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The Jewish Ethicist: Arms and the Businessman

The Jewish Ethicist: Arms and the Businessman

Is it ethical to be involved in the weapons industry?


Q. Is it proper to work in the arms industry?

A. "The arms industry" is too general a term. In order to establish consistent ethical criteria, we will have to make some important distinctions.

The Talmud teaches: "It is forbidden to sell to strangers weapons, or to sharpen their weapons, or to sell them anvils [used for making weapons]." The reason is that we have a reasonable expectation that they will be used to harm others. Later in the same passage, it is pointed out that many do customarily sell arms to others; the Talmud explains that these sales are "to the Persians, who protect us." (1)

The context of this passage indicates that there is a sharp distinction between two kinds of arms sales: one involves selling weapons to private individuals who are suspected of being brigands, bandits, terrorists, and so on. We are warned not to participate in this kind of arms trade in any way: not to sell arms to the users, nor to middlemen, nor to sharpen the weapons and so on.

The other kind of arms trade is to aid a legitimate government that uses weaponry to protect its citizens. This includes protection against lawlessness (police and gendarmerie to protect against bandits and insurrection) as well as national security -- protection against hostile foreign powers. This kind of weapons trade is completely legitimate.

Judaism definitely abhors war and the glorification of war. In ancient times, and even as recently as a few generations ago, wearing a sword was considered a symbol of a gentleman; but the Mishna states that since war is ultimately a disgrace, a weapon can never be considered a furnishing or article of clothing.(2)

Yet Judaism is not a pacifistic religion either. Our tradition has always recognized the realistic need for just laws to be given the backing of the coercive power of the king or state. Jewish communities have generally taken a positive view of their responsibility to participate in the protection of host nations in time of war. (3) Likewise, virtually all authorities have acknowledged the importance of participating in the protection of our own state.

From this we can discern the answer to your question. It is perfectly proper to be involved in arming a legitimate state in order to help it protect its citizens from lawlessness and foreign enemies. When these countries engage in arms sales with allied countries that follow similar legitimate practices, the same permission applies. It seems that the majority of the activities of the large defense contractors fall into this category.

Conversely, indiscriminate arms sales to private citizens have a high likelihood of being used for lawlessness. And certainly arms sales to drug barons or brigands, whether foreign or domestic, are unethical.

An intermediate case exists where governments allow selected private individuals to own firearms for self-protection. In some places, such sales are allowed only in unusual instances when an individual can demonstrate both need for a firearm (example: a person owns a warehouse in a dangerous neighborhood) as well as meaningful evidence that the weapon will be used in self-defense only (example: proof of a clean criminal record). Such sales seem to be within the boundaries of legitimate protection. But in places where standards are minimal, there is a definite ethical problem in selling a dangerous weapon unless the seller has definite reason to believe that the weapon will be used only for legitimate defense purposes.

Even though in today's imperfect world weapons are a necessary evil, we all look forward to the day when "they shall beat their swords into plows and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and they shall not learn war any more" (Isaiah 2:4).


(1) Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zara 15b, 16a. (2) Mishna Shabbat 6:4. (3) See for example Rav Moshe Feinstein, Igrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah II 158.

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at

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Copyright © JCT Center for Business Ethics.

February 7, 2004

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Visitor Comments: 4

(4) Bird of Good Omen, February 12, 2004 12:00 AM

Oh my..

"An intermediate case exists where governments allow selected private individuals to own firearms for self-protection."
Governments ALLOW it ? Kind of like the German government deciding whether to allow Jews to have guns ? In case you forgot, they said no. No, unless you are a dangerous criminal, you have the right to own a gun, whether the government says its ok or not.

(3) frankie, February 10, 2004 12:00 AM

In times like these, we have to arm ourselves depending on the circumstances. Else, who wants to be a sheep prey to a wolf? It is the duty of the gov't to regulate arms to who should be given and who should not be.

(2) Nick Smith, February 8, 2004 12:00 AM

Protection against Rodefim

If all the Jews in Europe had been armed in the 1930s the Haulocaust would never have hapened. If you live in a world where this could never happen again you live in a different world than I. There is also the growing danger of Jews being targeted by militant Islam. Lets face it, our heros today are the chalutzim who stand armed against the terror that surrounds them. As recent events in the United States have demonstrated, our world can in an instant become just like theirs.

(1) al, February 8, 2004 12:00 AM

skirting the issue

I do not know that this really answers the question. Of course one does not need the Talmud to know that it would be unethical to sell guns to "brigands, bandit", terrorists or drug dealers. And I am sure no one would have a problem selling guns or manufacturing them for supply to a "legitimate state."
It is the gray area you are skirting here. What about sale to private individials who are not criminals. Every gun has a purpose, and that purpose is to kill. I am not coming down on this one way or another. I live in a state where I am probably in the minority for not owning a gun, and now we have "conceal,carry laws." But we have skirted the issue here. Is it ethical to be a part in putting a gun into the hands of someone who is going to use it, maybe against a burglar; maybe against his wife or his neighbor in a fit of rage, maybe against himself in a fit of depression. I think we have skirted the issue here by appealing to the extremes, and it is a fair question that deserves to be answered.
Al V Puglisi

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