This chapter from the book "The Nation and the Land" by HaRav Eliezer Melamed presents an overview of the mitvahs inherent in the IDF in its safeguarding Jewisah sovereignty over the Land of Israel and laws governing the behavior of IDF soldiers.

Laws of the Army and War

by HaRav Eliezer Melamed.

[NOTE: The “Laws of the Army and War” is Chapter 5 of HaRav Melamed’s book “The Nation and the Land” which can be found elsewhere on this website.  The original Hebrew version, “HaAm V’HaAretz” written by HaRav Eliezer Melamed, Rabbi of the Har Bracha community and head of the HaBracha Yeshiva, is a part of the multi-volume “Peninei Halacha” series. The English adaption and translation by Tzvi Fishman is currently undergoing editing and proofreading. Any mistakes in the text whether halachic or grammatical are attributable to Tzvi Fishman and not to HaRav Melamed or the staff of the “Peninei Halacha” series.]


  1. The Mitzvah to Serve in the Army

It is a supreme mitzvah from the Torah to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces. The foundation of this obligation is based on two general mitzvot – each of which, in certain ways, is as important as all the mitzvot put together. First, the mitzvah of saving Israel from the hand of her enemies, and second, guarding the Land of Israel in order that it be under Jewish sovereignty.

          Saving Israel:

If a Jew in danger, we are commanded to come to his assistance, as it says, “Do not stand aside when trouble befalls your neighbor” (Vayikra, 19:17). To do this, one must be ready to undergo a certain level of risk. How much greater is the obligation to save all of Israel when they are in danger. As our Sages have said in the Mishna, “Anyone who saves the life of a Jew, it is as if he saved an entire world” (Sanhedrin 4:5). Therefore, a soldier who participates in the protection of the entire nation, how much more so is he saving entire worlds.

This is clearly a milchemet mitzvah, as the Rambam has written: “Which is a milchemet mitzvah? The war against the seven nations (conquering of the Land of Israel), the war against Amalek, and saving of Israel from those who rise up against her” (Laws of Kings and Their Wars, 5:1). The mitzvah of going to war obligates each individual to be willing to place himself in danger – way beyond the danger we are commanded to enter while saving an individual Jew. According to all authorities, in order to save the life of a Jew, or a number of Jews, one is not commanded to enter into a situation where one will likely be killed. However, in times of war, when soldiers must endanger themselves in order to win the battle, one must be ready to enter a situation where the chances of losing one’s life are greater than being saved. Rabbi Kook explained that the rule of “and you shall live by them,” where we learn that pikuach nefesh (saving life) overrides all the commandments in the Torah, does not apply in times of war, because the laws of the  community (tzibur) are different from the laws of the individual, and for the sake of preserving the community, individuals must be ready to sacrifice their lives. (See, “Mishpat Kohen” 143). In light of this opinion, it is written in the responsa, “Tzitz Eliezer,” that the rule of the Mishna that “your life becomes before the life of your friend” does not apply in wartime, “rather all those involved in the war, together, are obligated to sacrifice their lives for their fellow brothers. This is also included in the rules of the laws of the community, and in the realm of government leadership and regulations” (loc. cited, 13;100. See, “Tzava K’Halachah,” Ch.15).


          Conquering the Land

We are commanded to inherit and settle the Land of Israel, in order that the Land be under Jewish sovereign and settled by Jews in its length and breadth. This mitzvah is equal to all the other commandments together (Sifrei, Reah, 43). This precept nullifies individual concerns of pikuach nefesh, for we are commanded to conquer the Land, and the Torah does not expect us to rely on miracles. Since there are casualties in all wars, it is obvious that the mitzvah to conquer the Land obligates us to endanger our lives for it (Minchat Chinuch 425: 604; Mishpat Kohen, pg. 327, and see Ch.1:4 in this book). Certainly, we must fight in order to protect the parts of Eretz Yisrael that are already in our possession. For many generations, we lacked the ability to organize and build a military force, and therefore we were “onus” and incapable to fulfill the mitzvah. But, with the grace of God, over the last few generations, this capability has returned to our hands, and with it, the obligation to fulfill the mitzvah of conquering the Land.

In this discussion, I have listed first the foundation of saving the Jewish Nation before the mitzvah of settling the Land, similar to Yoav ben Zruriyah, the head of the army in the times of King David. When the battle became fierce and his soldiers needed to be strengthened against the enemy, he mentioned saving the nation before settling the Land, saying, “Be of good courage, and let us be strong for our people, and for the cities of our God; and the Lord will do that which seems right in his eyes” (Samuel 2, 10:12).


  1. The Injunction Not to Fear

Generally, we fulfill all of the commandments as individuals. Even though Israel is responsible for one another, and the supreme intention of all the mitzvot is to fulfill them “in the name of all of Israel,” nevertheless, a mitzvah is an individual obligation, and is fulfilled on an individual basis. However, when it comes to the mitzvah of serving in the army, the individual, to a great extent, nullifies his individuality, and merges himself with the clal. Accordingly, everyone fights together as one, for the sake of Clal Yisrael.

Possessed with this understanding, the individual soldier is capable of not fearing the dangers of war. If one weighs the mitzvah as an individual, when going into battle, a soldier is likely to fear. Indeed, in everyday life, one must be cautious of placing oneself in danger. In doing so, a person fulfills the mitzvah of guarding over one’s life. This is the basis for the halachah that pikuach nefesh overrides all the commandments in the Torah (except for idol worship, murder, and forbidden licentious relations). However, in a time of war, every Jew must elevate himself above and beyond his personal existence, and see himself as a part of Clal Yisrael, as a representative of the Nation of Israel, which has been Divinely designated to sanctify the Name of God in the world. In this manner, he can overcome the natural emotion of fear and fight courageously.

Thus wrote the Rambam: “And as [the soldier] engages in battle, he should trust in God who saves from times of danger, and know that he is waging war for the sake of the unification of God’s Name in the world (Yichud Hashem), and he should not think of his wife nor his children. Rather, he should erase their memory from his heart, and he should turn his attention away from everything else to [concentrate on] the war. Whoever begins to think of these other matters during battle and thus unnerve himself, he transgresses a negative precept, as it says, “Hear O Israel, you draw near today to do battle against your enemies; let not your hearts be faint, and do not tremble, nor be terrified because of them, for the Lord God is He who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies to save you” (Devarim, 20:3-4). Furthermore, he should feel as if all the blood of Israel is hanging on his throat” (Laws of Kings and Their Wars, 7:15). And if he wasn’t victorious, and didn’t fight with all his heart and soul, it is like he spilled the blood of all his brothers, as it is said, “lest his brother’s heart melt like his heart” (there, 20:8). Behold it is clearly stated in the Prophets, “Cursed be he who does the work of the Lord negligently, and cursed be he who keeps back his sword from blood” (Yirmeyahu, 48:10). And everyone who fights with all his heart, without fear, with his only intention of sanctifying God’s Name, it is promised that no injury or evil will befall him, and he will merit to build a distinguished house in Israel, and it will be an everlasting merit for him and his children, and he will be rewarded with life in the World to Come, as it says, “For the Lord will certainly make my master a sure house, because my master fights the battles of the Lord, and evil has not be found with you all of your days… the soul of my master shall be bound in the bond of life with the Lord your God” (Shmuel 1, 25:28-29).


  1. The Mitzvah to Enlist in the Israel Defense Force

The purpose of the Israel Defense Forces (Tzahal) is to save Israel from her enemies and to fulfill the mitzvah of conquering and settling the Land by insuring Israeli sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, it is a mitzvah for each and every Jew who is called upon to enlist in the army. Despite the fact that anyone who serves in the army fulfills this duty, there is a tremendous difference between the value of the mitzvah fulfilled by combat and military support soldiers who put their lives on the line, in contrast to non-combatant soldiers.

One cannot learn otherwise from the soldiers of King David, who, in guarded the camp, were awarded an equal share of the spoil with all the soldiers, as it is written, “But as the share of he who goes out to the battle, so shall his share be that remains by the baggage – they shall share alike” (Shmuel 1, 30:24). In that case, even those who “remained by the baggage,” guarding the camp, were combat soldiers. Since it was necessary to assign soldiers to watch the camp and its gear, and since enlistment in the army was, to a large extent, voluntary and based on the lure of receiving booty, no one would have agreed to watch over the camp if his share was going to be less.  Additionally, even those who guarded the camp exposed themselves to danger, for at that time, the rear was closer to the war front, and enemy soldiers would constantly attempt to attack the camp in order to destroy the supply lines and win the battle. Thus, the role of the soldiers who stayed behind to guard the camp was important and filled with risk.

Today, however, the majority of non-combatant soldiers do not participate in situations of danger and military conflict, and consequently, the level of the mitzvah they fulfill is much lower than those who serve in combat units. The general rule concerning non-combatant soldiers is that the more the soldier contributes to the defense of Israel, the greater his mitzvah is – and there are non-combatant soldiers whose contributions are enormous.

King David’s decision to allocate booty equally between his troops does applyto combat soldiers, regardless of which units they serve in, for they are equally important for the war effort. However, a soldier from an elite commando unit who is frequently called upon to risk his life for the Jewish nation merits greater blessing – the greater the effort, the greater the reward (Avot,5:23).

Already at the initial stages of enlistment and basic training, a soldier fulfills this great mitzvah. The fact that our enemies know that Israel has a strong army deters them from attacking us. Therefore, the mere enlistment and training of soldiers assist in Israel’s defense and facilitate the mitzvah to settle the land. Sometimes, however, deterrence is not sufficient and we must go to war. In such a case, the value of the mitzvah is multiplied, and every soldier must be ready to sacrifice his life accordingly.

Although many people have justified complaints about how Tzahal is manipulated for political ends, this does not alter the mitzvah to serve in the army. For even if all the criticisms are true, and Tzahal is misused, even against the people of Israel themselves, as happened with the expulsions from Gush Katif and the Shomron,- without the Israel Defense Forces, our enemies would rise up to destroy us. Furthermore, it can be argued that the Nation of Israel never possessed a perfect army without operational failures and ethical blemishes. Occasionally in our history, our army had more problems, and sometimes less. Nevertheless, the mitzvah to fight for the nation and the Land always remains in force, and during the times when we didn’t have the defend us, terrible persecutions befell us. Therefore, when criticism is due, it must be expressed, in order to rectify the problems. However, all of the criticisms do not nullify the fundamental mitzvah of serving in the army.


  1. Are Torah Students Required to Serve in the Army?

The mitzvah of learning Torah does not override the mitzvah of serving in the army in order to rescue Israel from her enemies. The Torah permits certain soldiers to return from setting off to war, such as one who built a house and did not consecrate it, or planted a vineyard and did not harvest it, or became engaged but did not marry, but this is in regards to a “milchemet reshut” (a non-obligatory war for economic gains). However, in a “milchemet mizvah,” a war to conquer the Land of Israel, or to rescue Israel from an enemy, “everyone goes out, even a groom from his wedding room and a bride from her wedding canopy” (Sotah 44B). This is also how the Rambam ruled (Laws of Kings and Their Wars, 7:4).

The students of Yehoshua ben Nun and King David went out to war and were not concerned about bittul Torah. As for the angel’s reproof of Yehoshua (Joshua) for being guilty of bittul Torah (Megillah 3A), that was because at night, when they weren’t occupied with the war, they didn’t study Torah. In regards to fighting in the war itself, they weren’t accused of interrupting their learning.

We have seen, however, that when Amsa needed to enlist soldiers, and he came to the Chachamim and found them studying Torah, according to the halachah, he could not enlist them (Sanhedrin 49A). In that case, the war was a milchemet reshut which does not override Torah study. However, when there is a need to enlist Torah students for a milchemet mitzvah, to rescue Israel from her enemies, one is obligated to close the Gemorot and go off to war. Concerning what is written in the Talmud, that Torah scholars do not need protection (Baba Batra 8A), the Gemara is not speaking about war, but rather the prevention of theft. But when the Nation of Israel requires protection from enemies, it is a mitzvah to come to her rescue, as it says, “You shall not stand on the blood of your neighbor” (Vayikra, 19:17). As far as pikuach nefesh is concerned, when a commandment must be violated to save a life, the mitzvah is first incumbent on the gedolim (Mishna Berura 328:34). Although it is stated in the Gemara, “Talmud Torah is greater than saving lives” (Megilla 16B), the meaning is that its value is greater, but from the aspect of one’s obligation, when there is a mitzvah that cannot be fulfilled by others, every mitzvah overrides the command of Talmud Torah – all the more so in regards to the mitzvah of saving Israel from its enemies.


Nevertheless, concerning students who are capable of becoming outstanding talmidei chachamin for the sake of Clal Yisrael, our Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook, ztz’l, ruled that as long as the army does not need to enlist them, it is better that they defer their induction, and continue to ascend in Torah study, learning in order to teach Torah to the nation. In this way, they would make a decisive contribution to Israel’s spiritual wellbeing, in addition to its defense and settlement of the Land, which are both enhanced by the learning of Torah, which brings blessings to all aspects of the nation. Rabbi Kook emphasized that this allowance only had value if the learning was conducted with great honor due to the soldiers who physically fulfilled the mitzvah of saving Israel and settling the Land, at the risk of their lives, for only in this way could their learning contribute toward lifting the spirit and valor of Clal Yisrael.




  1. Modesty in the Army


There is a section in the Torah that deals with Israel’s military camp, which must be holy and pure: “When you go out to encamp against your enemies, keep yourself away from every evil thing. If there be among you any man, that is not clean by reason of uncleanness that chances by night, then he shall go abroad out of the camp, he shall not come within the camp: but it shall be, when evening comes on, he shall bathe himself in water: and when the sun is down, he shall come into the camp again. You shall have a place also outside the camp, where you shall withdraw yourself: and you shall have a spade among your weapons, and it shall be, when you will ease yourself outside, you shall dig with it, and shall turn back and cover your excrement: for the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you, and to give up your enemies before you; therefore your camp shall be holy: that He sees no unclean thing in you, and turn away from you” (Devarim, 23:10-15).


In general, the Torah demands that a military camp in Israel must be free of “every evil thing,” that is to say, from all the sins mentioned in the Torah, including the sins which are considered especially evil, such as idolatry, incest and murder (Sifri, there). Since the Torah used the term “dvar ra,” we learn that one must be careful not to commit sins through speech, especially the prohibitions of cursing G-d and lashon hara (ibid). Our Sages have said, “Anyone who speaks lashon hara brings about transgressions which can lead to idol worship, incest, and murder” (Archin 15B).


More specifically, the Torah demands that Jewish soldiers must be cautious concerning issues of modesty, this being the explicit meaning of “dvar ra.” Soldiers must even be careful not to think impure thoughts, as the Talmud states: “The Rabbi’s have taught regarding the injunction, ‘V’nishmarta m’kol dvar ra,’ that one should not think about impure things during the day, lest he come to pollute himself (with a nocturnal emission) at night” (Avodah Zara 20B). This is the meaning of “mikre lilah,” in the verse, “uncleanness that chances by night,” which is derived from the word “keri,” meaning an accidental emission of seed. This is also emphasized at the end of the portion regarding a military camp, “therefore your camp shall be holy: that He sees no unclean thing in you, and turn away from you.” The main intention of this verse is to caution one from engaging in sexual fantasies, not to mention forbidden acts, God forbid. Included in this is the warning against obscenity and immodest clowning (latzanut), for these prohibitions are connected to both speech and illicit sexual matters. From the warnings of our Sages, we have learned that obscene speech and latzanut are likely to cause Jews to die (see Tanchuma, Ki Tayzay 3).


A number of reasons have been mentioned concerning this special commandment, and all of them are words of the Living God. The Torah itself explains: “for the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp.” The soldiers of Israel are the cherished sons of the Holy One Blessed Be He, and His Divine Presence, the Shechinah, watches over them in order “to deliver you, and to give up your enemies before you.” The military camp of Israel, what we call Tzahal today, has a holiness similar to that of the Sanctuary, and therefore, soldiers keep themselves in a sanctify state, just like the Priests who serve in the Temple. If there be sexual wrongdoing in the military camp, God removes His Divine Presence from amongst us, Heaven forbid. Chazal explain that soldiers are in greater need of Divine assistance, for Satan brings accusations against sinners in times of danger, and therefore, soldiers must be especially cautious in these matters.


The Ramban mentions the well-known fact that soldiers in military camps are prone to all kind of transgression. Pressured with the mental and physical stress of difficult training, and the dangers of war, they look for ways to break the tension, and the easiest way to do so is by engaging in levity, cursing, and illicit sexual behavior. Additionally, the demand to risk one’s life in battle causes a disruption of the conventional framework. Suddenly, the terrible act of killing someone is permitted. Unexpectedly, a soldier reveals within himself mental and physical powers he never knew he possessed, and if he is not careful to restrain himself, these powerful life forces can be swayed to negative directions. Therefore, the Torah makes it a point to warn soldiers to keep away from all immoral wrongdoing.


Aside from this, when a man is with his family, he restrains himself more from illicit sexual matters. In contrast, when he goes to the army, all the conventional fences are shattered, and the likeliness of transgression and licentiousness grows. There is also a tendency that in occupying themselves with military matters for the general sake of the nation, soldiers will come to disregard individual mitzvot, such as guarding ones speech and not fantasizing about sexual transgression. Therefore, the Torah emphasizes that our army camp must be holy, and that specifically, because of its holiness, we will be victorious in battle.


Also, after the war, soldiers return home to their families, and if they abused their natural Israeli modesty and holiness, they will have caused damage to psyche and souls, and won’t be able to love their spouses in a complete and healthy fashion, for modesty and holiness are the foundations of love and family blessing.



  1. Holiness within the Army Camp


In addition to the laws of modesty which must be strictly guarded in the army, we have learned from the Torah portion dealing with the military camp that the cleanliness of the camp must also be guarded – that it be clean of excrement. Therefore, the Torah commands that a soldier who needs to relieve himself must do so outside of the camp, and afterwards, he must cover his excrement, as it says, “You shall have a place also outside the camp, where you shall withdraw yourself: and you shall have a spade among your weapons, and it shall be, when you will ease yourself outside, you shall dig with it, and shall turn back and cover your excrement”(Devarim, 23:13-15). For as long as there is excrement in the camp, it is forbidden to utter holy words, and God, who walks amongst Israel’s camp, is likely to remove His Divine Presence. Thus, in addition to guarding matters concerning modesty, we must be meticulous in the army in connection with matters of sanitation, for the whole purpose of the Torah’s command to insure that the camp be clean is to enable words of holiness, Torah, and blessings to be said there.


Our Sages teach that an angel of God revealed himself to Yehoshua, rebuking him for not learning Torah at night, when they weren’t preparing for war (Megillah 3A). Indeed, afterwards, during the night before the battle of Ay, Yehoshua learned Torah, as it says, “Yehoshua lodged that night among the people” (Yehoshua, 8:9), and, “Yehoshua went that night into the midst of the valley,” (ibid, 8:13), and the Sages said, “This comes to teach us that he lodged in the depths of halachah” (Megillah 3B).


Not every soldier is capable of achieving the level of Yehoshua ben Nun, to study the depths of halachah the night before battle. Even during army training it is not easy to learn Torah diligently. Nevertheless, every soldier must be meticulous as far as prayers are concerned, and endeavor to learn Torah whenever possible, making sure to study something every day, if only for a few minutes, in order to fortifying the holiness of the camp.



  1. Strictness or Leniency in Halachah


As is well known, there are often differing opinions in halachah – certain opinions are lenient while others are strick. Usually, the halachah is decided according to the majority, and in pressing circumstances (sha’at hadachak), we rely on the lenient opinions. Those exceedingly meticulous in their Torah observance (hamahedrin) attempt to be stringent, adhering even to the minority opinion, in order to fulfill the directives of all of the Torah authorities (poskim). The question is: How should one behave in the army – leniently or strictly?


We have seen that the Torah warns us to guard ourselves from every evil matter within the army camp, as it says, “When you go out to encamp against your enemies, keep yourself away from every evil thing” (Devarim, 23:10). There are three main reasons for this: 1) The Divine Presence dwells within Israel’s army camp. 2) Satan accuses sinners in times of danger, and therefore, especially in the army, we need to be more meticulous in our performance of mitzvot, in order to merit God’s help. 3) Army life is liable to lower the spiritual level of a soldier, and to combat this, he must strengthen his observance of the commandments and his adherence to holy character traits.


On the other hand, the Sages deferred soldiers from six things while they engaged in battle: 1) They are allowed to bring wood from anywhere without fear of stealing. 2) They don’t have to search for water for netillat yadayim before eating bread. 3) They are allowed to eat d’mai, fruits that the Sages obligated to be tithed due to their doubtful status. 4) They are not required to place food for two meals in order to make an eruv hatzerot and an eruv t’chumin. 5) They can camp out and traverse fields freely, without worrying about damage caused to the owner of the field. 6) Soldiers killed in battle are buried where they fall and needn’t be interned in a proper Jewish cemetery (Eruvin 17A). These leniencies are permitted when the soldiers go out to war. However, during training, the Sages did not sanction these six things. According to the opinion of Rabbi Herzog, even in permanent outposts, where soldiers do guard-duty on the borders, they are not permitted to do these six things (Heichal Yitzchak, Or HaChaim 47).


The Sages permitted these six things even in a situation where there is no fear question of pikuach nefesh, for in cases of pikuach nefesh, all of the mitzvot are nullified, and not only these six things. Rather, the Sages realized that if soldiers, under difficult field conditions, needed to be meticulous concerning these six things, it would cause them great difficulties, and might hinder their military performance. Therefore, they pardoned them. For example, if soldiers had to carry an additional supply of water everywhere they went in order to properly wash their hands before eating bread (netillat yadayim), and carry wood for fire, this would cause a great hindrance. And if they needed to bury every soldier who fell in battle in a proper cemetery, they might have to carry the body with them for days, and not be able to deal with the enemy. Additionally, if soldiers had to ask every landowner for permission to camp out on his property, or permission to take wood, this would pose a great inconvenience. Nevertheless, it must be noted that today, in the majority of these cases, we are not lenient. For example, since the army has transport vehicles, every fallen soldier can be brought to a cemetery, and water for netillat yadayim can easily be supplied in abundance. And since there are adequate means of communication, it is possible to previously coordinate places for camping-out without causing damage to landowners.


Nevertheless, from these foundations, we learn a basic principle. Concerning things that are liable to hinder the war effort, one should rely on the lenient opinion, similar to the Sages who were lenient in connection to these six issues. On the other hand, concerning situations that are not liable to interfere, one should be meticulous and strive to sanctify the army camp. And during training, where there is no question of immediate danger, a soldier should be even more stringent in his mitzvah observance then when he is at home, to insure the holiness of the military encampment.


  1. Military Orders that Contradict Mitzvot From the Torah


The Israel Defense Forces and its officers have the authority, given to them by elected public officials and the laws of the State, to draft soldiers into the army, in order to protect the nation and the Land. Occasionally, the need for war arises, and soldiers must obey orders – even under life-threatening circumstances.


In order to organize the army and prepare it for war, soldiers must be trained. During the training period, soldiers also must obey orders so they can learn the techniques of fighting and the disciplines of war.


However, if a soldier receives an order that contradicts the halachah, it is forbidden for him to fulfill it. Even in the days when there were kings in Israel who were chosen by prophets and the Sanhedrin, if the king gave an order to disobey a mitzvah from the Torah, it was forbidden to listen to him. The Rambam writes: “One who ignores a decree of the king because he was busy fulfilling a mitzvah, even a seemingly easy mitzvah, he is pardoned, because when one has to chose between the words of the rabbi (God) and the words of the slave (the king), the words of the rabbi come first. There is no need to mention that if the king decreed to cancel a mitzvah, we do not listen to him” (Laws of Kings and Their Wars, 3:9).


For example, on Shabbat, if a commander gave an order to drive a patrol vehicle to guard an area where Jewish life may be endangered, the pikuach nefesh involved makes it a mitzvah to travel. However, if he gave an order to travel for other reasons, like to transport blocks to a construction site, it is forbidden to abide. Sometimes, soldiers have doubts – maybe it is a situation of pikuach nefesh, or maybe it isn’t? In a situation like this, the order should be performed, since even a doubtful case of pikuach nefesh nullifies the Shabbat (Yoma 83A). However, after the Shabbat, the soldier should investigate the reason for the order, and if it turns out that it was not given for pikuach nefesh, he must lodge a complaint against the officer, in every way possible, in order to prevent orders that will cause a desecration of Shabbat in the future.


Once, there was an incident where soldiers received an order to travel on Shabbat in order to destroy a hilltop Jewish enclave in the Shomron which had not yet received status as a legal settlement. Since there was no question of pikuach nefesh, it was forbidden for them to travel and desecrate Shabbat in the process. In cases like these, it is also forbidden to play stupid or be scared of reprimand, for when there is no question of pikuach nefesh, a soldier must refuse to obey the order, and not to start debating uselessly that perhaps he should fulfill the order because maybe it is a situation of pikuach nefesh.


On another occasion, a battalion had to perform a training exercise starting from before sunrise and lasting until the afternoon. During the first half of the exercise, there was a long break, but the commanding officer forbade the soldiers to pray the morning prayers, claiming that a higher ranking officer was liable to appear any moment, and that upon his arrival, they would have to continue the exercise immediately. Since the soldiers knew that the second stage of the exercise would continue until afternoon, and seeing that the break had already lasted half an hour, they nonetheless decided to pray. In this case, they acted correctly, for there was no pressing reason to continue the exercise immediately, leaving no time for the morning prayers. If it was possible to wait for the high ranking officer indefinitely, then there was time to allow the soldiers to pray, for the honor due to the high ranking officer is not more important than the honor due to Heaven.




  1. Serving in Co-ed Units


According to what we have previously learned about the holiness of a Jewish army camp (section 6), it is clear that the Torah forbids the establishment of mixed-gendered units in the army; and it is forbidden for a soldier to participate in intensive military activities with women.


One should not ask: If this is the case, why is it not forbidden for a man to work in a store, or a bank, or any other place where women are present. As we have learned, in the army, we have to be even more cautious over modesty than in civilian life. In addition, one cannot compare the close and highly-charged relations created in army units to those in civilian life. Moreover, the very fact that, in civilian life, a man returns home every night to his family greatly protects him from his evil inclination. Also, soldiers are young and most often single, and therefore, the restrictions governing the interaction between men and women must be more carefully watched. Furthermore, in civilian life, one who feels that in his place of work or studies he is liable to sin, he must leave the place in order to guard his purity and holiness. In contrast, in the army, a soldier does not have the ability to leave his unit whenever he wishes, so at the outset, care must be taken to insure that men and women do not come into close contact in military bases and camps, and, all the more so, in active combat.

If someone were to say that rabbis should teach their students how to deal with their evil inclinations, we would answer by saying that anyone who makes such a statement proves that he doesn’t understand one of the important fundamentals of Judaism. The Torah does not concern itself solely with righteous individuals, but rather with the community as a whole, including those who are easily swayed by their inclinations. Therefore, restrictions were established to help guard the mitzvot, and the more fundamental the mitzvah is, the more restrictions were set around it. For example, the commandment to believe in God, and the prohibition against idol worship are so fundamental, many of the mitzvot serve as fences against idol worship (see the Rambam’s discussion of this theme in his book, “Moreh Nevuchim”). This is the path the Sages adopted – the more fundamental the commandment, the more restrictions they set around it. The issues of sexual purity, of chastity, and faithfulness and love between husband and wife, are sacred foundations of our holy Jewish nation, and therefore, many restrictions were established, in order that a husband could guard all of his love for his wife, and to enable single young men to preserve their holiness and purity. In this matter, even a person who is righteous the majority of his life is liable one day to falter, and that failure is likely to critically damage his family. As our Sages have said, “There is no guarantee against sexual transgression” (Ketubot 13B).


Clearly, it is forbidden to agree to arrangements whereby only the units in the army comprised of yeshiva students will be pious, while the rest of the camp will be unholy and filled with immodest behavior and “nakedness,” in violation of “that He sees no unclean thing in you” (Devarim, 23:15), for we have responsibility for every single Jew. Therefore, we must demand that it be possible to serve in all I.D.F. units according to the halachah. The more soldiers are willing to stubbornly fight for their right to serve in each and every unit in Tzahal, according to the Torah, without compromises, the more we will merit to have God walk in our camp, to save us, and to deliver our enemies before us.




  1. Women in the Army


Even though women are also obligated by the commandments of saving fellow Jews and settling the Land, the Torah did not command them to enlist in the army, for this is not their manner. As our Sages have said, it is not the manner of women to conquer (Yevamot 65B), and it is not the way of a woman to make war (Kiddushin 2B). Consequently, we do not find women going out to war during the period of the First and Second Temple. Although the Sages of the Mishna said, “In a milchemet mitzvah everyone goes out, even the bridegroom from his room, and a bride from her canopy” (Sotah 44B), and the Rambam agreed (Laws of Kings and Their Wars 7:4), commentators clarify that since the bridegroom left his room to go to war, the bride leaves her canopy and returns home. Others said that in a milchemet mitzvah, even the women are commanded to participate in the war effort by fulfilling tasks on the home-front, like delivering water and food (Radbaz, Tifferet Yisrael, Rashash).


We have learned that in the Israeli army, we must guard against anything that is not modest, as it says, “When you go out to encamp against your enemies, keep yourself away from every evil thing” (Devarim, 23:10)The meaning is that one must even guard himself from thoughts of sin, as the Sages explained (Avodah Zara 20B): “keep yourself away from every evil thing” – one should not fantasize during the day, and come to pollute himself at night (with a nocturnal emission).” The warning to guard against sexual fantasies is also evident from verse, “that He sees no unclean thing in you, and turn away from you” (Devarim, 23:15).  Since the Torah uses the words “ervat dvar,” the Sages learned that one must guard against obscene language and cynical clowning (latzanut), for these prohibitions are related to both speech and sexual licentiousness. And we have seen that vulgar speech and latzanut are liable to bring tragedy in their wake (see section 5; and Tanchuma, Ki Taytze 3). It is clear, therefore, that placing men and women together under army conditions absolutely contradicts the teachings of the Torah. This is also the decision of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel  – it is forbidden for women to enlist in the army.


Women, however, can participate in the fulfillment of the mitzvah of defending the nation against its enemies by encouraging men to enlist in the army, and in times of need, they assist by performing home-front tasks.




  1. The Mitzvah to Offer Peace


When Israel needs to go to war against a city, the Torah commands us first to call out to it with an offer of peace, as is written: “When you approach a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace to it” (Devarim, 20:10). The meaning of offering peace is an offer that it  surrender, as it says, “And it shall be if it makes an answer of peace, and opens [its gates] to you, all the people inside shall become your subjects and serve you” (Devarim, 20:11). This includes accepting Israel’s complete rule, the payment of taxes, and a willingness to provide physical assistance for all of Israel’s needs. In addition to this, the residents of the city must accept upon themselves the seven Noahide commandments (Rambam, Laws of Kings and Their Wars 6:1). These are the prohibition of idol worship, the prohibition of incest, the prohibition of murder, the prohibition of stealing, the prohibition of blasphemy, the prohibition of eating the limb of a live animal, and the obligation to appoint a court system to judge righteously between man and his fellow man.


Even when Israel goes to war to annihilate Amalek, we must first offer them peace. In other words, to offer them to accept upon themselves the seven Noahide commandments, through which they are no longer considered Amalek. If they agree to this, and to be subservient to Israel and pay taxes, we don’t go to war against them. If they don’t accept these conditions, we fight them until they are destroyed (this seems to be the position of the Rambam and Kesef Mishnah, Laws of Kings and Their Wars 6:1-4. See also Ch.5, Z’manim 14:8).


This is what Yehoshua did. Before crossing the Jordan River, he sent three letters to the Canaanite inhabitants of the Land. In the first letter, he wrote: Whoever wants to escape – flee. In the second letter, he wrote: Whoever wants to make peace – let him make peace.  In the third letter, he wrote: Whoever wants to make war – we will come to fight. Indeed, the Girgashim decided to flee and went to live in Africa (Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Shevi’it, Ch. 6, Mishna 1; Devarim Rabbah 5:13).


If so, we can ask, why did the Gibeonites have to use trickery, pretending that they came from a distant place? (Yehoshua, Ch.9). According to the Rambam, it was because they wanted to make a covenant with Israel, and not become tributary to them. Since the Gibeonites relied on trickery, Israel was not obligated to fulfill the pact they made with them. Nevertheless, had Israel violated the oath made by their leaders, this would have been a desecration of the Name of God, and therefore, they fulfilled their part of the treaty. According to the opinion of the Riyved, the Gibeonites could have accepted the offer of peace as long as Israel had not yet crossed over the Jordan River. Afterward, however, the war already began, and they lost their chance to accept the peace offer (see the Rambam, Laws of Kings and Their Wars 6:5).


It must be pointed out that when a suspicion exists in the course of calling for peace, that the enemy will attack us and cause casualties, we should not offer them shalom.





  1. All Out War


When an offer of peace is rejected, Israel goes to war.  We are commanded to destroy the enemy army, without any hesitation or misplaced compassion. As the Torah states: “If they will not make peace with you, but will make war against you, then you shall lay siege to it [the city]. And when the Lord you God has delivered it into your hands, you shall strike down every male in it by the sword. But the women, children, and cattle, and all that is in the city, you shall take for yourself. You shall eat the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you. Thus shall you do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not the cities of the nations that are here. But of the cities of these peoples, which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive no soul” (Devarim 20:12-16).


The question arises: Why did we have to kill all the males, and concerning the Canaanites, why did we have to kill everyone?


There are two essential reasons for this:


  1. A) In war, victory must be complete. If not, another war will undoubtedly occur which will put our nation in danger once again – and who knows what the outcome will be? Additionally, if the victory is not complete, we will not deter other enemies from wanting to destroy us. Everything is dependent on the accepted norms of battle. In previous times, wholesale slaughter was the way of the victors. If Israel had not behaved in that way, all of the surrounding nations would have known that it’ worthwhile to fight against Israel, for if the enemy won – great, and if they lost – not so bad because the Jews were compassionate (see Igrot Ra’ayah Vol. 1, pg. 100).
  2. B) Justice demands the exacting of punishment against the haters of Israel. What they planned to do to us, we must do to them. Israel acted this way in its victory over the wicked Haman.


If one were to ask: If we behave in such a manner, what’s the difference between Israel and the other nations? There are two differences: Israel first offers peace, and even after we win, we take revenge only according to necessity and justice – and no more.


Likewise, today, we must strive for complete victory, until the absolute surrender of our enemies, for the sake of deterrence, and in order to punish. It’s true that today, thank God, it is universally not acceptable to kill all the males, and in general, attempts are made not to hurt civilians. Consequently, we have no need to do so to our enemies. Nevertheless, we must make sure that our victory is overwhelming and painful, in order to deter our enemies, and also that their punishment be exacting, measure for measure – what they planned to do to us, we shall do to them. Beyond this, however, we should not do more.




  1. Obliterating the Wicked In War


When we go to war against the enemy who attempts to annihilate us, the goal is not only to save Israel and deter other foes who harbor the same nefarious goal, but to also eradicate the wicked and purge wickedness the world.


Ideally, we long to be charitable to all mankind. We inherited this noble trait from Avraham, our forefather, may he rest in peace, who was a beacon of loving kindness in the world through his outstanding hospitality. With unconditional love, he sought to uplift even lowly idol worshipers, inviting them into his tent and drawing them close to faith in the One and only God. Jews, by nature, are naturally compassionate and benevolent (Yevamot 79A). However, man has been given freedom of choice, and when the leader of a nation opts to act wickedly, seeking to kill us and steal our Holy Land, we are commanded to fight him, in order to punish him and his supporters.


As in the words of King David who sang: “I have pursued my enemies, and destroyed them; / and turned back not again until I had consumed them. / And I have consumed them, and crushed them, that they could not arise: / they are fallen under my feet. / For You have girded me with strength to battle: / they that have rose up against me have You subdued under me. / You have also made my enemies turn their backs on me, / that I might destroy them that hate me. They looked, but there was none to save, / to the Lord, but He answered them not. / Then did I beat them as small as the dust of the earth, I did stamp them as the mire of the street, and did tread them down…” (Book of Shmuel 2, 22:38-43).



Indeed, King David applied not only defensive tactics, but also initiated attacks against Israel’s enemies. His army wouldn’t have been called the “Israel Defense Force,” but rather the “Israel Attack Force,” or simply the “Israeli Army.” In fighting enemies who seek to destroy us, there is no place for embarrassment, apologies, or misplaced compassion. As our Sages have taught, he who is kind to the cruel, will eventually show cruelness to the kind (Kohelet Rabbah 7:16).


One must know that whoever fights Israel is also fighting God, for Israel is His son. The Melchilta states, “Whoever attacks Israel is treated as having attacked God” (Beshalach, Mesechta Deshira, 6). Therefore, King David’s battles against Israel’s enemies are called “the wars of Hashem” (Shmuel 1, 18:17; 28:28). This is true moral bravery, to erase from the world the haters of God and Israel. For doing so, King David had the merit to establish the kingship in Israel for all generations. But he never forgot that his victories, and his great strength in battle, came from Hashem, as he concludes in his song:

Therefore I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the nations, / and I will sing praises to your Name. / He is the tower of salvation for his king: / and shows mercy / to his anointed, to David, and to his seed forever” (Shmuel 2, 22:50-51).






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