The Kohen Soldier

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by R. Gil Student

Kohanim are the descendants of Aharon, the priests of our people. In past eras, a kohen had a special role in the nation. Even today, a kohen retains certain privileges and obligations, such as being called first to the Torah and not allowed to enter cemeteries. The question arose during World War I how far these privileges and obligations extend.

I. Arguments On Each Side

In March 1916, R. Joseph H. Hertz, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations and the British Empire, was asked by the British government whether kohanim should be given religious exemptions from the military draft. He replied in the negative, which started a massive debate over the matter. The Leeds Beth Din publicly objected to the Chief Rabbi’s ruling for two reasons: [1]My knowledge of their involvement is solely from Cole Eimer, “Joseph Hertz: A Chief Rabbi at War” in European Judaism 48:1, Spring 2015, pp. 23-32

1) A kohen is forbidden to become impure from dead bodies. Soldiers in battle are exposed to dead bodies.

2) A kohen who kills someone is no longer allowed to bless the congregation, to dukhen.

The Leeds Beth Din stated that, “We think he [the Chief Rabbi] did not consider the question thoroughly.” In his reply, Chief Rabbi Hertz accused the Leeds Beth Din of holding “a strange interpretation of the Jewish Law.” While Chief Rabbi Hertz held the higher title, he was no match for the halakhic expertise of the Leeds Beth Din. And yet, the more we examine the arguments, the more we see that the Chief Rabbi’s view has merit. Surprisingly, a young Rav Yitzchak Herzog, who was approximately 27 at the time and serving in his first pulpit in Belfast, publicly disagreed with the Chief Rabbi on this issue. [2]This is not mentioned by Eimer but referenced by Rav Gedaliah Felder in Yesodei Yeshurun, vol. 2 p. 52, Nesi’as Kapayim, no. 31 Rav Herzog added an argument from Rambam.

3) Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Shemitah 13:12, Touger translation) explicitly states that the tribe of Levi, including kohanim, do not serve in the army:

”Why did the Levites not receive a portion in the inheritance of Eretz Yisrael and in the spoils of war like their brethren? Because they were set aside to serve God and minister unto Him and to instruct people at large in His just paths and righteous judgments…. Therefore they were set apart from the ways of the world. They do not wage war like the remainder of the Jewish people, nor do they receive an inheritance, nor do they acquire for themselves through their physical power.”

Chief Rabbi Hertz replied to his critics in a public letter which contained four counter-arguments: [3]My knowledge of their involvement is solely from Rav Menasheh Adler, Mareh Kohen third rescension, vol. 2, no. 147

A) A kohen can become impure for a meis mitzvah, a dead body with no one to bury it. If he can become impure for that, then he can become impure in war, presumably to save lives.

B) The Hasmoneans were kohanim and fought in battle against the Syrian Greeks.

C) The Talmud Yerushalmi (Nazir 7:1) says that R. Chiya was a kohen and would become impure to honor the king. Serving in the king’s army is similar.

D) The kohen mashu’ach milchamah, the priest who spoke to the troops before war, sent home those who had recently built a house, planted a vineyard or betrothed a woman (Deut. 20:5-7). There is no mention of sending back a kohen, implying that there was no such military exemption.

II. Responding to the Arguments Against

1) The first argument from the prohibition against becoming impure is surprising. Rav Menasheh Adler (Mareh Kohen third rescension, vol. 2, no. 147), a prolific rabbi in England at the time who often commented on his contemporary controversies, agreed in principle with the Chief Rabbi. He responds to this argument that all Jews are forbidden to kill and yet in a war we are expected to kill our enemies. If a kohen is allowed to kill, certainly he is allowed to become impure. Perhaps even more cogent is Rav Meir Arik’s response (published in Mareh Kohen, ibid., no. 149) that today warfare is largely through shooting rather than hand-to-hand combat. There is no certainty that a soldier will ever touch a dead body. Therefore, there is no prohibition on a kohen to be a soldier because he likely will not become impure by touching a corpse. As it turned out, the trench warfare of World War I made contact with a dead body quite likely.

2) It is true that a kohen who murders, even by accident, is no longer allowed to dukhen (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 128:35). However, R. Chizkiyah de Silva (Peri Chadash, ad loc.) says that this does not apply to a kohen who is forced to kill someone (quoted approvingly in Mishnah Berurah, ad loc., no. 128). While he does not quote the Peri Chadash, Chief Rabbi Hertz makes the same argument — that this law does not apply to a soldier. Decades later, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah, vol. 2 no. 158) rules likewise. Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Yechaveh Da’as 2:14) adds that Israeli soldiers perform a mitzvah by killing the enemy in a defensive war, which makes them even less subject to this rule.

In the summer of 1948, during Israel’s Independence War, Rav Ben Tziyon Meir Chai Uziel, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, published an article in the journal Ha-Posek (5708, no. 1,084) arguing that kohanim are obligated to join the army. In response to the Rambam mentioned above, quoted decades earlier by a young rabbi who became Rav Uziel’s co-chief rabbi in Israel, Rav Uziel explains:

3) Rambam only says that the tribe of Levi (which includes kohanim) does not wage war to conquer its tribal land, like the other tribes had to do when they settled the land of Israel. Because Levi does not have a tribal portion, its members do not go out to war like the rest of the Jewish people. Rambam is not saying that Levites are exempt from waging war in general.

III. Responding to the Arguments In Favor

A) Rav Menasheh Adler (ibid., no. 147, sec. 3) agreed with Chief Rabbi Hertz in principle but not with his specific proofs. He argues out that the law that a kohen can become impure for a meis mitzvah does not teach us anything about going out to war. This proof lacks a sound logical basis.

B) Rav Adler (ibid.) explains that the Hasmoneans were generals, not infantrymen. They were not fighting at the front but rather planning and leading. If so, they cannot serve as a precedent for kohanim serving in infantry. This response assumes that the Hasmonean generals led from the back and not from the front, engaging directly with enemy soldiers. Rav Adler does not provide any evidence for that assumption.

C) Rav Adler (ibid., sec. 4) points out that the Gemara (Berakhos 19b) says that those who became impure in honor of the king only did so on a rabbinic level. When it comes to soldiers, we are discussing a biblical level of impurity and therefore there is no proof.

D) Rav Adler (ibid., sec. 2) points out that the kohen mashu’ach milchamah only addressed the soldiers who had gathered for battle. If kohanim are exempt from serving in the army, they would not even gather for battle. That would be why the kohen mashu’ach milchamah does not instruct the kohanim to return home.

IV. Other Arguments

E) Rav Uziel (ibid.) points out that the Gemara (Kiddushin 21b) asks whether a kohen may take a yefas to’ar, a captive bride. A yefas to’ar is only taken in battle. Doesn’t this question indicate that a kohen serves in the army? (One could respond that kohanim served administrative functions in the army but then why were they allowed to take a captive bride?)

F) Rav Uziel further quotes the Gemara (Sotah 42b) which says that someone who betrothed a woman who is prohibited to him does not return from battle. The Gemara’s examples include a kohen who betroths a divorcee. Clearly, a kohen would go to war. Otherwise, why is there any discussion of when he can and cannot return from war?

Rav Uziel (ibid.) concludes that kohanim are obligated to fight in the army. Rav Gedaliah Felder, in the second volume of his Yesodei Yeshurun (p. 52), published in 1957, seems to agree with Rav Uziel. Rav Eliezer Yehudah Waldenburg, in the second volume of his Hilkhos Medinah (3:3), published in 1953, argues that kohanim are not halachically obligated to go to war like other Jews. However, they may join the army if they wish. In the end, it seems that Chief Rabbi Hertz’s view won the day. Rav Herzog served as the Chief Rabbi of Israel when it became a state. He did not attempt to implement a military exemption of kohanim, not even a kohen option to remain in administrative functions. Perhaps he changed his mind or maybe he believed that Israel’s defensive wars are different than serving in the army of a foreign country that does not face existential military challenges.


1My knowledge of their involvement is solely from Cole Eimer, “Joseph Hertz: A Chief Rabbi at War” in European Judaism 48:1, Spring 2015, pp. 23-32
2This is not mentioned by Eimer but referenced by Rav Gedaliah Felder in Yesodei Yeshurun, vol. 2 p. 52, Nesi’as Kapayim, no. 31
3My knowledge of their involvement is solely from Rav Menasheh Adler, Mareh Kohen third rescension, vol. 2, no. 147

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, 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.

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter