May We Pray for IDF Soldiers on Shabbos?

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by R. Gil Student

In 1438, a great meeting of German rabbis was convened in Nuremberg during which the rabbis issued a number of communal enactments. During the Shabbos prayers, R. Nosson of Eiger, a senior rabbi who had taught many of the rabbis in attendance, wished to say a prayer for someone who was sick. His student, R. Ya’akov (Mahari) Weil, objected that it is not appropriate to pray for the sick on Shabbos. The great rabbis in attendance, including R. Nosson, were convinced by Mahari Weil’s argument (Responsa Mahari Weil, no. 115; R. Bernard Rosensweig, Ashkenazic Jewry in Transition, pp. 22, 50). If this is the case, how do we regularly recite the Mi She-Beirakh prayer for sick people on Shabbos? Are we allowed to recite a prayer or Tehillim for the safety of IDF soldiers?

I. Crying Out On Shabbos

The Mishnah (Ta’anis 19a) says: “For these things we cry out even on Shabbos: For a city that is surrounded by gentile troops, a [flooding] river, a ship tossed about at sea. R. Yossi said: [Cry out] for help, but not for prayer.” According to the Sages, the first opinion, we pray on Shabbos for salvation only from imminent danger. Otherwise, we leave our this-worldly problems aside on Shabbos. According to R. Yossi, even when there is imminent danger, we do not pray about them on Shabbos but only take action to resolve them.

In order to convince the other rabbis gathered, Mahari Weil brought a proof from Rambam’s Mishneh Torah (Hilkhos Shabbos 2:12, 30:12) that it is forbidden to pray about a potential tragedy unless there is immediate danger. Ramban rules like the Sages that we may pray about a case of imminent danger. Presumably, the sick man under discussion, even if he was deathly ill, was not fighting for his life that Shabbos. However, the Tur (Orach Chaim 288) follows R. Yossi and does not allow prayer even for someone sick fighting for his life on Shabbos. We can and must take any action that will help him. But not prayer.

Mahari Weil’s older contemporary, Rav Yitzchak Ben Sheishes Perfet (Rivash, d. 1408, Spain and Algeria) addressed a related question (Responsa, no. 512). Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the custom is to recite Avinu Malkeinu during the morning and afternoon prayers. This additional prayer allows us to repeatedly beg for our lives during this auspicious season. Should we recite Avinu Malkeinu on the Shabbos between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Rivash says that there are different customs about this. In Saragossa, where he served as rabbi for over a decade, they said Avinu Malkeinu on Shabbos. In Barcelona, Gerona and Germany, they did not say it on Shabbos. Rivash prefers the latter custom to omit it but, he points out, everyone includes the additions of Zakhreinu Le-Chaim (remember us for life) etc. in the text of the Amidah prayers. Why do we allow these additions on Shabbos but not Avinu Malkeinu?

II. Personal Needs

Rivash quotes the Talmud Yerushalmi (Shabbos 15:3) which says that it is forbidden to pray for your personal needs on Shabbos. R. Ze’ira asks whether we can say the part of the grace after meals that consists of requests for this-worldly needs. R. Chiya Bar Abba answers that we may recite the text of the blessings. Similarly, explains Rivash, we may say any seasonal additions or poems that are part of the text of the standard Amidah. Even the piyutim, the long liturgical poems we add on the high holidays, become part of the text of the blessings. However, Avinu Malkeinu stands on its own. It is not added to the prayers but a new prayer. We may say the standard prayers on Shabbos, even if they include requests for our needs, but we may not add prayers. With this, Rivash seems to support Mahari Weil’s ruling that we may not pray for the sick on Shabbos.

Significantly, Rav Yosef Karo (16th cen., Israel) rules likewise, that we only pray for those who are in immediate danger (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 288:9-10). Rav Moshe Isserles (16th cen., Poland) adds that for this reason we only say a Mi She-Beirakh prayer for someone who is deathly ill and faces specific danger on that Shabbos (ad loc., 10)

Rav Ya’akov Emden (18th cen., Germany; She’eilas Ya’abetz 1:64) explains that we should not pray for this-worldly needs on Shabbos. Our words, discussions and prayers on Shabbos should not be like those during the week. On Shabbos we focus on the sacred, the other-worldly. However, if someone is dying, we have to help because of the imperative of piku’ach nefesh. Believing Jews accept that prayer can help someone who is sick. Therefore, if someone is dying, we do whatever we can to heal him including praying for him.

A similar discussion arose in the nineteenth century. Rav Shalom Schwadron (Responsa Maharsham, vol. 3 no. 224) tells the following story: One time, the first Belzer Rebbe, Rav Shalom Rokeach (d. 1855), was away in Brody. On Shabbos, someone in Belz became deathly ill so the dayan permitted a gentile to write down the sick man’s name and send a telegram to Brody for the Belzer Rebbe to pray for the man’s recovery. The dayan’s logic is clear. Because he believed the Rebbe’s prayers could save the dying man, he should be allowed to violate a biblical prohibition. In this case, he merely permitted a rabbinic prohibition. However, the rabbi of Brody, Rav Shlomo Kluger, was furious about this and insisted the dayan could not longer rule on halakhic matters. First of all, we only violate Shabbos for this-worldly cures. Additionally, that type of action could lead to widespread disregard for Shabbos observance. Interestingly, many decades later, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik (d. 1918) reportedly permitted sending a telegram for a righteous person to pray on behalf of someone deathly ill (Rav Hershel Schachter, Nefesh Ha-Rav, p. 167).

III. Endless Mi She-Beirakh’s

Despite all this, the custom has spread to say a Mi She-Beirakh even for someone who is not in immediate danger. Rav Avraham Gombiner (17th cen., Poland; Magen Avraham 288:14) suggests that we are allowed to say that God should consider this sick individual among all the other sick Jews, thereby turning it into a prayer for the community’s needs rather the individual’s. He also suggests say “Shabbos hi mi-lizok u-refu’ah kerovah lavo, On Shabbos we may not cry out but the healing will come soon.” This phrase is supposed to turn our prayer into a non-prayer, which is more than a little questionable.

Rav Ya’akov Emden (ibid.) asks how we can say Yekum Purkan Mi-Shmaya on Shabbos, which is an extended prayer for the material success of our communal leaders, teachers and volunteers. He suggests that this is a prayer for communal needs, which is allowed on Shabbos. This seems similar to Magen Avraham’s first answer that we turn the Mi She-Beirakh into a communal prayer. However, Rav Emden complains about the ridiculous amount of time spent allowing everyone to make a Mi She-Beirakh for whomever they want even if not deathly ill, which becomes a burden on the community. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:105) says that you normally are not allowed to say a Mi She-Beirakh except for some in immediate danger. However, if someone deathly ill but not in immediate danger asks you to say a Mi She-Beirakh for him, you should because failing to do so may harm his spirits, which is physically dangerous. But if he does not ask, you may not say a Mi She-Beirakh for him on Shabbos.

And yet, the custom is very lenient on this issue, sometimes to the point of greatly aggravating many of the people in attendance. Some communities place limits on the Mi She-Beirakh or find a communal method to reduce the time. Perhaps if the Mi She-Beirakh is a standard part of the service, it is allowed to be said.

Returning the question of soldiers, certainly during wartime but even during times of peace, some soldiers are in immediate danger. For this reason alone, it should be permissible to say a prayer for IDF soldiers. Additionally, the IDF as a whole protects a large Jewish community. Therefore, a prayer for the IDF constitutes a communal need, not a personal. Just like Yekum Purkan is allowed on Shabbos because the community needs its leaders and teachers, so too the Mi She-Beirakh or Tehillim for IDF soldiers are allowed because the community needs its soldiers.

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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