What Torah Should a Soldier Learn?

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by R. Gil Student

A soldier in active times, which sadly we find ourselves at the time of this writing, often has only a few minutes a day in which he can learn Torah. In this extremely limited time, what should he learn?

Obviously, a soldier’s primary duty is his military mission. This must take priority and he should not do anything to jeopardize it. Assuming he does have a few minutes of unstructured time, what Torah should he learn? I have never personally served in the army but current and past soldiers tell me that there is almost always time to learn something. What follows is what I have seen published. I am sure there is more and everyone should ask their own rav or rosh yeshivah.

I. Learning Torah in the Army

Rav Nachum Rabinovitch, the late rosh yeshiva of the Hesder Yeshiva in Ma’aleh Adumim, was asked about soldiers attending entertainment events that include women singers (Responsa Melumedei Milchamah, no. 116). He begins by saying that “bnei yeshiva,” soldiers who went to yeshiva, should spend whatever free time they have learning Torah and should not attend entertainment events in the army. The question, says Rav Rabinovitch, is whether soldiers who are bnei yeshiva should object when other soldiers attend such events.

In an article in the Sivan 5723 (May 1963) issue of the IDF Rabbinate journal, Machanayim, Rav Shlomo Goren discusses the obligation to learn Torah in the army “between battles, between missions and between conquests.” He points out that the very source for the obligation to learn Torah day and night was a command to Yehoshua, as he was about to lead the nation in conquering Israel (Josh. 1:8). The Gemara (Megillah 3a-b) explains that an angel came to Yehoshua during war and accused him of failing to learn Torah when he was not fighting (Josh. 5:13-14). Rav Goren, at the time Chief Rabbi of the IDF, concludes that every soldier is obligated to learn Torah whenever and wherever possible, whether “at military bases and camps, at positions and posts, at home and in the field.”

In normal circumstances, a man is obligated to learn Torah day and night. In theory, he is advised to divide his study schedule in three — one third for Tanakh, another third for Mishnah and a third for Gemara (Kiddushin 30a). However, Rabbeinu Tam (Tosafos, ad loc., s.v. lo) explains that today we can fulfill this by learning Gemara, which includes biblical verses and Mishnayos. Rema follows Rabbeinu Tam in his glosses to Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 246:4). The Shakh (ad loc., 5) adds that a working man, who can only learn three or four hours a day (!), should make sure to learn practical halakhah in addition to Gemara. You have to know how to follow Jewish law in your daily life and you can only do that by learning practical halakhah.

However, this does not eliminate other learning obligations that stem from other requirements. We still must complete the weekly Torah portion with the community. This means that each week we must review shnayim mikra ve-echad targum (the verses twice and translation once). In order to practice Judaism properly, in addition to learning practical halakhah, we also need to strengthen our faith and our ethics. Learning Mussar texts is an important part of daily life just to maintain your religious state, and certainly to grow.

III. Halakhic Codes for Soldiers

Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan, known as the Chafetz Chaim, wrote a halakhah manual, titled Machaneh Yisrael, for the many Jewish soldiers in the Russian army. In chapter 6, the Chafetz Chaim emphasizes the importance of a soldier studying practical halakhah, whether from his book, Shulchan Arukh or any shorter codes like Chayei Adam. You have to know, and constantly review, how to act. However, adds the Chafetz Chaim, a soldier who cannot learn that should at least learn something — Chumash, Navi or just say Tehillim. If he has free time, he should fill it with Torah because otherwise the time can lead to improper activities.

In 1986, Rav Zechariah Yosef Ben Shlomo (of Yeshivat Sha’alvim) published a comprehensive halakhah guide for Israeli soldiers, which he expanded in 2001. His Hilkhos Tzava is a pocket-sized, softcover 900 page book with 100 chapters. Chapter 8 addresses the obligation to learn Torah. Rav Ben Shlomo writes (par. 5) that since time is extremely limited, a soldier should learn practical halakhah, particularly those laws that apply to a soldier’s situation. Preferably, he should learn from a concise code, such as Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, Chayei Adam, Ben Ish Chai or an equivalent (he is too modest to recommend his own book). If he is unable to learn halakhah, he should learn Tanakh, whether the weekly Torah portion or something else. Particularly at night, when a soldier is tired and struggles to concentrate, he should learn something easy.

Both the Chafetz Chaim and Rav Zechariah Shlomo emphasize the importance of learning Torah together with other soldiers, when possible. It strengthens yourself and others, and enables the learning of those who do not have the skills or ability to do so on their own.

III. Learning What You Want

I heard in the name of Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl that a soldier should endeavor to do Shnayim Mikra because the Gemara (Berakhos 8b) says that one who does so merits a long life. Presumably this is a bare minimum of what to learn.

Rav Shlomo Aviner (Piskei Shlomo, vol. 6, p. 265) was asked what a soldier can do to avoid spiritual decline while serving in the army. While this is requires a lengthy discussion, Rav Aviner briefly offers five pieces of advice, of which two are relevant our conversation:
1) Whenever you have free time, learn Torah on any subject you want
2) Learn Mussar, like Mesilas Yesharim

Rav Mordechai Tzion, the editor of this and many other books by Rav Aviner, told me that this is a general principle Rav Aviner teaches to soldiers. The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 19a) says that a person can only learn Torah from a text that his heart desires. Rav Aviner advises soldiers to choose a Torah text that excites them and keep a pocket-size volume with them constantly for learning when there is time.

The very conversation about soldiers learning Torah is itself inspiring. May all the Israeli soldiers see continued growth and success, health and holiness, long lives and spiritual wholeness.

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.

One comment

  1. My very warm recommendation is for every soldier to read/learn HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein’s fundamental article on the Ideology of Hesder.
    Original Hebrew: https://etzion.haretzion.org/about-us/ideology/21-hesder
    English Translation: https://etzion.org.il/en/philosophy/great-thinkers/harav-aharon-lichtenstein/ideology-hesder

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