Sunday, December 15, 2019

Must Yeshiva Students Enlist?

Following is a recent essay by Rav Eliezer Melamed, translated in English and published on the Revivim website. Rav Melamed, author of the Peninei Halacha series, is one of the most prominent and important rabbinic voices in the Dati-Leumi community. There are some sentences and phrases that are particularly significant, and I put those in bold.

Must Yeshiva Students Enlist?

Recently, the issue of recruitment of yeshiva students into the army has come up once again. It was disclosed that, in general, the Haredi public avoids enlisting in the army. Almost all recruits counted as being Haredi are either young men who left Haredi society, and usually religion as well, or older men who find their livelihoods in the army; men who grew up in marginal communities of Haredi society, such as baalei teshuva and olim chadashim (new immigrants) who have not adopted the full views of Haredi society, or young men from the Torani-Leumi public (Chardal).
At the same time, it was revealed that army authorities, maliciously or inadvertently, distorted the recruiting data, creating a misrepresentation as if the Haredi public was in the process of joining the army.

The Mitzvah to Serve in the Army

A question repeatedly asked: Are yeshiva students studying Torah exempt from enlistment in the army? Before addressing the very question, first, it must be clarified that it is a great mitzvah to serve in the IDF, and this mitzvah is one of the greatest and most sacred mitzvot of our generation, and is based on two mitzvot: saving Israel from the hand of her enemies, and settlement of the Land.

Saving Israel from the Hand of Her Enemies

Concerning saving the life of a single Jew, we are commanded: “Do not stand aside when trouble befalls your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16). To rescue someone, Shabbat is desecrated, as our Sages said in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4: 5): “Anyone who saves the life of a Jew, it is as if he saved an entire world.” How much more so is the great obligation to save an entire Jewish community, and in order to do so not only is it a mitzvah to desecrate Shabbat, but it is even a mitzvah to endanger lives, as we have learned that in order to save even the property of a community on the border – Shabbat is desecrated, and lives are endangered (S.A., O.C. 329:6). All the more so that this must be done to save Clal Yisrael. And this is a clear milchemet mitzvah (a war commanded by the Torah), as Rambam wrote (Laws of Kings 5: 1): “Which is a milchemet mitzvah? … and saving of Israel from those who rise up against her.” This mitzvah obligates mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice), and overrides the individual’s obligation to guard his life (Maran Rabbi Kook, Mishpat Kohen 143; Responsa Tzitz Eliezer 13: 100).

The Mitzvah to Settle the Land of Israel

The second mitzvah is the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz (the commandment to settle the Land of Israel), as written (Numbers 33: 53-54): “And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it. You shall inherit the land…” Our Sages said this mitzvah is equal in weight to all the mitzvot (Sifri, Re’ah 53). This mitzvah overrides pikuach nefesh (saving life) of individuals since we were commanded to conquer the Land, and the Torah did not expect us to rely on a miracle; since in every war there are fatalities, it is clear the mitzvah of conquering the Land requires us to risk lives (Minchat Chinuch 425 and 604; Mishpat Kohen pg. 327). All the more so must we fight to protect parts of the Land we already possess, and every soldier serving in the IDF takes part in this great mitzvah.
The mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz is incumbent upon the Jewish people in every generation, as Ramban and many other poskim have written. Only due to oh’nes (forces beyond our control), seeing as we lacked the military and political capability to settle the Land, were we unable to fulfill this mitzvah throughout our long exile. Indeed, some poskim believe that in the opinion of Rambam, following the destruction of the Holy Temple, there is no mitzvah to conquer the Land, nevertheless, all agree that in Rambam’s opinion, there is a mitzvah to live in Eretz Yisrael, and thus, if after Jews are already living in Eretz Yisrael enemies come to conquer parts of the Land in our possession – the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz obligates us to fight in order to protect them, since it is forbidden to relinquish parts of Eretz Yisrael to non-Jews (D’var Yehoshua 2, O.C. 48; Milamdei Milchama 1; Peninei Halakha: Ha’Am ve Ha’Aretz 4:2).

Conflict between Talmud Torah and Enlistment in the Army

With all the immense importance of the mitzvah of Talmud Torah (Torah study), it does not override the mitzvah of enlisting in the army. This is not only because of the well-known halakhic rule that any mitzvah that cannot be carried out by others overrides Talmud Torah (Moed Katan, 1), as this rule also applies to individual mitzvot, such as the mitzvah to pray, to build a sukkah, to give a loan, and providing hospitality to guests. However, the mitzvah of enlisting in the army is far more important because all of Israel’s existence depends on it.
We have also found that the students of Yehoshua ben Nun and King David went out to war and were not concerned about bittul Torah (the neglect of Torah study). Moreover, Chumash BaMidbar (Book of Numbers) is called Chumash HaPikudim (The Book of the Two Censuses), because in it, all the soldiers who were about to conquer the Land were counted.
And regarding what our Sages said (Baba Batra 8a) that Torah scholars do not need guarding, the meaning is that they are exempt from the type of guarding primarily intended for prevention of theft. But when Jews needs to be protected, then there is a mitzvah to save them, as the Torah says (Leviticus 19:16): “Do not stand aside when trouble befalls your neighbor”, and in a situation of pikuach nefesh, the mitzvah is first incumbent on Talmedei Chachamim (M.B. 328:34).

The Importance of Torah Study of Yeshiva Students

With that being said, it is essential to know that the most important mitzvah is Talmud Torah, and there is no mitzvah that guards and sustains the People of Israel in the long run more than Talmud Torah. Therefore, together with the mitzvah to serve in the army, it is imperative to incorporate in the order of life of every Jew a number of years in which he devotes himself, to the best of his ability, to Torah study. And this is what our Sages said (Megillah 16b): “Talmud Torah is greater than saving lives,” because saving lives involves the momentary rescue of a physical body, while Talmud Torah revives the Israeli nation’s soul and body for the long term.

The Mitzvah to Enlist and the Mitzvah to Develop Torah Scholars

In practice, the mitzvah to enlist in the army applies to all Jewish men, including those who wish to study Torah in yeshiva. However, when it is not a security necessity to recruit all young men without exception, as was the case in the War of Independence, it is a mitzvah to postpone the enlistment of those interested and suitable for rabbinical and educational positions, so they will be able to study diligently and excel in Torah – and when they are rabbis and educators, contribute from their education and Torah knowledge to strengthen Jewish awareness of Israel’s security, and yishuv ha’aretz. And although there are genuine Torah scholars who combined enlistment into the army during their first years in yeshiva, nevertheless, many of those who are worthy of being rabbis can contribute more from their Torah knowledge to Am Yisrael if they postpone their enlistment, as long as they continue developing in their yeshiva studies. This was the role of the Tribe of Levi, who learned in order to teach, and were exempt from enlistment in the army. They did not receive a portion in the inheritance of the Land, so they would be unhampered and readily available for service in the Temple, and to educate and instruct. Only in a case of national pikuach nefesh did the Levites and Kohanim (priests) enlist in the army and, when necessary, even led the army as in the days of the Hasmonean priests.
It is important to point out: this contribution of Torah students can ensue provided the students treat the mitzvah of soldiers guarding our nation and land with great respect. Only Torah study stemming from this viewpoint can contribute to elevating the spirit and heroism of Clal Yisrael. On the other hand, Torah study that denies the sanctity of a soldier’s mitzvah is inherently absurd, similar to the study of someone who denies the mitzvah of Shabbat.

Consent and Criticism of the Haredi Position

In light of this, we do not have a fundamental disagreement with the Haredi public about the need to postpone enlistment of diligent yeshiva students who will become rabbis and educators – with teachers postponing enlistment for a few years, whereas rabbis should be able to postpone for several years, without restriction.
The criticism is in two areas: one – that those studying in yeshivas must learn Torah properly, and thus, respect the mitzvah of enlistment to the army. Second – the majority of yeshiva students who are not going to be rabbis, even if they are studying well and diligently, must fulfill the mitzvah of enlistment.

The Haredi Explanation for Not Enlisting

Nonetheless, the position of the Haredim is understandable, for they fear that army service will a cause spiritual decline, to the point of abandoning Torah and mitzvot. If this is the case, then this is an existential problem that cannot be compromised. Spiritual pikuach nefesh.
In practice, there are two parallel processes occurring in the army. On the one hand, over the last few decades the ability of an observant soldier to keep mitzvot, such as kashrut, prayers, Shabbat and holidays has improved. On the other hand, as the result of the mixing of male and female soldiers in the various units, the general atmosphere has become extremely immodest, such that a young man who grew up in religious circles, and all the more so Haredi, is faced with difficult challenges. In such a situation, the position of Haredi rabbis is that the promise of the young men’s spiritual future is preferable to the mitzvah of military service. Although the army is ready to create for Haredi recruits a framework suitable to their lifestyle, they are still concerned that over time, military service will cause them to become less religious.

Instead of Avoiding – Strengthen the Army

However, halachicly and in practice, their position is wrong. Instead of avoiding enlistment, they should be vigilant, and make certain the atmosphere in the army is as it should be for a machaneh kadosh (holy military camp). Already today, Hesder yeshiva students have reasonable conditions, adapted to the lifestyle of the national-religious public.
Incidentally, in recent years, I have consistently asked the young men returning to yeshiva after their military service in the Hesder framework, whether, as a result of army service, they have become religiously weakened, or strengthened. Almost all of them responded that they got stronger. It is important to note that in contrast, of those who went into regular army service, at least half responded they had weakened, and needed strengthening.

Effort must be made to Fulfill Mitzvot

The general rule is that one must make an effort in order to fulfill mitzvot, and not give up in advance for various reasons.
Suppose, for example, it turned out that Shabbat observers, seeing as on Shabbat they don’t have to work,  are lured to indulge in drunkenness, drugs, and other abominations. Would we stop observing Shabbat? God forbid! We would struggle to find ways to prevent them from such activity (incidentally, this is one of the explanations for the takanah (ordinance) of reading the Torah at Mincha on Shabbat; see, “Peninei Halakha: Shabbat” 5:8).
Similarly, an effort must be made to regulate the fulfillment of this great and holy mitzvah. With half the effort Haredi public representatives invest in exemption from enlisting, they could successfully regulate the terms of religious observance of army service for the members of the Haredi public, and Clal Yisrael.


  1. important
    mitzvah to save lives

  2. Gotta love DL lomdus...

    Whether or not it is a mitzvah to serve in the army is one thing.

    But look how the author makes that quantum jump to 'enlinstment' and all the loaded baggage that goes with it.

    It is quite conceivable that there is a mitzvah to be in the army, yet no mitzvah to enlist. Especially if there are others already there.

    There is a mitzvah in wearing tzitzis but minhag aside, no mitzvah to deliberately wear a 4 cornered beged.

    And the DL conveniently overlook all the problems in the army.

    1. "There is a mitzvah in wearing tzitzis but minhag aside, no mitzvah to deliberately wear a 4 cornered beged."

      Yeah? And what self-respecting frum Jew doesn't wear a 4 cornered beged?

    2. Maybe you should speak more respectfully, at least until you know 5% of the Torah that Rav Melamed does.

    3. If it's a mitzvah, it doesn't matter if there are "others" there.

      And if it's a mitzvah, the government sure has a right to force you to do it.

      And if everybody took your point of view, there'd be no "others" anyway.

    4. Your logic and knowledge of lomdus (not to mention your midos) are both flawed.

      If its a mitzvah to be in the army, then its a mitzvah to enlist. There is no practical way to get in the army, nor for the army to exist, without enlistment. More than just a הכשר מצוה (itself important in its own right) it is a kiyum of it. And the existence of others in the army, and thus performing the mitzvah, is irrelevant to one's own requirement to perform the mitzvah.

      Even apart from that, and contrary to your assertion, in many mitzvos we hold it is a mitzvah to put oneself in a position that he can fulfill it. Just for one example, if one doesn't own any chametz the achronim hold it is a mitzvah to buy some in order to fulfill the mitzvah of destroying it. In only a minority of cases, e.g., shechitah, do we say that one can simply avoid meat and thereby not perform shechitah. פוק עיין בה וזיל גמור.

    5. Df - have you never heard of a mitzvoh kiyumis? Shechitah is a mitzvoh but there is no mitvah to shecht. Ditto eating in a sukkah (other than 1st night).

      Also, it's another quantum leap to compulsory drafting.

      And if others do a mitzvah, it very much impacts on my obligation to do it.

    6. Which acharonim say it is a mitzvah to buy chometz to destroy it? References please.

    7. I think shimon B is referring to the rulings (by Moshe Feinstein I think) that one is not obligated to become a doctor, nor a member of Hatzolo/red Magen David, nor to take first aid courses, though one fulfills a mitzvah if one does and thereby saves lives.

      Thus he seems to be raising a valid question, even though his tone is quite disrespectful, and even though he didn't bother to read what he's replying to (otherwise he would have seen that R. Melamed is *not* ignoring the problems in the army).

  3. Very nice, but it will not change much of anything. Except those to follow the Rabbi. The problems about this can be boiled down to a few items: (1) the exemption as I understand it was supposed to temporary and many in the Haredi camp took it to be forever(temporary) and those who understand history and continue in this behavior are liars...but who polices them asides from Hashem? (2) Most from what I have seen of Haredi youth are either not mentally or physically strong and it would be an burden on our army or any army, Not to mention doubtful loyalties, That is will they listen to their Rabbis more than commands of their superiors in the army? If there is any doubt, it will only lead to deadly consequences during a war. (3) The solution is get rid of the draft and move into a professional army and also make an Israel Foreign Legion similar to the French. (4) If all of the above fail, hire mercenaries.

    1. (3) There is an Israeli Foreign Legion. It's was called Machal. Today, add the many Lone Soldiers.
      (4) Maybe the Charedim who don't want to serve should hire a replacement. That was done in the US a long time ago. I'm sure other countries too.

  4. I agree with much of what Rav Eliezer Melamed said. Though I am perplexed with this statement: "It is forbidden to relinquish parts of Eretz Yisrael to non-Jews."

    It begs the question, is it biblically permissible to trade land of the State of Israel in order to secure a peace with Palestinians? Doesn’t the Bible mandates that such transactions are prohibited? Is the land really holy and promised by G-d? If so, how can we relinquish land for peace?

    Is Israel “holy?”

    Yehudah Halevi and Nachmanides certainly felt that the land was holy. However, Maimonides felt that nothing is inherently holy per se. Neither land nor objects are holy, for soil cannot suddenly become holy. This is unnatural.

    Actually, the term “holy” means separated. Land and objects are only designated “holy” when we use them properly, for example, Shabbat is only holy when Jews keep it. Maimonides wrote that Israel is only holy if Jews live there. Also, Israel is important to Jews. Thus, holiness is the result of proper action but Israel is not inherently holy.

    Be this as it may, G-d never drew particular borders nor did we ever hold all of the ideal lands of Israel. Besides one could say that G-d’s promise is His alone and that we should not make efforts to expand the settlements (which are legally ours).

    Trading land for peace

    Should the State of Israel exchange land for peace? I Kings 9:11 says, “Hiram king of Tyre had supplied Solomon with cedar and cypress trees, as much as he desired, and King Solomon gave to Hiram twenty cities in the land of the Galilee.”

    The Bible does not disclose the purpose of Solomon’s gift. It might have been payment for the supplies. In ancient times, when a king provided another with a gift, they usually expected tribute in return. Yet in II Chronicles 8:2 Hiram ceded territory to Solomon, each king trades some land to the other. One thing is clear. Solomon cemented a relationship to secure funds, resources, and peace by trading land. Remarkably, the Bible never condemns Solomon for trading twenty Israelite cities to Tyre.

    Saying that land can be traded for peace should not be mistaken as advocating for a two-state solution that would weaken Israel. Also, the Palestinians do not seem to want to make peace in any event.

    1. "Be this as it may, G-d never drew particular borders nor did we ever hold all of the ideal lands of Israel."

      The borders of eretz yisroel are given in parshas Masei.

    2. Your mental exercise here is quite bizarre. The Rambam's position being cited here by Rabbi Melamed in saying it is forbidden to cede parts of Eretz Yisrael was not contingent on the land being deemed "holy" or "not holy."

      When you said, "Is the land really holy and promised by G-d? If so, how can we relinquish land for peace?"
      you created a sandcastle.

      Even in toppling your sandcastle, with your advocating the concept of 'trading land for peace (sic),' you use the same Rabbi Maimon who was already quoted as saying land cannot be relinquished to non-Jews as some kind of support to your stance. That's not an honest analysis.

  5. Here is another approach Rav Melamed could have used.

    Numbers 32 tells that when the Israelites saw Canaan, representatives from Reuben and Gad approached Moshe and did not wish to settle in Canaan but wished to remain in Jazer and Gilead (east of Canaan). Additionally, this land provided much grazing place for their cattle. Moshe criticized them, saying, “Shall your brethren go to war, and shall you sit here?” He reminded them how G-d had punished the previous generation for their cowardice (after their reconnoiter of the land the spies refused to enter Canaan).

    Eventually, a compromise was met, the two tribes promised to build sheepfolds and cities, and that they would not return until the other tribes have secured their land in Canaan. Moshe agreed. His criticism, however, was not because they refused to settle in the holy land but that they needed to help fight. Thus, all Jews need to serve, even Chareidim.

  6. Considering the moral state of the Israeli society and the army, there maybe a mitzvah to avoid the army service. Incidentally, my grandson is very excited about the army service and I dont intend to dissuade him because at 16 I felt likewise. At 60 I would stay away. It's a corrupt and disorganized institution representing a chaotic and corrupt society that has lost it's way. There is nothing to do there. The rabbies of all hashkofas are a fraud. There loamdus in gemorah may not be devoid of interest, but there haskofas are laughable. Think for yourself.


    1. Show a little hakarat hatov. The military is what keeps you safe all day, every day.

    2. Hakoras Hatov does not have a say in what is right and what is wrong. Just because someone did you a favor, does not mean that their opinions are right, their investment opportunity is sound, or their medical opinions are accurate.
      Jason from Jersey

  7. I'm not sure what you mean by "quantum leap," especially as a compulsory draft was the rule throughout the world until relatively recently, is still practiced in many countries, and is of course the Torah view.

    You can quibble about whether it's necessary or whatever, but that's not a halakhic question.

  8. This is an interesting and well-judged article for a parallel universe in which the job of the Israeli army is conquering and protecting the Land of Israel rather than propping up the Oslo Death Process. It really exemplifies the cognitive dissonance inherent in Religious Zionism even in its best form.

  9. Saving Jewish lives is quite important. And Jews living anywhere, need an army to do so. So we should enlist in the army of any country in which we live, to save the lives of our fellow Jews.
    What does this have to do with the state of Israel? Why are jewish lives there different to anywhere else in the world? Everyone understands that we can leave the army in America, England, France and Australia to those that are not doing anything too important anyway. So those who are doing something quite important, like studying Torah, should be able to leave the army in Israel to those who are not interested in studying Torah.
    Regarding his other arguments, as soon as we don't accept the sovereignty of a secular state as connected to Mitzvas Yishuv Ha'aretz, perpetuating that sovereignty is not a fulfillment of that mitzva. If under the Turks nobody thought they should join the army, most people escaped to Chutz La'aretz to prevent that happening, why is a secular state of ISrael any different?
    The idea that only those that will be Rabbis should learn is absurd and misunderstands the point. When a Rabbi has congregants who are unlearned, his level is lower. When his congregants are more learned, he himself will be more learned. Society does not just benefit from those who stand out front and teach. Every audience member who can challenge the Rabbi, even if he himself does not serve as a Rabbi, elevates the standard of scholarship for all. That is the basic public benefit of a large community of learners, and why the Rema (and the Tashbatz) says that even those who do not serve the community may partake of communal funds to learn Torah, in disagreement with the Rambam.
    Jason from Jersey

    1. "as soon as we don't accept the sovereignty of a secular state as connected to Mitzvas Yishuv Ha'aretz, perpetuating that sovereignty is not a fulfillment of that mitzva."

      I'd say "take a look around" at the neighborhood but since you're in Jersey you wouldn't be seeing Syria, Iraq, Jordan etc when you look around. The Jewish sovereignty in the Middle East is directly enabling yishuv haaretz by Jews, and without it, it shouldn't be a mystery to you as to what the Arabs will do to Jews in the middle East.

      There's a lot of things wrong with your arguments, but I don't need to get into deep debates about the assumptions and premises you built them on. I can just use your own logic and accept all your premises and still destroy your argument by pointing out the sovereignty and yishuv haaretz are directly tied which is something you clearly overlooked.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. You seem to have zero understanding of anything I wrote.
      The lessons of history already taught us that the "others" in governments and the "others" in their armies around the world over the centuries did not protect Jews but actively harmed them with their armies and police forces.

      The neighborhood that I'm talking about is filled with "others" desperate to do harm to Jews, just as they have done to Jews and to other minority groups historically (or currently) within their own countries. Most of these "others" only lack the ability to harm Jews right now where the "others" live because those countries don't contain any more Jews.

      You suggesting others can take care of army service is like Kurds asking for ISIS members to serve in the Kurdish armed forces in their stead, to protect them and their fellow Kurds from ISIS terrorists.

      In the world we live in, sovereignty and yishuv haaretz go hand and hand. There is no escaping that conclusion.

  10. The answer quoting the Tashbatz is from me
    Jason from Jersey

  11. "In practice, the mitzvah to enlist in the army applies to all Jewish men, including those who wish to study Torah in yeshiva. "

    What unit did you serve with, Rabbi Slifkin?

    1. Alas, none (though my children are on track to enlist). How about you?

    2. None. They never called me. And since I don't believe that there is a mitzvah to enlist (or tell others that there is or that they should), I simply did not.

  12. It amazes me once again that the author continues to hold by the common misconception in the Modern Orthodox community that while Torah learning is a mitzvah, serving in the IDF is a much greater one because Israel's existence depends on it. Does am yisroel's existence not depend on Torah learning as well? Is Torah learning not the basis on the existence of the Jewish people?


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