Skip To Content
Back to Opinion

Trayvon and the Rodef

As federal and state authorities investigate the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, and pundits debate the value of the Florida law that, so far, is protecting George Zimmerman from being charged with murder, we would do well to consult the “din rodef.”

Jewish law has much to say about a lot of things, and the fraught question of when, if ever, it is legal and justified to kill in self-defense has kept scholars debating for centuries. As the Forward’s language columnist, Philologos, wrote back in 2004:

Din rodef means, literally, ‘the case of the pursuer,’ although it might be more idiomatically translated into English as ‘the right of self-defense.’ It refers to the rabbinic precept that, as articulated by Maimonides, says: ‘Every Jew is obligated to save a pursued person from his pursuer, even if this means killing the pursuer.’ A ‘pursuer,’ in the rabbinic context, is someone who is a threat to someone’s life. If you see a mugger with a knife running after someone in the street, for example, he is a rodef and it is your duty, if you can carry it out without risk to your own life, to stop him in any way you can — even by shooting him with the gun you are carrying.”

Philologos was responding here to the uproar generated by the declaration of Avigdor Nebenzahl, rabbi of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City: “Anyone ceding parts of the Land of Israel to gentiles is, from a halachic point of view, subject to din rodef.” He later qualified the statement, but the damage was done.

Before then, in 1995, the rabbinic concept was famously used by Yigal Amir to justify the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, on the grounds that his role in seeking peace with the Palestinians through the Oslo Accords actually endangered the Jews of Israel.

Granted, it’s a long way from the crowded square in the middle of Tel Aviv, where Rabin lost his life, to the gated community in Sanford, Fla., where the unarmed Martin died from a gunshot wound to his chest. But the journey is instructive.

The din rodef, as is often the case in rabbinic law, is an elastic concept, pushed and pulled over time, molded to circumstance. As Philologos reminded us: “Rodef, as the rabbis came to think of it, need not be someone actually threatening you with a weapon; it can be anyone endangering you at all.”

But that very elasticity became a recognized danger in rabbinic law precisely because it is so situationally ambiguous. How does one perceive a threat? Today, the answer is muddied further by Florida’s questionable Stand Your Ground law, which allows a person to use deadly force in self-defense well beyond the norms of protecting one’s property. Thus Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, claimed that he was justified in shooting Martin because the young man, armed only with a can of ice tea and a bag of Skittles, attacked him first. And with such a claim, the Sanford police said that under Stand Your Ground, they could not even detain, never mind arrest, the acknowledged killer.

Police and prosecutors have decried this law, a version of which is on the books in 24 states, for much the same reason that the elasticity of the din rodef has troubled Jewish authorities for centuries. For that reason, Maimonides said that killing a rodef who could have been stopped by lesser means constitutes murder.

The din rodef is to be applied in only the rarest of circumstances, and only when every other alternative has been attempted. Judgment, discipline and sensitivity are required here, which is why moral societies carefully train the police officers and soldiers who pick up deadly weapons on the public’s behalf. As lawmakers work to repeal the dangerous, unnecessary Stand Your Ground laws, they would do well to refer to this ancient standard.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.