The Halacha of Rodef and the Rabin Shooting by Rabbi Chaim Jachter



In 1995, a Jew assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin.  His defense was that Rabin was a Rodef (pursuer - Halacha mandates one to kill someone who is attempting murder).  We seek to demonstrate that Prime Minister Rabin was not a Rodef and that the Jew who assassinated Rabin had no Halachic basis for his actions.  Our discussion is based on a responsum of Rav Yehuda Henkin (Teshuvot Bnai Banim 3:33) and an essay authored by Professor Eliav Schochetman, which appears in the nineteenth volume of the Israeli Torah journal Techumin.  Please note that both Rav Henkin and Professor Schochetman have been outspoken critics of the Oslo process and are cited as spokesmen for the Israeli Right.  Nevertheless they are adamant that Prime Minister Rabin did not have the status of a Rodef.

The Rules of Rodef

The Halacha of Rodef is similar to the Halacha of Ba B’machteret that is presented in Shemot 22:1.  The Torah in that Pasuk teaches that one may kill a thief who is tunneling into one's house since one may assume that the thief is armed and constitutes a danger to life.  The Torah permits the householder to kill the thief in self-defense.  Chazal (Sanhedrin 72a) phrase this rule accordingly: “If someone comes to kill you, act first and kill him.”  The Gemara (Sanhedrin 73a), in turn, presents the sources in the Torah that teach that one must kill someone who is attempting to kill another person.  This rule applies not only to self-defense but also to defending the lives of others.  Moreover, it also applies to someone who engages in sexual assault (Sanhedrin 73a).  Thus, one must kill (if no other alternative is available) someone who is attempting to murder or rape.  For a discussion of the subtle distinctions between the cases of Rodef and Ba B’machteret see my recently published (by TABC) Rebbe-Talmid commentary on Sanhedrin entitled Peninei Torah. 

In the absence of a Sanhedrin sitting in proximity to the Beit Hamikdash, the Halacha does not permit a Beit Din to impose capital punishment.  The rules of Rodef, however, apply even in the absence of a Sanhedrin (Rambam Hilchot Rotze’ach 1:6-13 and Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 425).  In fact, the Rama applies the Halacha of Rodef to one who engages in forgeries.  Government authorities in the past imposed severe collective punishments (including executions) upon the Jewish communities in which a Jewish forger resided.  Thus, the forger endangers the community and is treated with the severity of a Rodef.

Yitzchak Rabin’s assassin claimed that Prime Minister Rabin was a Rodef because the latter's policies regarding the Oslo process endangered the Jewish community.  We seek to demonstrate that this was a mistaken assertion even if one believes that Yitzchak Rabin's policies endangered the entire Jewish community.  One cannot draw a legitimate analogy between the late Prime Minister and the forger discussed by the Rama.

Chazal Never Referred to a Jewish Government as a Rodef

Chazal criticize a variety of Jewish leaders and hold them responsible for the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash.  Nevertheless, Chazal never classified any of these leaders as a Rodef.  For example, the Gemara (Shabbat 56b) states that King Shlomo's marriage to the daughter of Paroh initiated the process of the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash.  Similarly, the Gemara states that King Yeravam's introduction of two golden calves to Beit El and Dan accelerated the process of the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash.  Chazal, however, do not define either Shlomo or Yeravam as a Rodef despite the serious damage to the Jewish community caused by these kings.  In addition, Rav Shlomo Aviner notes that a careful examination of Tanach reveals that King David never uttered a critical word (and most certainly never acted) against King Saul despite the enormous danger and hardship the former caused the latter.

A reason for this, explains Professor Schochetman, is that an objective of the Rodef law is to save the lives of the innocent.  However, killing (or even verbally abusing) a king who is recognized as the communal ruler is an extremely disruptive act that causes chaos and anarchy in society.  This in turn leads to the disintegration of the society and to the death of countless innocent individuals.  For example, if the government reduced the age one receives a driver's license from seventeen to sixteen and experts determined that this would lead to increased road fatalities, would any sane person regard the government as a Rodef? Although the government errs, one would cause much greater harm by killing the government ministers than by leaving them unharmed.  Of course, this does not exclude acting within legal means to replace a Prime Minister or government that acts recklessly. 

Moreover, the Gemara (Shavuot 35b) cites Shmuel who states that a king who causes the death of up to one-sixth of his subjects is not punished.  Tosafot (s.v. Dikatla) explains that the context of Shmuel's statement is a king who leads his country to a Milchemet Reshut (a discretionary war).  Accordingly, the legitimate ruler of the country is authorized to enact policies that endanger the population if the ruler feels that it is in the best interest of the country to do so.  Accordingly, it is absurd to regard the ruler as a Rodef for placing the community in danger if the Halacha specifically permits the ruler to endanger the community. 

Rav Henkin cites Rav Kook (Teshuvot Mishpat Kohen 144) and Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 10:1:14) who rule (based on Radvaz’s comment to the Rambam Hilchot Melachim 3:8) that in the absence of a king appointed by Hashem (a Navi such as Shmuel informs us of Hashem’s choice), the right to elect a leader reverts to the country's populace.  Thus, Halacha recognizes the results of a democratic election.  Rav Henkin notes that Rav Kook and Rav Waldenberg did not state that only Halachically observant Jews are eligible participants in the elections.  These authorities believe that even non-observant Jews enjoy the right to choose a leader.  Accordingly, Yitzchak Rabin was the legitimate political leader of the Jewish nation in Israel, even though most observant Jews voted for his opponent in the election.  Thus, Prime Minister Rabin had the right to enact a policy that would endanger the country since he felt that it was in the best interest of the country to do so.  Consequently, it is a grievous error to categorize Yitzchak Rabin as a Rodef. 

Halachic Support of Prime Minister Rabin's Policy

Even if one believes that Prime Minister Rabin's policy violated Halacha, one must concede the fact that some noted Halachic authorities, such as Rav Ovadia Yosef and Rav Yehuda Amital, supported the Oslo process as Yitzchak Rabin conducted it.  Moreover, some military and diplomatic experts believed that it was prudent government policy to engage in the Oslo process.  Accordingly, even though it appears that most Halachic authorities oppose the Oslo process, Prime Minister Rabin had the Halachic right to follow the minority opinion.  How can one define Yitzchak Rabin as a Rodef if he had the Halachic right to engage in the Oslo process? Again, we emphasize that this approach does not exclude using any and all legal means to remove an Oslo supporter from office and replace him with a leader who will conform with the majority rabbinical opinion that rejects following the Oslo process.

Procedural Issues

Dayan Weiss (Teshuvot Minchat Yitzchak 8:148) notes that only responsible Jewish leadership (i.e. a recognized Beit Din) may determine that an individual constitutes a danger to the community and is classified as a Rodef.  Similarly, the Maharshal (Yam Shel Shlomo Bava Kama 3:9) asserts that the Talmudic rule that one may forcefully prevent individuals from violating Halacha applies only to a Dayan or another recognized communal leader.  Otherwise, the Maharshal explains, Jewish life would be chaotic and intolerable, as everyone would take the Halacha into his own hands.

Rav Avraham Shapira (the former Ashkenazic chief rabbi who is an outspoken critic of the Oslo process) has stated that it is absolutely forbidden to kill another Jew based on disagreements concerning governmental policy.  Rav Shapira attributes the Rabin shooting to a lack of Halachic discipline.  Rav Shapira asserts that "youths who decide Halachic matters for themselves have learned from those who disrespect rabbis and leading Halachic authorities.  Had these youths been educated to submit to rabbinical authority and to recognize the appropriate rabbinical hierarchy they would not have engaged in verbal violence, much less physical violence" against the Prime Minister.


Rabin’s assassin had no Halachic basis to shoot Prime Minister Rabin.  Professor Schochetman notes that the shooting caused grave damage to the opposition to the Oslo process.  Moreover, it caused a profound Chillul Hashem whose impact we experience even nine years after the shooting.  Professor Schochetman (paraphrasing Teshuvot Chavot Yair 138) correctly describes the shooting of Yitzchak Rabin as "an foreign, evil, and bitter act." It is foreign to the Jewish people, it has no Halachic basis, it is morally reprehensible, and it has had bitter ramifications for Israeli society.

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