Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel

Parashat Balak

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Balak 5761/ July 7, 2001

On Entering the Synagogue with a Knife or Weapon

Prof. Yaakov Spiegel

Department of Talmud

On the basis of the verse at the conclusion of this week's reading, "When Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he left the assembly and, taking a spear in his hand, ..." (Numbers 25:7) the Sages arrived at the following interpretation (Sanhedrin 82a): "Hence we conclude that one is not to enter the Temple carrying arms." According to Rashi, this is deduced as follows: the word assembly ('eda) means Sanhedrin, for the High Court was sitting and deliberating the capital case of those who had gone over to Baal Peor. The Rabbis considered that Scripture was alluding to the Sanhedrin, which convened in the Temple area, and Phinehas therefore was in the Temple during this event. Since Scripture says of Phinehas that he "left ... and took ..." it follows, according to Rashi, that prior to that time Phinehas did not have a spear in is hands and that he had to take specific action in order to get the spear in his hands. Thus we conclude that one is not to enter a court - or a Beit Midrash - carrying a weapon.

This rule was applied here to a Beit Midrash. Tractate Megillah (27a) indicates that we follow the view that the sanctity of a Beit Midrash is stricter than that of a synagogue. Maimonides ruled (Tefillah 11.24) as follows: "A synagogue may be turned into a Beit Midrash, but a Beit Midrash may not be turned into a synagogue, since the sanctity of a Beit Midrash exceeds that of a synagogue, and one may increase sanctity but not decrease it. The Tur and the Shulhan Arukh ruled likewise (Orah Hayyim 153.1). Thus there were grounds for saying that proscription against entering with weapons applies only when entering a Beit Midrash, whose level of sanctity is greater; but when entering a synagogue, one could argue, carrying weapons is permissible. The posekim, however, ruled that bringing weapons into a synagogue is also forbidden, as we shall see below.

Rabbi Joseph Caro wrote in Beit Yosef (Orah Hayyim 151, Machon Yerushalayim ed., p. 80) as follows:

It is written in Orhot Hayyim (Hilkhot Beit ha-Knesset 7) in the name of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (Tashbetz Katan[1] 202), that one may not enter the synagogue with a long knife, since prayer lengthens a person's days and a knife shortens them; and entering with one's pouch is also forbidden, as it is said (Mishna Berakhot 54a), one may not enter the Temple Mount with a money-belt. The gloss on this by Rabbi Peretz (Tashbetz, loc. sit.) says that 'nevertheless one should not be concerned except with the head being uncovered' (end quote). And Masekhet Soferim (14.15) says that 'a person with a bare head is not to mention the name of G-d' (end quote).

Thus, in the opinion of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, a great Ashkenazi rabbi of the 13th century, one may not enter a synagogue with a knife. His opinion, apparently, was based on the Sages' homily in the Mekhilta (end of Parashat Jethro), [2] which is also cited by Rashi:

"And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool [lit. "sword"] upon them you have profaned them" (Ex. 20:22). Hence Rabbi Simeon b. Eleazar used to say that the altar was created to prolong a person's life, and iron was created to shorten a person's life; one may not wield that which shortens [life] upon that which prolongs [it].

Rabbi Rothenburg's remarks are founded on the same idea. For it says in the Talmud that prayer prolongs life,[3] and that being so, it is unfitting for something which shortens [life] to be wielded upon that which prolongs it.

We see from the above that also a synagogue may not be entered when carrying a knife. Rabbi Rothenburg may not have wanted to rely on Tractate Sanhedrin 82a for this prohibition, since that passage refers to a Beit Midrash; hence he wished to prove that also in a synagogue, which is of lesser sanctity, this proscription applies.[4]

Now let us examine in greater detail the gloss by Rabbi Peretz, mentioned above by R. Joseph Caro. Rabbi Peretz of Corbeil, among the last of the Tosafists, also wrote glosses on Tashbetz, in which he expressed his opinion on certain subjects. Here, too, as we have said, he wrote: "Nevertheless one should not be concerned except with the head being uncovered." Below we shall see how later rabbis understood his gloss.

The Shulhan Arukh 151.6 says:

One may enter a synagogue with one's staff, one's pouch, and one's money-belt; some forbid entering with a long knife or with an uncovered head.

In Eliah Rabbah Rabbi Eliah Shapira wrote:

This is a strange opinion, for nothing is mentioned in O.H. (Orhot Hayyim, which is the source that Beit Yosef cited for this halakhah) about the head being uncovered. I looked in Kolbo (Venice, 1547), p. 10 (sect. 17), who cited [O.H.] as follows: 'nevertheless, one is not to be concerned unless it is uncovered,' end quote. Similarly [is the quote] in Tashbetz 202. Thus, in my opinion, clearly he was speaking about a knife or money-belt actually being exposed, but if they are concealed, one may enter with them; and he was not writing at all about being bare headed. The views of the authors of Shulhan Arukh, the Levush, and the aharonim (later rabbinic authorities) are puzzling.

Rabbi Eliah was asking about the ruling of the Shulhan Arukh which is based, of course, on the glosses of Rabbi Peretz. In his opinion, the words of Rabbi Peretz had been misunderstood. After all, Rabbi Peretz was referring to things written by Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, which are cited in Orhot Hayyim; but Orhot Hayyim makes no mention of the head being bare. Therefore Rabbi Eliah questioned what Rabbi Peretz was commenting about.

Rabbi Eliah looked back at the Tashbetz itself and found that Rabbi Peretz is cited differently in this source: "Nevertheless one is not to be concerned unless [it is] uncovered" (without the word "head"); the same wording appears in Kolbo. Now Rabbi Peretz is understandable; Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg forbade entering the synagogue when carrying a knife, without making any qualifications. Rabbi Peretz came along and explained that the prohibition only applies when the knife is exposed. Therefore Rabbi Eliah concluded that the ruling of the Shulhan Arukh, that some people forbid entering the synagogue with a knife, is incorrect and that, moreover, it is surprising that subsequent rabbinic authorities followed his lead.

Rabbi Eliah was challenged by the Hida [R. H.Y.D. Azulai] in his work, Birkei Yosef, loc. sit. In brief, he argued that Rabbi Eliah had not had access to Orhot Hayyim, but now that this book had come out in print,[5] we observe that the wording there is the same as that cited in Beit Yosef. One cannot rely on the formulation in Kolbo, as Rabbi Eliah did, since the Kolbo is an abridgement of Orhot Hayyim, and, as we have said, the wording in Orhot Hayyim[6] is the same as that which we have, with the word 'head'; therefore the Kolbo must contain a scribal error.

According to R. Hida, one must say that the error is in the Kolbo and not in Orhot Hayyim, for Orhot Hayyim immediately continues with a passage from Masekhet Soferim that deals with going bare-headed; thus we see that the version which read "with head uncovered" is indeed correct.[7] On this basis R. Hida said that R. Peretz meant to rule that one may enter the synagogue with a knife, a pouch, and the like, and only forbade entering the synagogue bare-headed (i.e., without a kippa or a hat). Rabbi Peretz saw fit to emphasize the point about being bare-headed since the approach of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, as R. Hida proves, was that entering the synagogue bare-headed was a "mild" prohibition, considered an act of piety (middat hasidut). Therefore Rabbi Peretz saw fit to stress the prohibition here.

We can add further that today printed editions are available of Hiddushei Mahari Abohav on the Tur, Orah Hayyim, based on the manuscript.[8] All the words of Orhot Hayyim that were cited by Beit Yosef appear there, in exactly the same formulation. Thus we have additional evidence in support of Rabbi Hida's contention that one should notemend the words of Rabbi Peretz and it appears that the Hida was correct in his understanding of Rabbi Peretz.

However, further explanation of Rabbi Peretz' words are to be found in Rabbi Y. M. Epstein's Arukh ha-Shulhan. In section 151.10 he writes as follows:

It is not clear what one has to do with the other (i.e., what connection there is between a knife and a bare head); moreover, entering the synagogue bare-headed is forbidden in any case (meaning this proscription was already explained in Shulhan Arukh, loc. sit., sect. 91; that being so, what was the Shulhan Arukh adding here?).[9] Thus we agree with those who say it should be understood as follows: 'with a long knife and head uncovered' (thus, and not "or with a head"); that is to say, when the knife itself is uncovered and not in a pouch, for when it is in a pouch it is permitted (Eliyah Rabba, 110). Therefore it says, accurately, 'with a long knife', since a short one could be hidden under one's garments or in one's pouch.[10]

According to Arukh ha-Shulhan there is no need to emend the words of Rabbi Peretz, as Rabbi Eliah had done; rather, one should interpret his words as meaning "if the head is revealed," referring to the knife itself. In other words, only in the event that the knife is exposed,[11] is it forbidden to enter the synagogue. Accordingly, the remark of Rabbi Peretz relates directly to the words of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, and hence they are comprehensible, unlike the understanding of Rabbi Eliah. In the opinion of Arukh ha-Shulhan, if we make a slight emendation in the words of the Shulhan Arukh (reading "and [Heb.u-] with head" instead of the text which we have, "or [Heb. o-] with head"), then they too accord with what was said by Rabbi Peretz.

It follows from what Arukh ha-Shulhan says that Rabbi Hida's testimony from the wording in Orhot Hayyim does not contradict his suggestion, so one could say that the approach of Arukh ha-Shulhan is similar to that of Eliah Rabbah. Incidentally, it appears that the author of Arukh ha-Shulhan had not seen Rabbi Hida's work and therefore in his remarks did not mention that they resolve the difficulty which Rabbi Hida observed.

Nevertheless one difficulty raised by Rabbi Hida appears not to have been resolved by the remarks in Arukh ha-Shulhan. Namely, why does Orhot Hayyim mention immediately after this subject Masekhet Soferim had written regarding mentioning the name of G-d with a bare head? According to Arukh ha-Shulhan this is in no way related to the text that precedes it.

We have presented three ways of reading Rabbi Peretz, which actually reflect only two different approaches. According to both of these approaches Rabbi Peretz is more lenient than Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, but the question is how much so? According to one approach, that of Eliah Rabbah and Arukh ha-Shulhan, Rabbi Peretz forbade entering a synagogue with a knife unless it is concealed. The second approach, that of Rabbi Hida, holds that Rabbi Peretz did not forbid entering a synagogue with a knife. To complete the picture, let us add that also the rabbis of our times have discussed this issue,[12] except that they extended it to include weapons in use today, such as guns and pistols. Naturally they also related to the different ways of reading the remarks of Rabbi Peretz. From what they have written they appear to have taken a stricter interpretation.[13] That is, from the outset one should not enter a synagogue carrying arms; but when one cannot help entering with arms, it is preferable to conceal them. Only when there is no other option may one rely on the words of Rabbi Peretz as understood by Rabbi Hida, that one may enter with no restrictions.


[1] Written by R. Samson b. R. Tzadok, a disciple of R. Meir of Rothenburg, who recorded some of his rabbi’s teachings in this work. Katan is added to the title to distinguish this work from the responsa of Rabbi Simeon b. R. Tzemah, a 14th-century rabbi from North Africa, which is also entitled Tashbetz.

[2] This is the source noted by Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Resp. Yehaveh Da'at, Part 5, sect. 18.

[3] The reference is apparently to Berakhot 54b: "Rabbi Judah said three things, [when done at length] prolong a person's days and years: lengthy prayer, ..." Also cf. Dikdukei Soferim, loc. sit.

[4] This is mentioned by R. E. Waldenberg, Resp. Tzitz Eliezer, Part 10, sect. 18; R. A. Yofe Schlesinger, Resp. Be'er Sarim, 1978, Part 2, sect. 10; R. O. Yosef, Yehaveh Da'at, Part 5, sect. 18.

[5] The book was first printed in Florence in 1750, while Rabbi Eliah passed away in 1712. Therefore there is no room for R. Mordechai Karmi's wonder, as expressed in Maamar Mordechai, sect. 151.2, how it happened that Rabbi Eliah had not seen what was written in Orhot Hayyim.

[6] This has been discussed at length by the rabbis, but this is not the place to go into details.

[7] Rabbi Y. Z. Kahana, Teshuvot Posekim u-Minhagim la-Maharam me-Rothenburg, Jerusalem 1957, Part 1, p. 150, par. 65, remarked on the formulation in the printed edition of Orhot Hayyim, which supports Beit Yosef, and did not note that R. Hida had already observed this. (Incidentally, he compared the version in Orhot Hayyim with the Kolbo, which, as we said, is not to be done.)

[8] R. Hosea Rabinowitz ed., Jerusalem, 1994.

[9] R. Hida had already responded to this point in his comments; see loc. sit.

[10] It is remarkable that in Torah Temimah, loc. sit., his son, Rabbi B. Epstein, himself wrote almost the exact same thing in the very same words (see the next note), but he did not mention what his father had said. We have previously observed that this was his tendency regarding other books (see my remarks in the Parashat Hashavua of Parshat Bo, 1999), and here we see this also with respect to his father's teachings.

[11] He interprets the "head of the knife" as the "knife itself", apparently meaning the blade; one should investigate whether this was indeed what he had in mind. Nevertheless, it should be noted that we have not found such a phrase used to refer to the blade of a knife, so this interpretation seems to us far-fetched. Note that the author of Torah Temimah wrote in his glosses as follows: "If the head of the knife is revealed", and by this emendation one could say that he meant even if the head of the knife is revealed, i.e., part of the knife is revealed although most of it is concealed, the knife is still considered revealed and may not be taken into the synagogue.

[12] R. י"א Waldenberg, Resp. Tzitz Eliezer, Part 10, sect. 18; R. E. Yafe Schlesinger, Resp. Be'er Sarim, 1978, Part 2, sect. 10; R. O. Yosef, Yehaveh Da'at, Part 5, sect. 18. The question is also discussed in several books dealing with rulings concerning the army and war, such as Hilkhot Tzava by R. Zekhariah ben Shlomo, Yeshivat Sha'alavim, 1988, p. 75, and others.

[13] One of the reasons for this is that their rulings are not based solely on the words of R. Peretz, but also cite other posekim on this issue, who agreed that if the knife is covered it is not prohibited, independently of anything that was said in Eliah Rabbah. They derived this from the stress on a "long knife"; hence it follows that a short knife which can be covered may be brought into the synagogue.