Waging War on Shabbos

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The book of Maccabees (1:2:31-41) tells the story of how the Hasmoneans originally refused to wage war on Shabbos and were slaughtered. After that, Matisyahu ruled that they must fight back on Shabbos. This account is repeated by Josephus (Antiquities 12:276). Prof. Louis Feldman (Jew & Gentile in the Ancient World, pp. 160-161) lists other ancient attestations to this refusal to fight on Shabbos, such as Strabo (16:2:40:763) and Dio Cassius (37:16). The question is why they refused. Isn’t it piku’ach nefesh?

R. Shlomo Goren (Meshiv Milchamah 1:2) addresses this question. He suggests that the Greeks knew how important Shabbos was to Jews and wished to force them to fight on that day. Thus, there was a shmad-gezerah specifically to fight on Shabbos and, therefore, the Hasmonean beis din ruled that it is yehareg ve-al ya’avor — when gentiles try to force us to violate a law we must choose martyrdom over violating it. In this case, they tried to force us to fight on Shabbos and the Hasmoneans chose martyrdom over violating Shabbos.

If that’s the case, then why did the beis din subsequently rule that they may fight back? When the Greeks continued this strategy and it became a threat to the
continuity of the Jewish people, the Hasmonean beis din ruled that the continuity of the Jewish people overrides the law of yehareg ve-al ya’avor and they may not choose martyrdom.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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