Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Sharing the mitzvah

When several individuals were recently arrested for draft dodging, crowds of extremist chareidim took to the streets in bizarre defense of their compatriots’ (and by extension, also their own) inexplicable and inexcusable shirking of their civic, moral, ethical, legal, national, and - most of all - halachic responsibilities.

Which is why now would be an excellent time to remind those who choose to forget that serving in the IDF is a mitzvah.

In fact, as Rav Tzvi Yehuda HaKohein Kook zt”l explained, serving in the IDF actually involves two mitzvot - namely:

1) Pikuach Nefesh (saving a life): Note that we’re not just talking about saving a single life but rather about saving the lives of the entire Am Yisrael.
Pikuach nefesh is made up of three separate mitzvot:

  1. The positive mitzvah of saving lives. (See Vayikra 18:5.)
  2. The prohibition against “standing idly by the blood of your fellow.” (See Vayikra 19:16).
  3. The positive mitzvah of hashavat aveidah (returning lost property – see Devarim 22:2). Since we must return a person’s property, all the more so must we “restore” his body.

2) Yerushat HaAretz (establishing and maintaining Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael – see Bamidbar 33:53).

Furthermore,  as the Mishnah (Sotah 8:7) famously teaches, during a milchemet mitzvah (an obligatory war), NO ONE is exempt from serving:

“Everyone goes out [to war] – even a bridegroom from his chamber and a bride from her wedding canopy.” (See also the Rambam - Hilchot Melachim U’Milchamot 7.)

And according to most (all?) authorities, the current situation constitutes a milchemet mitzvah.

Sadly, however, many believe (or pretend to believe) that none of the above matters, because of their false claim that “the IDF isn’t an appropriate environment for religious or chareidi soldiers” [sic].

But as I showed in my IDF myths and facts post, such a claim is simply untrue and, IMHO, even slanderous.

So what, then, is the halachic source for widespread military exemption? In other words, is there any heter (halachic justification or license) for not serving in the IDF?

Some cite the Gemara (BT Bava Batra 7b), which states that unlike the other residents, Torah scholars don’t have to pay to build a wall to protect their city. But Rabbi Riskin explains that this source can’t be used to justify military exemptions for Torah scholars:

“This [Gemara] would seem to imply that the Torah serves as a protective shield, and from this perspective, perhaps scholars ought be freed from military service. However, the Talmudic commentaries (most notably, the Baalei Tosafot ad loc as well as the Hazon Ish) insist that the exemption is only from payment for protection against thieves; if the wall is necessary for protection from murderers, even the scholars must contribute, because ‘we dare not rely on miracles.’”

Meanwhile, others quote the Rambam (Hilchot Shmitah V’Yovel 13), who states that talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars or sages) resemble Shevet Levi (the Tribe of Levi) and are thus exempted from military service.


  1. Shevet Levi was only exempted from fighting in order to serve as teachers, and the Leviim were still required to provide logistical, spiritual, and moral support during times of war. (See here for more details.)
  2. It is highly unlikely (read: virtually impossible) that the ENTIRE chareidi community, en masse, rates as “talmidei chachamim.” After all, in today’s world, very few people (with the exception of a few leading Torah giants) can honestly look themselves in the mirror and say that they meet the Rambam’s very specific criteria for talmidei chachamim.

In other words, there is no real source or halachic justification for not serving in the IDF.

Yet, nevertheless, learning Torah is also a very important mitzvah, and as Rabbi Riskin observes:

“There is no doubt that the study of Torah is of crucial importance and the greatest guarantor of the future of the Jewish people.”

However, any discussion of learning Torah in lieu of serving in the IDF must be predicated on two things:

  • An acknowledgement that any exemption from military service is actually an exemption from doing a mitzvah.
  • A sincere and vocal hakarat hatov (literally, “recognizing the good” – i.e. gratitude and appreciation) for those who dedicate their lives to serving and defending Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael, according to Torat Yisrael, and thereby enable their brothers to sit and learn Torah.


Your thoughts?
(Please keep it civil. Thanks!)



  1. good post
    It's midirayTah that all Jews must serve, when Moshe told the tribes that wanted to live on the other side of the Jordan that they must fight with their brothers.


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