The mitzvah of learning Torah does not override the mitzvah of serving in the army in order to rescue Israel from her enemies. 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).

Laws of the Army and War – Part 1

by HaRav Eliezer Melamed, Head of the Har Bracha Hesder Yeshiva

(Excerpted from “Pinenei Halacha.” NOTE: All misunderstandings and mistakes in th article are the translator’s alone.)

  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 I.D.F.to 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.







Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

On Key

Related Posts


The Torah calls upon the Jewish People to defend His Great Name by taking revenge against enemies who seek to trample and disgrace His Chosen People. We are called upon to be proud and healthy Jews who aren’t afraid to teach the enemy a crushing lesson.

Vayishlach – Rabbi Moshe D. Lichtman

Eretz Yisrael has great virtues and he who has a portion in it is considered as [if he has] a portion in the World to Come. That is, Ya’akov was not only running away from oppression; he was also running towards a much higher spiritual plane.

Vayishlach – HaRav Dov Begon

In times of national struggle and war it is vital to find the good side of things and to take heart in the knowledge that light is waiting at the end of the tunnel and a new stage in the Redemption of Israel.  

Vayeitzei – HaRav Dov Begon

Jacob’s remarkable dream is the dream of the Jewish People which has accompanied us throughout all the generations, even in the most dark and difficult periods of our bitter and gloomy exile. In times of destruction, pogroms and the Holocaust, as well as today, Jews never ceased to believe in the fulfillment of Jacob’s dream and Hashem is still very much with us.

Vayeitzei – Rabbi Chanan Morrison

The rivalry between Rachel and Leah, the conflict between the beautiful present and the visionary future, also found expression in the monarchy of Israel. The temporary reign of Saul, a descendant of Rachel, struggled with the eternal dynasty of David, a descendant of Leah.