A burglar is, by definition, one who commits the act of breaking and entering a dwelling at night with the intent to commit a felony. This definition is very important in order to understand what the Torah has to say about this particular type of crime.

“If the thief is seized while breaking-in, and he is beaten to death, there is no bloodguilt in his case. If the sun has risen on him, there is bloodguilt in that case…” (Exodus 22:1-2).

If a burglar is killed in the act of breaking and entering, the person who killed him is not held liable. The reason for this is explained in the Talmud: “Raba said: What is the reason for the law of breaking-in? Because it is certain that no person will be inactive where their property is concerned; therefore this one [the thief] must have reasoned, ‘If I go there, he [the owner] will oppose me and prevent me; but if he does I will kill him.’ Hence the Torah decreed, ‘If he come to slay you, forestall by slaying him [first]’” (Sanhedrin 72a).

The very next verse, however, states that “if the sun has risen,” if there is light, then the balance changes. The sages saw the interplay of these two connected verses and explained that now, with the ability to see the intruder, one must try to determine the intentions of the burglar before reacting. “If it is as clear to you as the sun that his intentions are not peaceable, slay him; otherwise, do not slay him…If it is as clear to you as the sun that his intentions are peaceable, do not slay him; otherwise, slay him” (ibid).

Finding a person in one’s home in the middle of the night is terrifying, and may be considered justification for responding with violence. The sages, however, offer a warning that before one reacts, one must carefully assess the situation to determine the true threat to one’s life.

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