The Besieged Gush Etzion Shabbat

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

21 Shevat: R. Herzog Helps the Besieged Gush Etzion Keep Shabbat

One of the reasons I find the A Responsum a Day project enjoyable and fulfilling is how it connects us to the Jewish calendar, shaping our lives a little bit in line with how the Jewish view of the year goes.

Another is that it strengthens our connection with great Torah scholars whose names and basic biographical facts we might have known (and sometimes not even that), linking us to earlier links in the chain of our tradition. That they learned or wrote this piece of Torah in connection with this day makes it like the bracha of she-asah nisim, where we celebrate a miracle that happened bayamim hahem bazman hazeh, back then, but which we see as having happened at this same time.

This better acquaintance with important figures also lets us see how their minds work as they try to apply the eternal ideas of Torah to specific circumstances.  In that last regard, Heichal Yitzchak Orach Chayyim 34, is perhaps the most moving responsum I have come across, so that even though it’s the question that’s dated 21 Shvat 5708 (1948), I have chosen to share it here.

When published, the editors solicited an introductory note from Dov Knoll, who had been the mazkir (sort of the general-secretary) of Kfar Etzion at the time. (He passed away on the 21st of Tammuz, 5750 (1990), and his sons are Yisrael Knohl, a professor, and R. Elyashiv Knoll, the rabbi of Kfar Etzion.) He describes the situation in during the siege of Gush Etzion (the Gush eventually fell, but resisted long enough to help save Jerusalem from being conquered).

Fighting the Siege

He tells us the siege started with an attack on an armed supply caravan on 28 Kislev 5708. On the day of the funeral for those killed in that attack, Kfar Etzion received a telegram from R. Herzog (the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi) offering words of comfort and encouragement, including that they should do whatever they needed for their defense. They not only could but were obligated to build what they had to, without worry about Shabbat. He closed with a prayer that  Hashem protect them and hasten His salvation.

[ If I may be more personal than I ordinarily allow myself, I got tears in my eyes reading these words for the fourth or fifth time, watching a Torah giant do his best to help faithful Jews navigate a difficult time, doing his best to strengthen their resolve, to help them feel comfortable acting in ways that were ordinarily not permitted, but right now were needed to advance their cause, which was the cause of all Israrel. ]

In the list of questions they later sent R. Herzog, we find out that there had been an attack on the 3rd of Shevat (a Wednesday). Some of the wounded needed medical care their field hospital could not provide. The airstrip they had tried to build, to med-evac them, was not finished before Shabbat, and they were unsure whether they could work to complete it on Shabbat.  They eventually decided they could, in case of another attack and other wounded, but wanted R. Herzog’s guidance for the future.

This was true as well regarding other tasks that needed to happen on Shabbat– most of the manpower was dedicated to guard duty, training, and the airstrip, which was also designed to ease ways to import materials and reinforcements. In another touching moment, he mentions that some of those who had to violate Shabbat would sing zemirot as they worked, to remind themselves of the day.

The Convoys

The armored vehicles that served as convoys—the main way they received supplies and crucial communications from Jerusalem—spent the week serving Jerusalem itself (which was in a better, but not fully secure, position). They could come to Gush mostly on Shabbat.

The convoys needed to arrive, unload, reload, and leave as quickly as possible; the longer they stayed, the more the surrounding Arabs could catch wind and set an ambush. [ On the sixteenth of Adar, after this letter was sent, the Arabs did just that, and killed fifteen Haganah members. ]

These convoys were also the main mail service to the Gush. This raised questions about letters that were related to security, but also about ordinary correspondence—the men in the Gush were isolated from loved ones, and letters were a reassuring psychological boost.

More Questions About the Convoys

That summary covered some of the ground in the questions themselves, so I’ll include some of those that introduce new information, and then we’ll see R. Herzog’s response.

There were three kinds of letters, those to the leadership on urgent matters; to the leadership on more routine matters; and to members of the kibbutz, who often went a week or more with no contact from their evacuated families. For each kind of letter, the besieged members of the Gush wanted to know whether they could distribute, read, and respond on Shabbat.

Sometimes, a non-Jew could bring mail from the Gush on Shabbat; these would be pre-written. Were they allowed to give them to the non-Jew on Shabbat?

When the women and children had been evacuated, they had left behind some of their clothing, especially winter clothing, which they now needed. Could the Gush send that on a convoy leaving on Shabbat?

Halachah In Extremis

Before we get to R. Herzog’s answers, we should spend a moment respecting the questions. It’s a phenomenon also known from R. Ephraim Oshry’s Shu”t Mi-ma’amakim, answers he gave in the Kovno ghetto during WWII. That Jews in such difficult times stopped to ask halachic questions is, in one sense, what we should expect and maybe be unremarkable, since of course a Jew should consult on halachic issues that arise.

Yet it’s of course highly remarkable, because we never know how we’ll handle stress like that, and we know many people who would not bother. In this case, it’s even more laudable, since the Kislev telegram from R. Herzog gave them carte blanche to do whatever they deemed necessary. I believe many people would take that as authorization to rely on their own instinct and intuition. That these men took the time to ask him such detailed questions, with clearly much else on their plate, is itself an aspect of this interaction that I wanted to pause to admire.

R. Herzog’s Answers

After praying for their salvation, R. Herzog starts by saying that unloading the convoys is a matter of pikuach nefesh, saving lives, because the Gush is under danger of famine, since who knows when the next convoy will make it. [ That’s an importanthalachic point, ripe for excess, but proper when correctly applied: even if we currently have all we need, if we cannot know when future supplies will come, currently arriving supplies, too, count as pikuach nefesh.

I hope it’s obvious that that doubt about the future has to be well-established—it’s not like I could say, well, I have a chance to make money today, who knows when I’ll make money in the future? But it’s still enlightening to see R. Herzog agree that their uncertain future means that securing food now is a matter of saving lives, even though they have enough right now ].


Once letters were inside the kibbutz, there’s no problem with carrying them. Some had worried that since the letters came from outside the techum Shabbat, the Shabbat boundaries of where items can go, they become muktzeh, but R. Herzog says that’s a minority opinion that we do not accept for halachic purposes.

Another worry was that unnecessary letters involve asking the driver (Jewish or not) to do additional activity. R. Herzog points out that that’s not quite true—the problematic case of ribui ba-shiurim in the Gemara is where we put extra food into an oven. Heating more food takes more fuel (and might lead us to add fuel). The driver turning on his truck is the same no matter how much mail he has in the back [ theoretically, the motor works harder to carry a heavier load, but R. Herzog doesn’t see that as a significant issue ].

All of this is no different than when Jews in more ordinary circumstances read letters brought by non-Jewish mail carriers on Shabbat, even if they were brought from outside the techum [ he here takes for granted that which some have questioned in our times, regarding mail and newspapers. R. Herzog is certain that since these drivers were coming for other reasons anyway, it’s not our concern or problem. Later in the responsum, he mentions the problems with opening letters, which he thinks are surmountable, especially in cases of pikuach nefesh, and because tearing open the letters is a melachah she-einah tzrichah le-gufah, a Shabbat-prohibited act done for a purpose other than its usual intended one ].

Why the Drivers Can’t Pick Only the Shabbat-Necessary Letters

R. Herzog finds it relevant and helpful that some of these letters are on issues of life and death and therefore may certainly be brought. Nor should we ask the drivers to sort through the letters, first because reading others’ mail violates part of Cherem Rabbenu Gershom and because we oppose wasting time in situations of saving lives. Too, there are authorities who applyborer, the prohibition against separating unwanted from wanted, to non-food items, which would mean we cannot do that with letters, either.

Once the letters arrive, they can be given out that day, since it’s a mitzvah to prevent distress and worry on Shabbat [ that category, too, can be excessively expanded or contracted, but still bears remembering— preventing worry on Shabbat hashalachic validity and standing ].

Minimizing Shabbat Violation

R. Herzog is clearly working to be lenient, yet he also recommended ways to limit Shabbat violation. When the leadership needed to write back on Shabbat, he required writing with their non-usual hand, if it wouldn’t cause a delay [ doing a melachah differently than usually makes it “only” a Rabbinic prohibiton; to the extent that we can violate Shabbat in a lesser way, we are supposed to ]. The ordinary business of the kibbutz could not be handled at all on Shabbat.

For the personal letters from other kibbutz members, R. Herzog recommends preparing a list of relatives’ addresses before Shabbat, to give to the driver with the request that he contact them after Shabbat, to let them know he had seen their relatives and they were well (in other words, he does not think the drivers can take back letters to family).

If the letter-carrier was non-Jewish, however, R. Herzog allows sending actual letters, because the idea that we don’t have non-Jews act for us on Shabbat changes in a case of great loss, and easing the families’ worry by bringing them letters from their besieged loved ones will greatly enhance their enjoyment of Shabbat, and is therefore allowed.

A way to make that even more permissible is to declare the letters hefker, belonging to no one, in front of three other people before Shabbat. Once that’s true, these letters do not acquire a Shabbat limit to movement, as do Jewish-owned items.

This is obviously a legal fiction, but since the whole prohibition of asking a non-Jew is Rabbinic; since we assume today that there’s no halachic public space [a discussion of its own], and since techumin are Rabbinic [really a discussion of its own, since that seems to ignore Rambam’s view that twelve mil, which is shorter than the distance from Gush to Jerusalem, is a Biblicaltechum], in times of stress or trouble it is permissible.

The Needs of People in Jerusalem

As for sending clothing to the evacuated people, R. Herzog notes that if it’s winter clothing, that’s a health need, because many people in Jerusalem live in homes that have no heating on Shabbat (their heating systems were not set up to continue running on Shabbat—such as a fireplace, I think, a reminder that Jerusalem didn’t have it so easy at this time, either), and therefore permitted.

R. Herzog assumes that we are all considered ill when it comes to cold, especially children—yet another unarguable halachicidea that can be used broadly or narrowly. Caregivers to these children must safeguard their health, so they, too, can be sent these items.

R. Herzog’s closing point is that when doing melachah for life-saving purposes, it is preferable to have two people perform each action, since that, too, lessens the prohibition involved. As long as it will not delay the work.

A responsum in which everyone involved is an obvious hero, allowing us to learn Torah in our usual spirit of thirst for understanding Hashem’s Will, with an added dose of wonder at what heroes can accomplish.

About Gidon Rothstein

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