| As explained in Chapter 3, the Halakhah, that is the legal
system of classical Judaism—as practiced by virtually all Jews from the
9th century to the end of the 18th and as maintained to this very day
in the form of Orthodox Judaism—is based primarily on the Babylonian
Talmud. However, because of the unwieldy complexity of the legal
disputations recorded in the Talmud, more manageable codifications of
talmudic law became necessary and were indeed compiled by successive
generations of rabbinical scholars. Some of these have acquired great
authority and are in general use. For this reasons we shall refer for
the most part to such compilations (and their most reputable
commentaries) rather than directly to the Talmud. It is however correct
to assume that the compilation referred to reproduces faithfully the
meaning of the talmudic text and the additions made by later scholars
on the basis of that meaning.
The earliest code of talmudic law which is still of major importance is
the Mishneh Torah written by Moses Maimonides in the late 12th century.
The most authoritative code, widely used to date as a handbook, is the
Shulhan 'Arukh composed by R. Yosef Karo in the late 16th century as a
popular condensation of his own much more voluminous Beyt Yosef which
was intended for the advanced scholar. The Shulhan 'Arukh is much
commented upon; in addition to classical commentaries dating from the
17th century, there is an important 20th century one, Mishnab Berurah.
Finally, the Talmudic Encyclopedia—a modern compilation published in
Israel from the 1950s and edited by the country's greatest Orthodox
rabbinical scholars—is a good compendium of the whole talmudic
Murder and Genocide
According to the Jewish religion, the murder of a Jew is a capital
offense and one of the three most heinous sins (the other two being
idolatry and adultery). Jewish religious courts and secular authorities
are commanded to punish, even beyond the limits of the ordinary
administration of justice, anyone guilty of murdering a Jew. A Jew who
indirectly causes the death of another Jew is, however, only guilty of
what talmudic law calls a sin against the "laws of Heaven," to be
punished by God rather than by man.
When the victim is a Gentile, the position is quite different. A Jew
who murders a Gentile is guilty only of a sin against the laws of
Heaven, not punishable by a court.1 To cause indirectly the death of a
Gentile is no sin at all.2
Thus, one of the two most important commentators on the Shulhan 'Arukh
explains that when it comes to a Gentile, "one must not lift one's hand
to harm him, but one may harm him indirectly, for instance by removing
a ladder after he had fallen into a crevice . . . there is no
prohibition here, because it was not done directly." 3 He points out,
however, that an act leading indirectly to a Gentile's death is
forbidden if it may cause the spread of hostility towards Jews.4
A Gentile murderer who happens to be under Jewish jurisdiction must be
executed whether the victim was Jewish or not. However, if the victim
was Gentile and the murderer converts to Judaism, he is not punished.5
All this has a direct and practical relevance to the realities of the
State of Israel. Although the state's criminal laws make no distinction
between Jew and Gentile, such distinction is certainly made by Orthodox
rabbis, who in guiding their flock follow the Halakhah. Of special
importance is the advice they give to religious soldiers.
Since even the minimal interdiction against murdering a Gentile
outright applies only to "Gentiles with whom we [the Jews] are not at
war," various rabbinical commentators in the past drew the logical
conclusion that in wartime all Gentiles belonging to a hostile
population may, or even should be killed.6 Since 1973 this doctrine is
being publicly propagated for the guidance of religious Israeli
soldiers. The first such official exhortation was included in a booklet
published by the Central Region Command of the Israeli Army, whose area
includes the West Bank. In this booklet the Command's Chief Chaplain
When our forces
come across civilians during a war or in hot pursuit or in a raid, so
long as there is no certainty that those civilians are incapable of
harming our forces, then according to the Halakhah they may and even
should be killed . . . Under no circumstances should an Arab be
trusted, even if he makes an impression of being civilized . . . In
war, when our forces storm the enemy, they are allowed and even
enjoined by the Halakhah to kill even good civilians, that is,
civilians who are ostensibly good.7
doctrine is expounded in the following exchange of letters between a
young Israeli soldier and his rabbi, published in the yearbook of one
of the country's most prestigious religious colleges, Midrashiyyat
No'am, where many leaders and activists of the National Religious Party
and Gush Emunim have been educated.8
Letter from the soldier Moshe to Rabbi Shim'on Weiser
With God's help,
to His Honor, my dear Rabbi,
First I would like to ask how you and your family are. I hope all is
well. I am, thank God, feeling well. A long time I have not written.
Please forgive me. Sometimes I recall the verse "when shall I come and
appear before God?" 9 I hope, without being certain, that I shall come
during one of the leaves. I must do so.
In one of the discussions in our group, there was a debate about the
"purity of weapons" and we discussed whether it is permitted to kill
unarmed men—or women and children? Or perhaps we should take revenge on
the Arabs? And then everyone answered according to his own
understanding. I could not arrive at a clear decision, whether Arabs
should be treated like the Amelekites, meaning that one is permitted to
murder [sic] them until their remembrance is blotted out from under
heaven,10 or perhaps one should do as in a just war, in which one kills
only the soldiers?
A second problem I have is whether I am permitted to put myself in
danger by allowing a woman to stay alive? For there have been cases
when women threw hand grenades. Or am I permitted to give water to an
Arab who put his hand up? For there may be reason to fear that he only
means to deceive me and will kill me, and such things have happened.
I conclude with a warm greeting to the rabbi and all his family.
Reply of Shim'on Weiser to Moshe
With the help of
Heaven. Dear Moshe, Greetings.
I am starting this letter this evening although I know I cannot finish
it this evening, both because I am busy and because I would like to
make it a long letter, to answer your questions in full, for which
purpose I shall have to copy out some of the sayings of our sages, of
blessed memory, and interpret them.11
The non-Jewish nations have a custom according to which war has its own
rules, like those of a game, like the rules of football or basketball.
But according to the sayings of our sages, of blessed memory, [. . .]
war for us is not a game but a vital necessity, and only by this
standard must we decide how to wage it. On the one hand [. . .] we seem
to learn that if a Jew murders a Gentile, he is regarded as a murderer
and, except for the fact that no court has the right to punish him, the
gravity of the deed is like that of any other murder. But we find in
the very same authorities in another place [. . .] that Rabbi Shim'on
used to say: "The best of Gentiles—kill him; the best of snakes—dash
out its brains."
It might perhaps be argued that the expression "kill" in the saying of
R. Shim'on is only figurative and should not be taken literally but as
meaning "oppress" or some similar attitude, and in this way we also
avoid a contradiction with the authorities quoted earlier. Or one might
argue that this saying, though meant literally, is [merely] his own
personal opinion, disputed by other sages [quoted earlier]. But we find
the true explanation in the Tosafot.12 There [. . .] we learn the
following comment on the talmudic pronouncement that Gentiles who fall
into a well should not be helped out, but neither should they be pushed
into the well to be killed, which means that they should neither be
saved from death nor killed directly. And the Tosafot write as follows:
"And if it is queried [because] in another place it was said The best
of Gentiles—kill him, then the answer is that this [saying] is meant
for wartime." [. . .]
According to the commentators of the Tosafot, a distinction must be
made between wartime and peace, so that although during peace time it
is forbidden to kill Gentiles, in a case that occurs in wartime it is a
mitzvah [imperative, religious duty] to kill them. [. . .]
And this is the difference between a Jew and a Gentile: although the
rule "Whoever comes to kill you, kill him first" applies to a Jew, as
was said in Tractate Sanhedrin [of the Talmud], page 72a, still it only
applies to him if there is [actual] ground to fear that he is coming to
kill you. But a Gentile during wartime is usually to be presumed so,
except when it is quite clear that he has no evil intent. This is the
rule of "purity of weapons" according to the Halakhah—and not the alien
conception which is now accepted in the Israeli army and which has been
the cause of many [Jewish] casualties. I enclose a newspaper cutting
with the speech made last week in the Knesset by Rabbi Kalman Kahana,
which shows in a very lifelike—and also painful—way how this "purity of
weapons" has caused deaths.
I conclude here, hoping that you will not find the length of this
letter irksome. This subject was being discussed even without your
letter, but your letter caused me to write up the whole matter.
Be in peace, you and all Jews, and [I hope to] see you soon, as you
Reply of Moshe to R. Shim'on Weiser
To His Honor, my
First I hope that you and your family are in health and are all right.
I have received your long letter and am grateful for your personal
watch over me, for I assume that you write to many, and most of your
time is taken up with your studies in your own program.
Therefore my thanks to you are doubly deep.
As for the letter itself, I have understood it as follows:
In wartime I am not merely permitted, but enjoined to kill every Arab
man and woman whom I chance upon, if there is reason to fear that they
help in the war against us, directly or indirectly. And as far as I am
concerned I have to kill them even if that might result in an
involvement with the military law. I think that this matter of the
purity of weapons should be transmitted to educational institutions, at
least the religious ones, so that they should have a position about
this subject and so that they will not wander in the broad fields of
"logic," especially on this subject; and the rule has to be explained
as it should be followed in practice. For, I am sorry to say, I have
seen different types of "logic" here even among the religious comrades.
I do hope that you shall be active in this, so that our boys will know
the line of their ancestors clearly and unambiguously.
"I conclude here, hoping that when the [training] course ends, in about
a month, I shall be able to come to the yeshivah [talmudic college].
Of course, this
doctrine of the Halakhah on murder clashes, in principle, not only with
Israel's criminal law but also—as hinted in the letters just
quoted—with official military standing regulations. However, there can
be little doubt that in practice this doctrine does exert an influence
on the administration of justice, especially by military authorities.
The fact is that in all cases where Jews have, in a military or
paramilitary context, murdered Arab non-combatants—including cases of
mass murder such as that in Kafr Qasim in 1956—the murderers, if not
let off altogether, received extremely light sentences or won
far-reaching remissions, reducing their punishment to next to
Saving of Life
This subject—the supreme value of human life and the obligation of
every human being to do the outmost to save the life of a fellow
human—is of obvious importance in itself. It is also of particular
interest in a Jewish context, in view of the fact that since the second
world war Jewish opinion has—in some cases justly, in others
unjustly—condemned "the whole world" or at least all Europe for
standing by when Jews were being massacred. Let us therefore examine
what the Halakhah has to say on this subject.
According to the Halakhah, the duty to save the life of a fellow Jew is
paramount.14 It supersedes all other religious obligations and
interdictions, excepting only the prohibitions against the three most
heinous sins of adultery (including incest), murder and idolatry.
As for Gentiles, the basic talmudic principle is that their lives must
not be saved, although it is also forbidden to murder them outright.
The Talmud itself15 expresses this in the maxim "Gentiles are neither
to be lifted [out of a well] nor hauled down [into it]." Maimonides16
As for Gentiles
with whom we are not at war . . . their death must not be caused, but
it is forbidden to save them if they are at the point of death; if, for
example, one of them is seen falling into the sea, he should not be
rescued, for it is written: "neither shalt thou stand against the blood
of thy fellow" 17—but [a Gentile] is not thy fellow.
In particular, a
Jewish doctor must not treat a Gentile patient. Maimonides—himself an
illustrious physician—is quite explicit on this; in another passage18
he repeats the distinction between "thy fellow" and a Gentile, and
concludes: "and from this learn ye, that it is forbidden to heal a
Gentile even for payment . . ."
However, the refusal of a Jew—particularly a Jewish doctor—to save the
life of a Gentile may, if it becomes known, antagonize powerful
Gentiles and so put Jews in danger. Where such danger exists, the
obligation to avert it supersedes the ban on helping the Gentile. Thus
Maimonides continues: " . . . but if you fear him or his hostility,
cure him for payment, though you are forbidden to do so without
payment." In fact, Maimonides himself was Saladin's personal physician.
His insistence on demanding payment—presumably in order to make sure
that the act is not one of human charity but an unavoidable duty—is
however not absolute. For in another passage he allows Gentile whose
hostility is feared to be treated "even gratis, if it is unavoidable."
The whole doctrine—the ban on saving a Gentile's life or healing him,
and the suspension of this ban in cases where there is fear of
hostility—is repeated (virtually verbatim) by other major authorities,
including the 14th century Arba'ah Turim and Karo's Beyt Yosef and
Shulhan 'Arukh.19 Beyt Yosef adds, quoting Maimonides: "And it is
permissible to try out a drug on a heathen, if this serves a purpose;"
and this is repeated also by the famous R. Moses Isserles.
The consensus of halakhic authorities is that the term "Gentiles" in
the above doctrine refers to all non-Jews. A lone voice of dissent is
that of R. Moses Rivkes, author of a minor commentary on the Shulhan
'Arukh, who writes.20
Our sages only
said this about heathens, who in their day worshipped idols and did not
believe in the Jewish Exodus from Egypt or in the creation of the world
ex nihilo. But the Gentiles in whose [protective] shade we, the people
of Israel, are exiled and among whom we are scattered do believe in the
creation of the world ex nihilo and in the Exodus and in several
principles of our own religion and they pray to the Creator of heaven
and earth . . . Not only is there no interdiction against helping them,
but we are even obliged to pray for their safety.
dating from the second half of the 17th century, is a favorite quote of
apologetic scholars.21 Actually, it does not go nearly as far as the
apologetics pretend, for it advocates removing the ban on saving a
Gentile's life, rather than making it mandatory as in the case of a
Jew; and even this liberality extends only to Christians and Muslims
but not the majority of human beings. Rather, what it does show is that
there was a way in which the harsh doctrine of the Halakhah could have
been progressively liberalized. But as a matter of fact the majority of
later halakhic authorities, far from extending Rivkes' leniency to
other human groups, have rejected it altogether.
Desecrating the Sabbath to Save Life
Desecrating the sabbath—that is, doing work that would otherwise be
banned on Saturday—becomes a duty when the need to save a Jew's life
The problem of saving a Gentile's life on the sabbath is not raised in
the Talmud as a main issue, since it is in any case forbidden even on a
weekday; it does however enter as a complicating factor in two
First, there is a problem where a group of people are in danger, and it
is possible (but not certain) that there is at least one Jew among
them: should the sabbath be desecrated in order to save them? There is
an extensive discussion of such cases. Following earlier authorities,
including Maimonides and the Talmud itself, the Shulhan 'Arukh22
decides these matters according to the weight of probabilities. For
example, suppose nine Gentiles and one Jew live in the same building.
One Saturday the building collapses; one of the ten—it is not known
which one—is away, but the other nine are trapped under the rubble.
Should the rubble be cleared, thus desecrating the sabbath, seeing that
the Jew may not be under it (he may have been the one that got away)?
The Shulhan 'Arukh says that it should, presumably because the odds
that the Jew is under the rubble are high (nine to one). But now
suppose that nine have got away and only one—again, it is not known
which one—is trapped. Then there is no duty to clear the rubble,
presumably because this time there are long odds (nine to one) against
the Jew being the person trapped. Similarly: "If a boat containing some
Jews is seen to be in peril upon the sea, it is a duty incumbent upon
all to desecrate the sabbath in order to save it." However, the great
R. 'Aqiva Eiger (died 1837) comments that this applies only "when it is
known that there are Jews on board. But . . . if nothing at all is
known about the identity of those on board, [the sabbath] must not be
desecrated, for one acts according to [the weight of probabilities,
and] the majority of people in the world are Gentiles." 23 Thus, since
there are very long odds against any of the passengers being Jewish,
they must be allowed to drown.
Secondly, the provision that a Gentile may be saved or cared for in
order to avert the danger of hostility is curtailed on the sabbath. A
Jew called upon to help a Gentile on a weekday may have to comply
because to admit that he is not allowed, in principle, to save the life
of a non-Jew would be to invite hostility. But on Saturday the Jew can
use sabbath observance as a plausible excuse. A paradigmatic case
discussed at length in the Talmud 24 is that of a Jewish midwife
invited to help a Gentile woman in childbirth. The upshot is that the
midwife is allowed to help on a weekday "for fear of hostility," but on
the sabbath she must not do so, because she can excuse herself by
saying: "We are allowed to desecrate the sabbath only for our own, who
observe the sabbath, but for your people, who do not keep the sabbath,
we are not allowed to desecrate it." Is this explanation a genuine one
or merely an excuse? Maimonides clearly thinks that it is just an
excuse, which can be used even if the task that the midwife is invited
to do does not actually involve any desecration of the sabbath.
Presumably, the excuse will work just as well even in this case,
because Gentiles are generally in the dark as to precisely which kinds
of work are banned for Jews on the sabbath. At any rate, he decrees: "A
Gentile woman must not be helped in childbirth on the sabbath, even for
payment; nor must one fear hostility, even when [such help involves] no
desecration of the sabbath." The Shulhan 'Arukh decrees likewise.25
Nevertheless, this sort of excuse could not always be relied upon to do
the trick and avert Gentile hostility. Therefore certain important
rabbinical authorities had to relax the rules to some extent and
allowed Jewish doctors to treat Gentiles on the sabbath even if this
involved doing certain types of work normally banned on that day. This
partial relaxation applied particularly to rich and powerful Gentile
patients, who could not be fobbed off so easily and whose hostility
could be dangerous.
Thus, R. Yo'el Sirkis, author of Bayit Hadash and one of the greatest
rabbis of his time (Poland, 17th century), decided that "mayors, petty
nobles and aristocrats" should be treated on the sabbath, because of
the fear of their hostility which involves "some danger." But in other
cases, especially when the Gentile can be fobbed off with an evasive
excuse, a Jewish doctor would commit "an unbearable sin" by treating
him on the sabbath. Later in the same century, a similar verdict was
given in the French city of Metz, whose two parts were connected by a
pontoon bridge. Jews are not normally allowed to cross such a bridge on
the sabbath, but the rabbi of Metz decided that a Jewish doctor may
nevertheless do so "if he is called to the great governor:" since the
doctor is known to cross the bridge for the sake of his Jewish
patients, the governor's hostility could be aroused if the doctor
refused to do so for his sake. Under the authoritarian rule of Louis
XIV, it was evidently important to have the goodwill of his intendant;
the feelings of lesser Gentiles were of little importance.26
Hokhmat Shlomoh, a 19th century commentary on the Shulhan 'Arukh,
mentions a similarly strict interpretation of the concept "hostility"
in connection with the Karaites, a small heretical Jewish sect.
According to this view, their lives must not be saved if that would
involve desecration of the sabbath, "for 'hostility' applies only to
the heathen, who are many against us, and we are delivered into their
hands . . . But the Karaites are few and we are not delivered into
their hands, [so] the fear of hostility does not apply to them at all."
27 In fact, the absolute ban on desecrating the sabbath in order to
save the life of a Karaite is still in force today, as we shall see.
The whole subject is extensively discussed in the responsa of R. Moshe
Sofer—better known as "Hatam Sofer"—the famous rabbi of Pressburg
(Bratislava) who died in 1832. His conclusions are of more than
historical interest, since in 1966 one of his responsa was publicly
endorsed by the then Chief Rabbi of Israel as "a basic institution of
the Halakhah." 28 The particular question asked of Hatam Sofer
concerned the situation in Turkey, where it was decreed during one of
the wars that in each township or village there should be midwives on
call, ready to hire themselves out to any woman in labor. Some of these
midwives were Jewish; should they hire themselves out to help Gentile
women on weekdays and on the sabbath?
In his responsum,29 Hatam Sofer first concludes, after careful
investigation, that the Gentiles concerned—that is, Ottoman Christians
and Muslims—are not only idolators "who definitely worship other gods
and thus should 'neither be lifted [out of a well] nor hauled down,'"
but are likened by him to the Amalekites, so that the talmudic ruling
"it is forbidden to multiply the seed of Amalek" applies to them. In
principle, therefore, they should not be helped even on weekdays.
However, in practice it is "permitted" to heal Gentiles and help them
in labor, if they have doctors and midwives of their own, who could be
called instead of the Jewish ones. For if Jewish doctors and midwives
refused to attend to Gentiles, the only result would be loss of income
to the former—which is of course undesirable. This applies equally on
weekdays and on the sabbath, provided no desecration of the sabbath is
involved. However, in the latter case the sabbath can serve as an
excuse to "mislead the heathen woman and say that it would involve
desecration of the sabbath."
In connection with cases that do actually involve desecration of the
sabbath, Hatam Sofer—like other authorities—makes a distinction between
two categories of work banned on the sabbath. First, there is work
banned by the Torah, the biblical text (as interpreted by the Talmud);
such work may only be performed in very exceptional cases, if failing
to do so would cause an extreme danger of hostility towards Jews. Then
there are types of work which are only banned by the sages who extended
the original law of the Torah; the attitude towards breaking such bans
is generally more lenient.
Another responsum of Hatam Sofer30 deals with the question whether it
is permissible for a Jewish doctor to travel by carriage on the sabbath
in order to heal a Gentile. After pointing out that under certain
conditions traveling by horse-drawn carriage on the sabbath only
violates a ban imposed "by the sages" rather than by the Torah, he goes
on to recall Maimonides' pronouncement that Gentile women in labor must
not be helped on the sabbath, even if no desecration of the sabbath is
involved, and states that the same principle applies to all medical
practice, not just midwifery. But he then voices the fear that if this
were put into practice, "it would arouse undesirable hostility," for
"the Gentiles would not accept the excuse of sabbath observance," and
"would say that the blood of an idolator has little worth in our eyes."
Also, perhaps more importantly, Gentile doctors might take revenge on
their Jewish patients. Better excuses must be found. He advises a
Jewish doctor who is called to treat a Gentile patient out of town on
the sabbath to excuse himself by saying that he is required to stay in
town in order to look after his other patients, "for he can use this in
order to say, 'I cannot move because of the danger to this or that
patient, who needs a doctor first, and I may not desert my charge' . .
. With such an excuse there is no fear of danger, for it is a
reasonable pretext, commonly given by doctors who are late in arriving
because another patient needed them first." Only "if it is impossible
to give any excuse" is the doctor permitted to travel by carriage on
the sabbath in order to treat a Gentile.
In the whole discussion, the main issue is the excuses that should be
made, not the actual healing or the welfare of the patient. And
throughout it is taken for granted that it is all right to deceive
Gentiles rather than treat them, so long as "hostility" can be
Of course, in modern times most Jewish doctors are not religious and do
not even know of these rules. Moreover, it appears that even many who
are religious prefer to their credit—to abide by the Hippocratic oath
rather than by the precepts of their fanatic rabbis.32 However, the
rabbis' guidance cannot fail to have some influence on some doctors;
and there are certainly many who, while not actually following that
guidance, choose not to protest against it publicly.
All this is far from being a dead issue. The most up-to-date halakhic
position on these matters is contained in a recent concise and
authoritative book published in English under the title Jewish Medical
Law.33 This book, which bears the imprint of the prestigious Israeli
foundation Mossad Harav Kook, is based on the responsa of R. Eli'ezer
Yehuda Waldenberg, Chief Justice of the Rabbinical District Court of
Jerusalem. A few passages of this work deserve special mention.
First, "it is forbidden to desecrate the sabbath . . . for a Karaite."
34 This is stated bluntly, absolutely and without any further
qualification. Presumably the hostility of this small sect makes no
difference, so they should be allowed to die rather than be treated on
As for Gentiles: "According to the ruling stated in the Talmud and
Codes of Jewish Law, it is forbidden to desecrate the Sabbath—whether
violating Biblical or rabbinic law—in order to save the life of a
dangerously ill gentile patient. It is also forbidden to deliver the
baby of a gentile women on the Sabbath." 35
But this is qualified by a dispensation: "However, today it is
permitted to desecrate the Sabbath on behalf of a Gentile by performing
actions prohibited by rabbinic law, for by so doing one prevents ill
feelings from arising between Jew and Gentile." 36
This does not go very far, because medical treatment very often
involves acts banned on the sabbath by the Torah itself, which are not
covered by this dispensation. There are, we are told, "some" halakhic
authorities who extend the dispensation to such acts as well—but this
is just another way of saying that most halakhic authorities, and the
ones that really count, take the opposite view. However, all is not
lost. Jewish Medical Law has a truly breathtaking solution to this
The solution hangs upon a nice point of talmudic law. A ban imposed by
the Torah on performing a given act on the sabbath is presumed to apply
only when the primary intention in performing it is the actual outcome
of the act. (For example, grinding wheat is presumed to be banned by
the Torah only if the purpose is actually to obtain flour.) On the
other hand, if the performance of the same act is merely incidental to
some other purpose (melakhah seh'eynah tzrikhah legufah) then the act
changes its status—it is still forbidden, to be sure, but only by the
sages rather than by the Torah itself. Therefore:
In order to
avoid any transgression of the law, there is a legally acceptable
method of rendering treatment on behalf of a gentile patient even when
dealing with violation of Biblical Law. It is suggested that at the
time that the physician is providing the necessary care, his intentions
should not primarily be to cure the patient, but to protect himself and
the Jewish people from accusations of religious discrimination and
severe retaliation that may endanger him in particular and the Jewish
people in general. With this intention, any act on the physician's part
becomes "an act whose actual outcome is not its primary purpose" . . .
which is forbidden on Sabbath only by rabbinic law.37
hypocritical substitute for the Hippocratic oath is also proposed by a
recent authoritative Hebrew book.38
Although the facts were mentioned at least twice in the Israeli
press,39 the Israeli Medical Association has remained silent.
Having treated in some detail the supremely important subject of the
attitude of the Halakhah to a Gentile's very life, we shall deal much
more briefly with other halakhic rules which discriminate against
Gentiles. Since the number of such rules is very large, we shall
mention only the more important ones.
Sexual intercourse between a married Jewish woman and any man other
than her husband is a capital offense for both parties, and one of the
three most heinous sins. The status of Gentile women is very different.
The Halakhah presumes all Gentiles to be utterly promiscuous and the
verse "whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue [of semen]
is like the issue of horses"40 is applied to them. Whether a Gentile
woman is married or not makes no difference, since as far as Jews are
concerned the very concept of matrimony does not apply to Gentiles
("There is no matrimony for a heathen"). Therefore, the concept of
adultery also does not apply to intercourse between a Jewish man and a
Gentile woman; rather, the Talmud41 equates such intercourse to the sin
of bestiality. (For the same reason, Gentiles are generally presumed
not to have certain paternity.)
According to the Talmudic Encyclopedia:42 "He who has carnal knowledge
of the wife of a Gentile is not liable to the death penalty, for it is
written: 'thy fellow's wife'43 rather than the alien's wife; and even
the precept that a man 'shall cleave unto his wife' 44 which is
addressed to the Gentiles does not apply to a Jew, just there is no
matrimony for a heathen; and although a married Gentile woman is
forbidden to the Gentiles, in any case a Jew is exempted."
This does not imply that sexual intercourse between a Jewish man and a
Gentile woman is permitted—quite the contrary. But the main punishment
is inflicted on the Gentile woman; she must be executed, even if she
was raped by the Jew: "If a Jew has coitus with a Gentile woman,
whether she be a child of three or an adult, whether married or
unmarried, and even if he is a minor aged only nine years and one
day—because he had willful coitus with her, she must be killed, as is
the case with a beast, because through her a Jew got into trouble." 45
The Jew, however, must be flogged, and if he is a Kohen (member of the
priestly tribe) he must receive double the number of lashes, because he
has committed a double offense: a Kohen must not have intercourse with
a prostitute, and all Gentile women are presumed to be prostitutes.46
According to the Halakhah, Jews must not (if they can help it) allow a
Gentile to be appointed to any position of authority, however small,
over Jews. (The two stock examples are "commander over ten soldiers in
the Jewish army" and "superintendent of an irrigation ditch.")
Significantly, this particular rule applies also to converts to Judaism
and to their descendants (through the female line) for ten generations
or "so long as the descent is known."
Gentiles are presumed to be congenital liars, and are disqualified from
testifying in a rabbinical court. In this respect their position is, in
theory, the same as that of Jewish women, slaves and minors; but in
practice it is actually worse. A Jewish woman is nowadays admitted as a
witness to certain matters of fact, when the rabbinical court
"believes" her; a Gentile—never.
A problem therefore arises when a rabbinical court needs to establish a
fact for which there are only Gentile witnesses. An important example
of this is in cases concerning widows: by Jewish religious law, a woman
can be declared a widow—and hence free to remarry—only if the death of
her husband is proven with certainty by means of a witness who saw him
die or identified his corpse. However, the rabbinical court will accept
the hearsay evidence of a Jew who testifies to having heard the fact in
question mentioned by a Gentile eyewitness, provided the court is
satisfied that the latter was speaking casually ("goy mesiah left
tummo") rather than in reply to a direct question; for a Gentile's
direct answer to a Jew's direct question is presumed to be a lie.47 If
necessary, a Jew (preferably a rabbi) will actually undertake to chat
up the Gentile eyewitness and, without asking a direct question,
extract from him a casual statement of the fact at issue.
Money and Property
1. Gifts. The Talmud bluntly forbids giving a gift to a Gentile.
However, classical rabbinical authorities bent this rule because it is
customary among businessmen to give gifts to business contacts. It was
therefore laid down that a Jew may give a gift to a Gentile
acquaintance, since this is regarded not as a true gift but as a sort
of investment, for which some return is expected. Gifts to "unfamiliar
Gentiles" remain forbidden. A broadly similar rule applies to
almsgiving. Giving alms to a Jewish beggar is an important religious
duty. Alms to Gentile beggars are merely permitted for the sake of
peace. However there are numerous rabbinical warnings against allowing
the Gentile poor to become "accustomed" to receiving alms from Jews, so
that it should be possible to withhold such alms without arousing undue
2. Taking of interest. Anti-Gentile discrimination in this matter has
become largely theoretical, in view of the dispensation (explained in
Chapter 3) which in effect allows interest to be exacted even from a
Jewish borrower. However, it is still the case that granting an
interest-free loan to a Jew is recommended as an act of charity, but
from a Gentile borrower it is mandatory to exact interest. In fact,
many—though not all—rabbinical authorities, including Maimonides,
consider it mandatory to exact as much usury as possible on a loan to a
3. Lost property. If a Jew finds property whose probable owner is
Jewish, the finder is strictly enjoined to make a positive effort to
return his find by advertising it publicly. In contrast, the Talmud and
all the early rabbinical authorities not only allow a Jewish finder to
appropriate an article lost by a Gentile, but actually forbid him or
her to return it.48 In more recent times, when laws were passed in most
countries making it mandatory to return lost articles, the rabbinical
authorities instructed Jews to do what these laws say, as an act of
civil obedience to the state—but not as a religious duty, that is
without making a positive effort to discover the owner if it is not
probable that he is Jewish.
4. Deception in business. It is a grave sin to practice any kind of
deception whatsoever against a Jew. Against a Gentile it is only
forbidden to practice direct deception. Indirect deception is allowed,
unless it is likely to cause hostility towards Jews or insult to the
Jewish religion. The paradigmatic example is mistaken calculation of
the price during purchase. If a Jew makes a mistake unfavorable to
himself, it is one's religious duty to correct him. If a Gentile is
spotted making such a mistake, one need not let him know about it, but
say "I rely on your calculation," so as to forestall his hostility in
case he subsequently discovers his own mistake.
5. Fraud. It is forbidden to defraud a Jew by selling or buying at an
unreasonable price. However, "Fraud does not apply to Gentiles, for it
is written: 'Do not defraud each man his brother' 49 but a Gentile who
defrauds a Jew should be compelled to make good the fraud, but should
not be punished more severely than a Jew [in a similar case]." 50
6. Theft and robbery. Stealing (without violence) is absolutely
forbidden—as the Shulhan 'Arukh so nicely puts it: "even from a
Gentile." Robbery (with violence) is strictly forbidden if the victim
is Jewish. However, robbery of a Gentile by a Jew is not forbidden
outright but only under certain circumstances such as "when the
Gentiles are not under our rule," but is permitted "when they are under
our rule." Rabbinical authorities differ among themselves as to the
precise details of the circumstances under which a Jew may rob a
Gentile, but the whole debate is concerned only with the relative power
of Jews and Gentiles rather than with universal considerations of
justice and humanity. This may explain why so very few rabbis have
protested against the robbery of Palestinian property in Israel: it was
backed by overwhelming Jewish power.
Gentiles in the Land of lsrael
In addition to the general anti-Gentile laws, the Halakhah has special
laws against Gentiles who live in the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisra'el)
or, in some cases, merely pass through it. These laws are designed to
promote Jewish supremacy in that country.
The exact geographical definition of the term "Land of Israel" is much
disputed in the Talmud and the talmudic literature, and the debate has
continued in modern times between the various shades of Zionist
opinion. According to the maximalist view, the Land of Israel includes
(in addition to Palestine itself) not only the whole of Sinai, Jordan,
Syria and Lebanon, but also considerable parts of Turkey.51 The more
prevalent "minimalist" interpretation puts the northern border "only"
about half way through Syria and Lebanon, at the latitude of Homs. This
view was supported by Ben-Gurion. However, even those who thus exclude
parts of Syria-Lebanon agree that certain special discriminatory laws
(though less oppressive than in the Land of Israel proper) apply to the
Gentiles of those parts, because that territory was included in David's
kingdom. In all talmudic interpretations the Land of Israel includes
I shall now list a few of the special laws concerning Gentiles in the
Land of Israel. Their connection with actual Zionist practice will be
The Halakhah forbids Jews to sell immovable property—fields and
houses—in the Land of Israel to Gentiles. In Syria, the sale of houses
(but not of fields) is permitted.
Leasing a house in the Land of Israel to a Gentile is permitted under
two conditions. First, that the house shall not be used for habitation
but for other purposes, such as storage. Second, that three or more
adjoining houses shall not be so leased.
These and several other rules are explained as follows: . . . "so that
you shall not allow them to camp on the ground, for if they do not
possess land, their sojourn there will be temporary." 52 Even temporary
Gentile presence may only be tolerated "when the Jews are in exile, or
when the Gentiles are more powerful than the Jews," but
When the Jews
are more powerful than the Gentiles we are forbidden to let an idolator
among us; even a temporary resident or itinerant trader shall not be
allowed to pass through our land unless he accepts the seven Noahide
precepts,53 for it is written: "they shall not dwell in thy land" 54
that is, not even temporarily. If he accepts the seven Noahide
precepts, he becomes a resident alien (ger toshav) but it is forbidden
to grant the status of resident alien except at times when the Jubilee
is held [that is, when the Temple stands and sacrifices are offered].
However, during times when Jubilees are not held it is forbidden to
accept anyone who is not a full convert to Judaism (ger tzedeq).55 It
is therefore clear that—exactly as the leaders and sympathizers of Gush
Emunim say—the whole question to how the Palestinians ought to be
treated is, according to the Halakhah, simply a question of Jewish
power: if Jews have sufficient power, then it is their religious duty
to expel the Palestinians.
All these laws
are often quoted by Israeli rabbis and their zealous followers. For
example, the law forbidding the lease of three adjoining houses to
Gentiles was solemnly quoted by a rabbinical conference held in 1979 to
discuss the Camp David treaties. The conference also declared that
according to the Halakhah even the "autonomy" that Begin was ready to
offer to the Palestinians is too liberal. Such pronouncements—which do
in fact state correctly the position of the Halakhah—are rarely
contested by the Zionist "left."
In addition to laws such as those mentioned so far, which are directed
at all Gentiles in the Land of Israel, an even greater evil influence
arises from special laws against the ancient Canaanites and other
nations who lived in Palestine before its conquest by Joshua, as well
as against the Amalekites. All those nations must be utterly
exterminated, and the Talmud and talmudic literature reiterate the
genocidal biblical exhortations with even greater vehemence.
Influential rabbis, who have a considerable following among Israeli
army officers, identify the Palestinians (or even all Arabs) with those
ancient nations, so that commands like "thou shalt save alive nothing
that breatheth" 56 acquire a topical meaning. In fact, it is not
uncommon for reserve soldiers called up to do a tour of duty in the
Gaza Strip to be given an "educational lecture" in which they are told
that the Palestinians of Gaza are "like the Amalekites." Biblical
verses exhorting to genocide of the Midianites 57 were solemnly quoted
by an important Israeli rabbi in justification of the Qibbiya
massacre,58 and this pronouncement has gained wide circulation in the
Israeli army. There are many similar examples of bloodthirsty
rabbinical pronouncements against the Palestinians, based on these
Under this heading I would like to discuss examples of halakhic laws
whose most important effect is not so much to prescribe specific
anti-Gentile discrimination as to inculcate an attitude of scorn and
hatred towards Gentiles. Accordingly. in this section I shall not
confine myself to quoting from the most authoritative halakhic sources
(as I have done so far) but include also less fundamental works, which
are however widely used in religious instruction.
Let us begin with the text of some common prayers. In one of the first
sections of the daily morning payer, every devout Jew blesses God for
not making him a Gentile.59 The concluding section of the daily prayer
(which is also used in the most solemn part of the service on New
Year's day and on Yom Kippur) opens with the statement: "We must praise
the Lord of all . . . for not making us like the nations of [all] lands
. . . for they bow down to vanity and nothingness and pray to a god
that does not help." 60 The last clause was censored out of the prayer
books, but in eastern Europe it was supplied orally, and has now been
restored into many Israeli-printed prayer books. In the most important
section of the weekday prayer—the "eighteen blessings"—there is a
special curse, originally directed against Christians, Jewish converts
to Christianity and other Jewish heretics: "And may the apostates61
have no hope, and all the Christians perish instantly." This formula
dates from the end of the 1st century, when Christianity was still a
small persecuted sect. Some time before the 14th century it was
softened into: "And may the apostates have no hope. and all the
heretics62 perish instantly," and after additional pressure into: "And
may the informers have no hope, and all the heretics perish instantly."
After the establishment of Israel, the process was reversed, and many
newly printed prayer books reverted to the second formula, which was
also prescribed by many teachers in religious Israeli schools. After
1967, several congregations close to Gush Emunim have restored the
first version (so far only verbally, not in print) and now pray daily
that the Christians "may perish instantly." This process of reversion
happened in the period when the Catholic Church (under Pope John XXIII)
removed from its Good Friday service a prayer which asked the Lord to
have mercy on Jews, heretics etc. This prayer was thought by most
Jewish leaders to be offensive and even antisemitic.
Apart from the fixed daily prayers, a devout Jew must utter special
short blessings on various occasions, both good and bad (for example,
while putting on a new piece of clothing, eating a seasonal fruit for
the first time that year, seeing powerful lightning, hearing bad news,
etc.) Some of these occasional prayers serve to inculcate hatred and
scorn for all Gentiles, We have mentioned in Chapter 2 the rule
according to which a pious Jew must utter curse when passing near a
Gentile cemetery, whereas he must bless God when passing near a Jewish
cemetery. A similar rule applies to the living; thus, when seeing a
large Jewish population a devout Jew must praise God, while upon seeing
a large Gentile population he must utter a curse. Nor are buildings
exempt: the Talmud lays down63 that a Jew who passes near an inhabited
non-Jewish dwelling must ask God to destroy it, whereas if the building
is in ruins he must thank the Lord of Vengeance. (Naturally, the rules
are reversed for Jewish houses.) This rule was easy to keep for Jewish
peasants who lived in their own villages or for small urban communities
living in all-Jewish townships or quarters. Under the conditions of
classical Judaism, however, it became impracticable and was therefore
confined to churches and places of worship of other religions (except
Islam).64 In this connection, the rule was further embroidered by
custom: it became customary to spit (usually three times) upon seeing a
church or a crucifix, as an embellishment to the obligatory formula of
regret.65 Sometimes insulting biblical verses were also added.66
There is also a series of rules forbidding any expression of praise for
Gentiles or for their deeds, except where such praise implies an even
greater praise of Jews and things Jewish. This rule is still observed
by Orthodox Jews. For example, the writer Agnon, when interviewed on
the Israeli radio upon his return from Stockholm, where he received the
Nobel Prize for literature, praised the Swedish Academy, but hastened
to add: "I am not forgetting that it is forbidden to praise Gentiles,
but here there is a special reason for my praise"—that is, that they
awarded the prize to a Jew.
Similarly, it is forbidden to join any manifestation of popular Gentile
rejoicing, except where failing to join in might cause "hostility"
towards Jews, in which case a "minimal" show of joy is allowed.
In addition to the rules mentioned so far, there are many others whose
effect is to inhibit human friendship between Jew and Gentile. I shall
mention two examples: the rule on "libation wine" and that on preparing
food for a Gentile on Jewish holy days.
A religious Jew must not drink any wine in whose preparation a Gentile
had any part whatsoever. Wine in an open bottle, even if prepared
wholly by Jews, becomes banned if a Gentile so much as touches the
bottle or passes a hand over it. The reason given by the rabbis is that
all Gentiles are not only idolators but must be presumed to be
malicious to boot, so that they are likely to dedicate (by a whisper,
gesture or thought) as "libation" to their idol any wine which a Jew is
about to drink. This law applies in full force to all Christians, and
in a slightly attenuated form also to Muslims. (An open bottle of wine
touched by a Christian must be poured away, but if touched by a Muslim
it can be sold or given away, although it may not be drunk by a Jew.)
The law applies equally to Gentile atheists (how can one be sure that
they are not merely pretending to be atheists?) but not to Jewish
The laws against doing work on the sabbath apply to a lesser extent on
other holy days. In particular, on a holy day which does not happen to
fall on a Saturday it is permitted to do any work required for
preparing food to be eaten during the holy days or days. Legally, this
is defined as preparing a "soul's food" (okhel nefesh); but "soul" is
interpreted to mean "Jew," and "Gentiles and dogs" are explicitly
excluded.67 There is, however, a dispensation in favor of powerful
Gentiles, whose hostility can be dangerous: it is permitted to cook
food on a holy day for a visitor belonging to this category, provided
he is not actively encouraged to come and eat.
An important effect of all these laws—quite apart from their
application in practice—is in the attitude created by their constant
study which, as part of the study of the Halakhah, is regarded by
classical Judaism as a supreme religious duty. Thus an Orthodox Jew
learns from his earliest youth, as part of his sacred studies, that
Gentiles are compared to dogs, that it is a sin to praise them, and so
on and so forth. As a matter of fact, in this respect textbooks for
beginners have a worse effect than the Talmud and the great talmudic
codes. One reason for this is that such elementary texts give more
detailed explanations, phrased so as to influence young and uneducated
minds. Out of a large number of such texts, I have chosen the one which
is currently most popular in Israel and has been reprinted in many
cheap editions, heavily subsidized by the Israeli government. It is The
Book of Education, written by an anonymous rabbi in early 14th century
Spain. It explains the 613 religious obligations (mitzvot) of Judaism
in the order in which they are supposed to be found in the Pentateuch
according to the talmudic interpretation (discussed in Chapter 3). It
owes its lasting influence and popularity to the clear and easy Hebrew
style in which it is written.
A central didactic aim of this book is to emphasize the "correct"
meaning of the Bible with respect to such terms as "fellow," "friend"
or "man" (which we have referred to in Chapter 3). Thus §219, devoted
to the religious obligation arising from the verse "thou shalt love thy
fellow as thyself," is entitled: "A religious obligation to love Jews,"
To love every
Jew strongly means that we should care for a Jew and his money just as
one cares for oneself and one's own money, for it is written: "thou
shalt love thy fellow as thyself" and our sages of blessed memory said:
"what is hateful to you do not do to your friend" . . . and many other
religious obligations follow from this, because one who loves one's
friend as oneself will not steal his money, or commit adultery with his
wife, or defraud him of his money, or deceive him verbally, or steal
his land, or harm him in any way. Also many other religious obligations
depend on this, as is known to any reasonable man.
In §322, dealing
with the duty to keep a Gentile slave enslaved for ever (whereas a
Jewish slave must be set free after seven years), the following
explanation is given:
And at the root
of this religious obligation [is the fact that] the Jewish people are
the best of the human species, created to know their Creator and
worship Him, and worthy of having slaves to serve them. And if they
will not have slaves of other peoples, they would have to enslave their
brothers, who would thus be unable to serve the Lord, blessed be He.
Therefore we are commanded to possess those for our service, after they
are prepared for this and after idolatory is removed from their speech
so that there should not be danger in our houses,68 and this is the
intention of the verse "but over your brethren the children of Israel,
ye shall not rule one over another with rigor," 69 so that you will not
have to enslave your brothers, who are all ready to worship God.
In §545, dealing
with the religious obligation to exact interest on money lent to
Gentiles, the law is stated as follows: "that we are commanded to
demand interest from Gentiles when we lend money to them, and we must
not lend to them without interest," The explanation is:
And at the root
of this religious obligation is that we should not do any act of mercy
except to the people who know God and worship Him; and when we refrain
from doing merciful deed to the rest of mankind and do so only to the
former, we are being tested that the main part of love and mercy to
them is because they follow the religion of God, blessed be He. Behold,
with this intention our reward [from God] when we withhold mercy from
the others is equal to that for doing [merciful deeds] to members of
our own people.
distinctions are made in numerous other passages. In explaining the ban
against delaying a worker's wage (§238) the author is careful to point
out that the sin is less serious if the worker is Gentile. The
prohibition against cursing (§239) is entitled "Not to curse any Jew,
whether man or woman." Similarly, the prohibitions against giving
misleading advice, hating other people, shaming them or taking revenge
on them (§§240, 245, 246, 247) apply only to fellow-Jews.
The ban against following Gentile customs (§262) means that Jews must
not only "remove themselves" from Gentiles, but also "speak ill of all
their behavior, even of their dress."
It must be emphasized that the explanations quoted above do represent
correctly the teaching of the Halakhah. The rabbis and, even worse, the
apologetic "scholars of Judaism" know this very well and for this
reason they do not try to argue against such views inside the Jewish
community; and of course they never mention them outside it. Instead,
they vilify any Jew who raises these matters within earshot of
Gentiles, and they issue deceitful denials in which the art of
equivocation reaches its summit. For example, they state, using general
terms, the importance which Judaism attaches to mercy; but what they
forget to point out is that according to the Halakhah "mercy" means
mercy towards Jews.
Anyone who lives in Israel knows how deep and widespread these
attitudes of hatred and cruelty to towards all Gentiles are among the
majority of Israeli Jews. Normally these attitudes are disguised from
the outside world, but since the establishment of the State of Israel,
the 1967 war and the rise of Begin, a significant minority of Jews,
both in Israel and abroad, have gradually become more open about such
matters. In recent years the inhuman precepts according to which
servitude is the "natural" lot of Gentiles have been publicly quoted in
Israel, even on TV, by Jewish farmers exploiting Arab labor,
particularly child labor. Gush Emunim leaders have quoted religious
precepts which enjoin Jews to oppress Gentiles, as a justification of
the attempted assassination of Palestinian mayors and as divine
authority for their own plan to expel all the Arabs from Palestine.
While many Zionists reject these positions politically, their standard
counter-arguments are based on considerations of expediency and Jewish
self-interest, rather than on universally valid principles of humanism
and ethics. For example, they argue that the exploitation and
oppression of Palestinians by Israelis tends to corrupt Israeli
society, or that the expulsion of the Palestinians is impracticable
under present political conditions, or that Israeli acts of terror
against the Palestinians tend to isolate Israel internationally. In
principle, however, virtually all Zionists—and in particular "left"
Zionists—share the deep anti-Gentile attitudes which Orthodox Judaism
Attitudes to Christianity and Islam
In the foregoing, several examples of the rabbinical attitudes to these
two religions were given in passing. But it will be useful to summarize
these attitudes here.
Judaism is imbued with a very deep hatred towards Christianity,
combined with ignorance about it. This attitude was clearly aggravated
by the Christian persecutions of Jews, but is largely independent of
them. In fact, it dates from the time when Christianity was still weak
and persecuted (not least by Jews), and it was shared by Jews who had
never been persecuted by Christians or who were even helped by them.
Thus, Maimonides was subjected to Muslim persecutions by the regime of
the Almohads and escaped from them first to the crusaders' Kingdom of
Jerusalem, but this did not change his views in the least. This deeply
negative attitude is based on two main elements.
First, on hatred and malicious slanders against Jesus. The traditional
view of Judaism on Jesus must of course be sharply distinguished from
the nonsensical controversy between antisemites and Jewish apologists
concerning the "responsibility" for his execution. Most modern scholars
of that period admit that due to the lack of original and contemporary
accounts, the late composition of the Gospels and the contradictions
between them, accurate historical knowledge of the circumstances of
Jesus' execution is not available. In any case, the notion of
collective and inherited guilt is both wicked and absurd. However, what
is at issue here is not the actual facts about Jesus, but the
inaccurate and even slanderous reports in the Talmud and post-talmudic
literature—which is what Jews believed until the 19th century and many,
especially in Israel, still believe. For these reports certainly played
an important role in forming the Jewish attitude to Christianity.
According to the Talmud, Jesus was executed by a proper rabbinical
court for idolatry, inciting other Jews to idolatry, and contempt of
rabbinical authority. All classical Jewish sources which mention his
execution are quite happy to take responsibility for it; in the
talmudic account the Romans are not even mentioned.
The more popular accounts—which were nevertheless taken quite
seriously—such as the notorious Toldot Yeshu are even worse, for in
addition to the above crimes they accuse him of witchcraft. The very
name "Jesus" was for Jews a symbol of all that is abominable, and this
popular tradition still persists.70 The Gospels are equally detested,
and they are not allowed to be quoted (let alone taught) even in modern
Israeli Jewish schools.
Secondly, for theological reasons, mostly rooted in ignorance,
Christianity as a religion is classed by rabbinical teaching as
idolatry. This is based on a crude interpretation of the Christian
doctrines on the Trinity and Incarnation. All the Christian emblems and
pictorial representations are regarded as "idols"—even by those Jews
who literally worship scrolls, stones or personal belongings of "Holy
The attitude of Judaism towards Islam is, in contrast, relatively mild.
Although the stock epithet given to Muhammad is "madman" ("meshugga"),
this was not nearly as offensive as it may sound now, and in any case
it pales before the abusive terms applied to Jesus. Similarly, the
Qur'an—unlike the New Testament—is not condemned to burning. It is not
honored in the same way as Islamic law honors the Jewish sacred
scrolls, but is treated as an ordinary book. Most rabbinical
authorities agree that Islam is not idolatry (although some leaders of
Gush Emunim now choose to ignore this). Therefore the Halakhah decrees
that Muslims should not be treated by Jews any worse than "ordinary"
Gentiles. But also no better. Again, Maimonides can serve as an
illustration. He explicitly states that Islam is not idolatry, and in
his philosophical works he quotes, with great respect, many Islamic
philosophical authorities. He was, as I have mentioned before, personal
physician to Saladin and his family, and by Saladin's order he was
appointed Chief over all Egypt's Jews. Yet, the rules he lays down
against saving a Gentile's life (except in order to avert danger to
Jews) apply equally to Muslims.
1. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, "Laws on Murderers" 2, 11; Talmudic
2. R. Yo'el Sirkis, Bayit Hadash, commentary on Beyt Josef, "Yoreh
De'ah" 158. The two rules just mentioned apply even if the Gentile
victim is ger toshav, that is a "resident alien" who has undertaken in
front of three Jewish witnesses to keep the "seven Noahide precepts"
(seven biblical laws considered by the Talmud to be addressed to
3. R. David Halevi (Poland, 17th century), Turey Zahav on Shulhan
'Arukh, "Yoreh De'ah" 158.
4. Web Editor's note—this footnote was omitted in the original.
5. Talmudic Encyclopedia, "Ger" (= convert to Judaism).
6. For example, R. Shabbtay Kohen (mid 17th century), Siftey Kohen on
Shulhan 'Arukh, "Yoreh De'ah, 158: "But in times of war it was the
custom to kill them with one's own hands, for it is said, 'the best of
Gentiles—kill him!'" Siftey Kohen and Turey Zahay (see note 3) are the
two major classical commentaries on the Shulhan 'Arukh.
7. Colonel Rabbi A. Avidan (Zemel), "Tohar hannesheq le'or hahalakhah"
(= "Purity of weapons in the light of the Halakhah") in Be'iqvot
milhemet yom hakkippurim—pirqey hagut, halakhah umehqar (In the Wake of
the Yom Kippur War—Chapters of Meditation, Halakhah and Research),
Central Region Command, 1973: quoted in Ha'olam Hazzeh, 5 January 1974;
also quoted by David Shaham, "A chapter of meditation," Hotam, 28 March
1974; and by Amnon Rubinstein, "Who falsifies the Halakhah?" Ma'ariv,"
13 October 1975. Rubinstein reports that the booklet was subsequently
withdrawn from circulation by order of the Chief of General Staff,
presumably because it encouraged soldiers to disobey his own orders;
but he complains that Rabbi Avidan has not been court-martialled, nor
has any rabbi—military or civil—taken exception to what he had written.
8. R. Shim'on Weiser, "Purity of weapons—an exchange of letters" in Niv
Hammidrashiyyah Yearbook of Midrashiyyat No'am, 1974, pp. 29-31. The
yearbook is in Hebrew, English and French, but the material quoted here
is printed in Hebrew only.
9. Psalms, 42:2.
10. "Thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven,"
Deuteronomy, 25:19. Cf. also I Samuel, 15:3: "Now go and smite Amalek,
and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay
both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass."
11. We spare the reader most of these rather convoluted references and
quotes from talmudic and rabbinical sources. Such omissions are marked
[. . .]. The rabbi's own conclusions are reproduced in full.
12. The Tosafot (literally, Addenda) are a body of scholia to the
Talmud, dating from the 11th-13th centuries.
13. Persons guilty of such crimes are even allowed to rise to high
public positions. An illustration of this is the case of Shmu'el Lahis,
who was responsible for the massacre of between 50 and 75 Arab peasants
imprisoned in a mosque after their village had been conquered by the
Israeli army during the 1948-9 war. Following a pro forma trial, he was
granted complete amnesty, thanks to Ben-Gurion's intercession. The man
went on to become a respected lawyer and in the late 1970s was
appointed Director General of the Jewish Agency (which is, in effect,
the executive of the Zionist movement). In early 1978 the facts
concerning his past were widely discussed in the Israeli press, but no
rabbi or rabbinical scholar questioned either the amnesty or his
fitness for his new office. His appointment was not revoked.
14. Shulhan 'Arukh, "Hoshen Mishpat" 426.
15. Tractate 'Avodah Zarah, p. 26b.
16. Maimonides, op. cit., "Murderer" 4, 11.
17. Leviticus, 19:16. Concerning the rendering "thy fellow," see note
14 to Chapter 3.
18. Maimonides, op. cit., "Idolatry" 10, 1-2.
19. In both cases in section "Yoreh De'ah" 158. The Shulhan 'Arukh
repeats the same doctrine in "Hoshen Mishpat" 425.
20. Moses Rivkes, Be'er Haggolah on Shulhan 'Arukh, "Hoshen Mishpat"
21. Thus Professor Jacob Katz, in his Hebrew book Between Jews and
Gentiles as well as in its more apologetic English version
Exclusiveness and Tolerance, quotes only this passage verbatim and
draws the amazing conclusion that "regarding the obligation to save
life no discrimination should be made between Jew and Christian." He
does not quote any of the authoritative views I have cited above or in
the next section.
22. Maimonides, op. cit., "Sabbath" 2, 20-21; Shulhan 'Arukh, "Orah
23. R 'Aqiva Eiger, commentary on Shulhan 'Arukh, ibid. He also adds
that if a baby is found abandoned in a town inhabited mainly by
Gentiles, a rabbi should be consulted as to whether the baby should be
24. Tractate 'Avoda Zarah, p. 26.
25. Maimonides, op. cit., "Sabbath" 2, 12; Shulhan 'Arukh, "Orah
Hayyim" 330. The latter text says "heathen" rather than "Gentile" but
some of the commentators, such as Turey Zahav, stress that this ruling
applies "even to Ishmaelites," that is, to Muslims, "who are not
idolators." Christians are not mentioned explicitly in this connection,
but the ruling must a fortiori apply to them, since—as we shall see
below—Islam is regarded in a more favorable light than Christianity.
See also the responsa of Hatam Sofer quoted below.
26. These two examples, from Poland and France, are reported by Rabbi
I.Z. Cahana (afterwards professor of Talmud in the religious Bar-Ilan
University, Israel), "Medicine in the Halachic post-Talmudic
Literature," Sinai, vol 27, 1950, p.221. He also reports the following
case from 19th century Italy. Until 1848, a special law in the Papal
States banned Jewish doctors from treating Gentiles. The Roman Republic
established in 1848 abolished this law along with all other
discriminatory law against Jews. But in 1849 an expeditionary force
sent by France's President Louis Napoleon (afterwards Emperor Napoleon
III) defeated the Republic and restored Pope Pius IX, who in 1850
revived the anti-Jewish laws. The commanders of the French garrison,
disgusted with this extreme reaction, ignored the papal law and hired
some Jewish doctors to treat their soldiers. The Chief Rabbi of Rome,
Moshe Hazan, who was himself a doctor, was asked whether a pupil of
his, also a doctor, could take a job in a FreHbÉtù
27. Hokhmat Shlomoh on Shulhan 'Arukh, "Orah Hayyim" 330, 2.
28. R. Unterman, Ha'aretz, 4 April 1966. The only qualification he
makes—after having been subjected to continual pressure—is that in our
times any refusal to give medical assistance to a Gentile could cause
such hostility as might endanger Jewish lives.
29. Hatam Sofer, Responsa on Shulhan 'Arukh, "Yoreh De'ah" 131.
30. Op. cit., on Shulhan 'Arukh, "Hoshen Mishpat" 194.
31. R. B. Knobelovitz in The Jewish Review (Journal of the Mizrachi
Party in Great Britain), 8 June 1966.
32. R. Yisra'el Me'ir Kagan—better known as the "Hafetz
Hayyim—complains in his Mishnah Berurah, written in Poland in 1907:
"And know ye that most doctors, even the most religious, do not take
any heed whatsoever of this law; for they work on the sabbath and do
travel several parasangs to treat a heathen, and they grind medicaments
with their own hands. And there is no authority for them to do so. For
although we may find it permissible, because of the fear of hostility,
to violate bans imposed by the sages—and even this is not clear; yet in
bans imposed by the Torah itself it must certainly be forbidden for any
Jew to do so, and those who transgress this prohibition violate the
sabbath utterly and may God have mercy on them for their sacrilege."
(Commentary on Shulhan 'Arukh, "Orah Hayyim" 330.) The author is
generally regarded as the greatest rabbinical authority of his time.
33. Avraham Steinberg MD (ed.), Jewish Medical Law, compiled from Tzitz
Eli "ezer (Responsa of R. Eli"ezer Yehuda Waldenberg), translated by
David B. Simons MD, Gefen and Mossad Harav Kook, Jerusalem and
34. Op. cit., p. 39. Ibid., p.41.
35. Ibid., p. 41.
36. The phrase "between Jew and gentile" is a euphemism. The
dispensation is designed to prevent hostility of Gentiles towards Jews,
not the other way around.
37. Ibid., p. 412; my emphasis.
38. Dr. Falk Schlesinger Institute for Medical Halakhic Research at
Sha'arey Tzedeq Hospital, Sefer Asya (The Physician's Book), Reuben
Mass, Jerusalem, 1979.
39 By myself in Ha'olam Hazzeh, 30 May 1979 and by Shullamit Aloni,
Member of Knesset, in Ha'aretz, 17 June 1980.
40. Ezekiel, 23:20.
41. Tractate Berakhot, p. 78a.
42. Talmudic Encyclopedia, "Eshet Ish" ("Married Woman").
43. Exodus, 20:17.
44. Genesis, 2:24.
45. Maimonides, op. cit., "Prohibitions on Sexual Intercourse" 12; 10;
Talmudic Encyclopedia, "Goy."
46. Maimonides, op. cit., ibid., 12, 1-3. As a matter of fact, every
Gentile woman is regarded as N.Sh.G.Z.—acronym for the Hebrew words
niddah, shifhah, goyah, zonah (unpurified from menses, slave, Gentile,
prostitute). Upon conversion to Judaism, she ceases indeed to be
niddah, shifhah, goyah but is still considered zonah (prostitute) for
the rest of her life, simply by virtue of having been born of a Gentile
mother. In a special category is a woman "conceived not in holiness but
born in holiness," that is born to a mother who had converted to
Judaism while pregnant. In order to make quite sure that there are no
mix-ups, the rabbis insist that a married couple who convert to Judaism
together must abstain from marital relations for three months.
47. Characteristically, an exception to this generalization is made
with respect to Gentiles holding legal office relating to financial
transactions: notaries, debt collectors, bailiffs and the like. No
similar exception is made regarding ordinary decent Gentiles, not even
if they are friendly towards Jews.
48. Some very early (1st century BC) rabbis called this law "barbaric"
and actually returned lost property belonging to Gentiles. But the law
49. Leviticus, 25:14. This is a literal translation of the Hebrew
phrase. The King James Version renders this as "ye shall not oppress
one another;" "oppress" is imprecise but "one another" is a correct
rendering of the biblical idiom "each man his brother." As pointed out
in Chapter 3, the Halakhah interprets all such idioms as referring
exclusively to one's fellow Jew.
50. Shulhan 'Arukh, "Hoshen Mishpat" 227.
51. This view is advocated by H. Bar-Droma, Wezeh Gvul Ha'aretz (And
This Is the Border of the Land), Jerusalem, 1958. In recent years this
book is much used by the Israeli army in indoctrinating its officers.
52. Maimonides, op. cit., "Idolatry" 10, 3-4.
53. See note 2.
54. Exodus, 23:33.
55. Maimonides, op. cit., "Idolatry" 10, 6.
56. Deuteronomy, 20:16. See also the verses quoted in note 10.
57. Numbers 31:13-20; note in particular verse 17: "Now therefore kill
every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known
man by lying with him."
58. R. Sha'ul Yisra'eli, "Taqrit Qibbiya Le'or Hahalakhah" ("The
Qibbiya incident in the light of the Halakhah"), in Hattorah
Wehammedinah, vol 5, 1953/4.
59. This is followed by a blessing "for not making me a slave." Next, a
male must add a blessing "for not making me a woman," and a female "for
making me as He pleased."
60. In eastern Europe it was until recent times a universal custom
among Jews to spit on the floor at this point, as an expression of
scorn. This was not however a strict obligation, and today the custom
is kept only by the most pious.
61. The Hebrew word is meshummadim, which in rabbinical USAge refers to
Jews who become "idolators," that is either pagan or Christians, but
not to Jewish converts to Islam.
62. The Hebrew word is minim, whose precise meaning is "disbelievers in
the uniqueness of God."
63. Tractate Berakhot, p. 58b.
64. According to many rabbinical authorities the original rule still
applies in full in the Land of Israel.
65. This custom gave rise to many incidents in the history of European
Jewry. One of the most famous, whose consequence is still visible
today, occurred in 14th century Prague. King Charles IV of Bohemia (who
was also Holy Roman Emperor) had a magnificent crucifix erected in the
middle of a stone bridge which he had built and which still exists
today. It was then reported to him that the Jews of Prague are in the
habit of spitting whenever they pass next to the crucifix. Being a
famous protector of the Jews, he did not institute persecution against
them, but simply sentenced the Jewish community to pay for the Hebrew
word Adonay (Lord) to be inscribed on the crucifix in golden letters.
This word is one of the seven holiest names of God, and no mark of
disrespect is allowed in front of it. The spitting ceased. Other
incidents connected with the same custom were much less amusing.
66. The verses most commonly used for this purpose contain words
derived from the Hebrew root shaqetz which means "abominate, detest,"
as in Deuteronomy, 7:26: "thou shalt utterly detest it, and thou shalt
utterly abhor it; for it is a cursed thing." It seems that the
insulting term sheqetz, used to refer to all Gentiles (Chapter 2),
originated from this custom.
67. Talmud, Tractate Beytzah, p. 21a, b; Mishnah Berurah on Shulhan
'Arukh, "Orah Hayyim" 512. Another commentary (Magen Avraham) also
68. According to the Halakha, a Gentile slave bought by a Jew should be
converted to Judaism, but does not thereby become a proper Jew.
69. Leviticus, 25:46.
70. The Hebrew form of the name Jesus—Yeshu—was interpreted as an
acronym for the curse may his name and memory be wiped out," which is
used as an extreme form of abuse. In fact, anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews
(such as Neturey Qarta) sometimes refer to Herzl as "Herzl Jesus" and I
have found in religious Zionist writings expressions such as "Nasser
Jesus" and more recently "Arafat Jesus."