Waging War on Shabbos

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by R. Gil Student

Religious Jews violate Shabbos in response to even a life threatening situation. Religious soldiers fight war 24/7 in order to protect lives. This is widely understood nowadays. But was it always accepted that we may wage war on Shabbos? Some claim that this religious permission arose only in the time of the Second Temple, during the Hasmonean revolt. As we will see, this idea is illogical, unnecessary and lacking any basis in Jewish history even if non-Orthodox scholars accept it as true.

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 initially and what did Matisyahu change. Isn’t it pikuach nefesh, a life threatening situation, that merits violating Shabbos? Why did they need Matisyahu to tell them that they are allowed to fight on Shabbos?

Rav Moshe Tzvi Neriah, a leading student of Rav Kook and the rosh yeshiva of the entire Bnei Akiva school system, published a 1959 book about war on Shabbos fittingly titled Milchamos Shabbos. Rav Neriah asks (p.77ff) how the Jewish people could possibly have survived until that point if they did not violate Shabbos to save lives. There were so many wars during the First Temple era. How were the Jews not conquered and killed if they refrained from fighting on Shabbos? When the Jews returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile, they were under constant attack when they rebuilt the Temple to the point that half of them worked on the building and the other half stood guard: “We worked in the construction, half of them held the spears from the rising of the morning until the stars appeared” (Neh. 4:15). Why didn’t the enemy just attack on Shabbos and destroy the newly returned community and all their work? Furthermore, why is there no mention of this transition in midrash or Talmud? Rather, argues Rav Neriah, this is all a misunderstanding by historians looking for halachic change when none occurred.

Rav Neriah quotes Rav Yitzchak Isaac Halevy (Doros Ha-Rishonim, part 1, vol. 3, p. 340ff) who says that when you look at this passage in the context of the Chanukah story, the entire question disappears. This episode occurred before there was a Hasmonean army fighting against the Syrian-Greeks. At this point in the story, they were individual Chasidim, Jews clinging to their religion against foreign oppression. They had two options in the face of oppression, flee or give up their lives in martyrdom. They fled and hid in caves. However, the government’s soldiers found them and tried to force them to violate Shabbos, for which the pious Jews instead chose to die al kiddush Hashem. When Matisyahu heard about this incident, he declared that we will not run, we will not hide, we will not die peacefully. Rather, he organized an army to fight back against the oppressors. When they come to force us to violate Shabbaos, we will be ready for them and fight back. This was not the point in history when Matisyahu decided that it is permissible to fight back on Shabbos. It was when he decided we would fight back, we would join together in an army and defend ourselves. In this case, it was about Shabbos because that was when the enemy came but the story is about deciding to fight back against the mighty Syrian-Greeks, not deciding to violate Shabbos to save lives.

Additionally, Rav Neriah points out, there is a difference between individuals defending themselves and an army fighting a war. Once Matisyahu organized an army to fight against the Syrian-Greeks, they were not limited to defending themselves on Shabbos to a specific immediate threat, like with normal pikuach nefesh. They could defend themselves even against a remote possibility of a threat. They also were not limited to defense. This was war and they could attack on Shabbos, as well.

Rav Shlomo Goren, the first chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, takes a different approach to this question in his collection of army responsa (Meshiv Milchamah 1:2). Even if we accept that the Hasmoneans were already organized as an army at that time, and refused to fight back on Shabbos until Matisyahu changed course, that still does not mean that they believed that fighting a war in general is forbidden on Shabbos. In previous wars, whether against the Assyrians, the Babylonians or the local residents when the Jews returned from exile, Jews defended themselves on Shabbos. In the case of the Chanukah story, the Syrian-Greeks knew how important Shabbos is to Jews and wished to force them to fight on that day. Thus, there was a shmad-gezera, an anti-religious decree, specifically to fight on Shabbos. Therefore, the Hasmonean beis din initially ruled not to fight—when gentiles try to force us to violate a law we must choose martyrdom over violating it. In this case, the enemy tried to force us to fight on Shabbos and the Hasmoneans chose martyrdom over submitting to this religious oppression.

Matisyahu subsequently ruled to the contrary, that they must fight back. When the Syrian-Greeks continued this strategy of fighting specifically on Shabbos and it became an existential threat to the continuity of the Jewish people, the religious leadership of the time ruled that the continuity of the Jewish people overrides the law of martyrdom and they must fight to save Klal Yisrael.

As the Israel Defense Forces fight back against the deadly threat of brutally antisemitic terrorists, they fight on any day of the week and the year. The enemy attacked us on Yom Kippur 50 years ago and on Simchas Torah (in Israel) this year. They try to force us to violate our holy days but they do not know that Matisyahu taught us that we fight back at all times, with all our might, with Hashem’s help to defeat our foes.

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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