anti-semites might repent.
Says the Me'Am Loez, "Obviously, the Jews could have attacked their
enemies earlier. They knew who their enemies were. But they would wait for
the last minute to give their enemies a chance to repent. Furthermore,
Haman had chosen 13 Adar because astrologically it was the worst possible
day for the Jews. Rather than being the day of the Jews downfall, let it
be the day of their greatest victory (Ibid, see Deena Pishra)."

Furthermore, the REAL intent of the letters was not permission for
mere self-defense; rather it was for vengeance, as Esther 14, 8:13 states:
"The content of the letters was that a law be made in every land, published
for all nations, that on this day the Jews would be ready to take REVENGE
(l'hinakem) from their enemies." In any case, this source in Esther is not
meant as an halachic proof to say that the Jews first asking for permission
of the King proves that Jews in exile aren't permitted to defend themselves
against anti-semites unless they first get permission from the gentile
government due to the oaths being in force. The halachah permitting a Jew
to defend himself, even in gentile countries, has nothing to do with
"forcing the end" or not accepting the idea that Hashem sometimes allows
punishment to occur (or, if you prefer, brings punishment). Nay, it is not
merely a permission to defend oneself and one's fellow Jews, it is a
mitzvah to do so if one has the capability, and it does not hinge upon the
gentile government's permission to do so.

On the subject of halachah l'maase and defense forces, here is what the
Shulchan Aurch, Orach Chayim 329:6 rules:

"If gentiles attack Jews, even on the Sabbath, it is a Mitzvah to
organize a defense force and mount a counter-attack. This principle applies
in the diaspora, as well as in Eretz Yisrael." The Ramah adds that "EVEN IF
THE ENEMY HAS NOT MOUNTED HIS ATTACK, BUT IT IS WELL KNOWN THAT HE DESIRES
TO ATTACK JEWS, WAR SHOULD BE WAGED AGAINST HIM/THEM."

Now, I am not sure what a "defense force" might mean other than an army.
For the sake of keeping us in golus, you prefer that a "defense force" not
be defined as an army but as just a band of armed non-uniformed fighters?
Fine and good. Whatever you choose to call them, call them. The main point
is that retaliation, and even pre-emptive strikes against them is a mitzvah.
And I've heard it said that the Shulchan Aruch never ruled on something that
was not nogeia bizman hazeh.

Regards,

Shimshon

True, if the Jews had been living under anarchy or if Achashverosh had not cared who killed whom, they would have defended themselves without having to ask his permission. But since the planned attack against the Jews had the approval of the king, the Jews knew that if they defended themselves, they would be punished by the government, as you said. Thus defending themselves would not just involve fighting individual anti-Semites, it would involve fighting the government as well. They might have attempted even that (after all, what did they have to lose?) but the oaths prohibit rebellion against the ruling government. So for this reason they needed the king's approval. This is my point, actually Rabbi Avraham Lowenstamm's point in Sefer Tzror Hachaim, published in 1820.

To say they needed permission just to kill the families of their enemies and take their property doesn't make sense, because those things aren't essential (you see in the end they didn't take the property, and it doesn't say that they actually killed taf and nashim), and the question would still remain why they didn't fight back just against the anti-semites themselves before receiving permission.

Don't be too medayek in the words "defense force" in Orach Chaim 329:6 because the actual text is "yotzin aleihem biklei zayin" we go out against them with weapons. You don't have to prove to me that this law applies even bizman hazeh because the Gemara in Eiruvin 45a brings Amoraim who explain how this law applies to Nehardaa in Bavel.

The fundamental difference between this and the Zionist wars is that the Zionist wars are for the purpose of maintaining statehood in Eretz Yisroel if they didn't have statehood, or if they were to agree to give up statehood, then the Arabs' pretext for war would be gone. Since statehood is a violation of the oaths, it follows that the wars are also a violation of the oaths. If they gave up their statehood and, let's say, Hamas took over the land, and then some armed bands of Arabs not affiliated with the Hamas government came to kill Jews, the Jews would then be permitted to take weapons and go out and fight them.

It is not necessarily true that the Israeli-Arab wars are for the purpose of maintaining control of land. For one thing, with the
government of Israel, it is always on the table for them to give land away
as they did recently with Gaza. Indeed, come to think of it, Gaza never was
considered annexed to Israel by any Israeli government. That is also true
of Judea and Samaria. They only maintained a military presence in those
places to protect the Jews who reside in those places, but they never
declared them as part of Jewish sovereignty by annexing those territories.
Can you prove to me that any Israeli government ever claimed statehood or
sovereignty over those territories? In any case, even if that were true
until recently, the current situation has changed in that the Arabs have
been given control of Gaza, and Gaza is where the rockets were being fired
from onto Jews! Further proof that the Arabs control it is that they have
elections as to which Arab group runs it. Thus, it is a de facto sovereign
Arab state in Gaza that is attacking Jews, and as such it is not for the
purpose of Israel maintaining or regaining any sovereignty there. So I
believe that you are clearly wrong there. And were the Arabs not to fire
rockets on civilians, Jews would not be bombing Arabs as a RETALIATION AND
ATTEMPT TO PREVENT FURTHER ATTACKS AGAINST JEWS. Those who did the bombing,
you can call them Jews who went out with weapons, brigands, or whatever you
like. The fact that they are wearing military uniforms makes not the
slightest bit of difference as long as their purpose is to defend Jews
against those whom they realize intend to kill Jews. And clearly, the
Rebbe of Lubavitch, among others, did not hold like the Rebbe of Satmar in
that the former held that due to the definite danger to life to millions of
Jews, a government of Jews and its military may not now vacate the premises,
even considering the oaths. That I heard directly from the mouth of a
scholar of Chabad. So, I think you should either include his views on this
matter on your site, or procliam to everyone that the Lubavitcher Rebbe
was/is wrong for the sake of full disclosure. Certainly, the Lubavitchers
are a large enough group to warrant this disclosure of their views and/or
your refutation of it, right? Otherwise, as you quote only from leading
scholars who agree completely with your position, you leave the impression
that it is an open and shut case that the vast majority of the religious
world and Rabi's of the past and present wholeheartedly agree with your
Torah positions.

You misunderstood what I wrote. The Arab pretext for war is Israeli
control of any part of the land. Hamas does not want to recognize
Israel in any borders. It's not just the territories, which as you say
were never part of the state proper.

And if Hamas were in control of the entire land, it would not be
allowed to fight them because that would be "rebelling against the
government." The law of self-defense only applies against non-
government bodies.

I can't agree on that. The Shulchan Aruch does not make that
distinction; when the Shulchan Aruch mentions this, it does not add that
"this law of killing someone before they kill you does not apply to
government figures whom you know wish to murder Jews," then I would consider
it. Upon such a serious matter, it would have made that distinction if it
were as you say. Obviously, the Rebbe of Lubavitch among others didn't
make such a distinction.

You said that the Shulchan Aruch makes no distinctions as to who the enemy is gentiles from outside or the government in power. But the general impression left by the Shulchan Aruch and the Mishnah Berurah is that we are talking about Jews participating in an effort to defend their host country against an outside attacker. The Mishnah Berurah in s'if koton 17 says that nowadays we must go out and fight on Shabbos even for money, because our government will be angry if Jews sit and do nothing to stop the attackers.

In the case of bandits or gangs invading Jewish towns, the Jews would fight back because their host country presumably also wanted to control crime, only it does not have sufficient police and army forces to be everywhere at once. The Jews are fighting not as Jews, but as Russian police. Here in Brooklyn we have the Shomrim patrol who fight crime not as Jews but as assistants to the New York Police Department.

Besides, I think it was unnecessary for the Shulchan Aruch to talk about the law in a case when a gentile government attacks its own Jews, because that almost never happened in history. In the Russian pogroms, although the police often did nothing to stop them, they at least did not participate. The Nazi regime did kill its own Jews in Germany, but when they invaded Poland and Russia and killed the Jews there they were (in most cases) not the government but an outside attacker, and Jews would have had the right to join the Polish or Russian resistance and fight against them, not as Jews but as Poles or Russians. For this reason it may be that the Warsaw ghetto uprising was not a violation of the oaths - the Jews of Warsaw could be considered part of the Polish resistance. In any case it was not a smart move and resulted in more losses than gains. It was mainly motivated by the desire to die with pride, a concept borrowed from non-Jews.

Here is something else to consider: Let's say Jews in the USA are living
under the present U.S. government system. And then some Jews become aware
that a certain group of gentiles in the USA who are plotting to murder them.
According to the Shulchan Aruch, the Jews are permitted to kill them first,
even if the gentiles in question are not yet in hot pursuit. Yet, at the
same time, the law of the gentile government still prohibits people from
taking the law into their own hands. Note, I'm not talking here about the
concern of the Jews getting caught and prosecuted. Let's just say they are
able to get away with it without getting caught. Still, for such Jews to
kill those people before they kill them would be going against the policy of
the government, and thus an act of rebellion against the gentile government,
which according to would be prohibited by the oaths. Because a government is
not just a government, but it is the laws of the land that the elected
governmental people represent that Jews would be going against. Therefore,
if we always have to consider the government of gentile's views and laws
overriding our right to kill someone before they kill us due to the oaths,
then the law of killing someone before they kill us can never apply.

And let's do another scenario. If there was a decree by a gentile
government to kill all the Jews, and then the government officials
captured two Jews and told one of the Jews "By decree of our government I
want you to murder this Jew," and the Jew being told to murder then asks,
"Is he guilty of a capital crime?," and they respond, "No, but we just enjoy
seeing a Jew murder a Jew and it is our law!," according to your logic of
the oaths forcing us to obey the gentile government in power and its law,
the Jew would have to murder the other Jew, lest you be guilty of violating
the oaths. Of course, the halacha does not rule that way. In fact, the
first Jew should rather be killed than to murder the other Jew in such a
scenario. But I suppose one can always claim that the halacha is overridden
by the oaths, always...

Breaking the law of the government is not the same as rebelling against the government. If you run a red light, I'm not going to say it's a violation of the oaths. When you run a red light or evade taxes, you are not denying the legitimacy of the government, you are just trying to get away with something for your own convenience. But if the government attacks you directly and you fight back, that could be considered rebellion. Your case of taking the law into your own hands is similar to running a red light.

Don't bring in the case of shmad, when the government forces one Jew to kill another Jew or be killed. In case of shmad one must disobey the government.