Army Uniforms on Shabbos

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by R. Gil Student

I. Shabbos Clothes

We greet Shabbos and spend the entire day clean and proper, dressed in fine clothes. What do you do if you have to wear an army uniform? The Gemara (Shabbos 119a) says that R. Chanina and R. Yannai would wear special clothes to greet Shabbos. The Gemara (Shabbos 113b) quotes Naomi’s instruction to Rus: “And you shall bathe, and anoint yourself, and put on your dress” (Ruth 3:3). R. Eliezer explains that Naomi told Rus to wear her Shabbos clothes.

Based on the above, Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 262:2) rules that you should strive to have special, nice clothes set aside for Shabbos. If not, you should at least make your regular clothes look nice. What do you do if you are in the army? Obviously, if you are in the midst of combat or a mission with limited supplies, your military task takes precedence. But there are many times in the army, probably the majority of a tour of duty, in which you have the ability to think about what clothes to wear on Shabbos. What do you do if you are limited to your army uniform? Additionally, what if wearing your army uniform involves carrying?

II. Civilian Patrol

Rav Yishmael Ha-Cohen, the late eighteenth century halakhic authority in Italy, was asked about a city in which all men were required to spend time on guard duty (Zera Emes, vol. 3 no. 32). They were assigned nights on which they had to patrol through the city carrying a sword or a gun (which I assume the questioner means when he refers to a “fire stick”). When a Jew is assigned a Friday night, obviously he may not carry the sword or gun where there is no eruv but is he allowed to wear the sword or gun in a scabbard or holster?

The questioner points out that the Mishnah (Shabbos 60a) says that a man may not go out on Shabbos wearing shiryon (a coat of mail), kasda (leather hat worn under a metal helmet) or magafayim (leg armor). R. Nissim of Gerona (Ran, 14th cen., Spain) explains that this is forbidden even though you are wearing them because it looks like you are going out to war (commentary to Rif, Shabbos 27a s.v. shiryon). So too, these guards are not trained for combat and are not expected to fight anyone, just to carry weapons as a deterrent. But even if the guards wear the weapons, they seem to fall under this same prohibited category as body armor. Rav Yishmael Ha-Cohen replies that there is no room to permit this and the Jewish community should push for a religious exemption for Shabbos.

III. Saber Warfare

About a century later, Rav Simcha Bamberger (19th cen., Germany, son of the Wurzburger Rav) was asked about a soldier who has to present himself in dress uniform on Shabbos (Zeikher Simcha, no. 35). The dress uniform includes a ceremonial saber in a scabbard, neither of which he is allowed to remove. Is he permitted to walk outside without an eruv in his uniform including the saber? On the one hand, Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 301:7) clearly says that you may not go outside with a sword, bow or shield. Rav Bamberger argues that since this soldier is forbidden by regulation from removing the sword, it is considered either clothing or jewelry.

Additionally, he compares the ceremonial saber to the green Jewish circle (the precursor to the yellow Jewish star) that some Medieval authorities required Jews to wear. Rema (ad loc., par. 23) permits wearing a green circle even if it is not sewn to clothing because people will not remove and carry it out of fear of the authorities. Similarly, Rav Bamberger argues, a Jewish soldier may wear his saber because he is likewise scared of punishment if he removes and carries it. Rema (ibid., 304:1) forbids a servant to wear a metal identification plate, even though he is scared of being punished for losing it. Eliyahu Rabbah (ad loc., no. 8) says that this only applies in an area where carrying is biblically forbidden. Rav Bamberger says that since nowadays all (or nearly all) places are only rabbinically forbidden, it would be allowed. Similarly, a soldier who is scared to lose his ceremonial saber should be allowed to wear it. For all these reasons combined, Rav Bamberger permits a soldier to wear his ceremonial saber inside its scabbard. Rav Bamberger does not necessarily disagree with Rav Yishmael Ha-Cohen since the former discusses a sword that is not supposed to be removed while the latter discusses a sword that is meant to be removed and carried

Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (21st cen., Israel) is quoted as forbidding soldiers from wearing weapons even when they are clearly intended as forms of jewelry (quoted in Dirshu edition of Mishnah Berurah, 301 n. 19). Since the Sages forbade wearing a weapon, this prohibition remains in force even if the reason no longer applies. When it comes to wearing medals on formal army uniforms, Rav Yehoshua Neuwirth (Shemiras Shabbos Ke-Hilkhasah 18:25) and Rav Simcha Rabinowitz (Piskei Teshuvos 301:17) permit a soldier to wear them on Shabbos.

IV. Shabbos Clothes

Returning to Shabbos clothing, what should a soldier wear on Shabbos? Most IDF soldiers have two types of uniforms: 1) nice type A uniforms, which vary by force, 2) type B uniforms for work and combat, which are all the same. Some soldiers also have dress uniforms for important ceremonies. Outside of an active combat situation or where otherwise impossible, should a soldier always wear his nicest uniform on Shabbos?

Rav Zechariah Shlomo (cont., Israel) writes that on Shabbos a soldier should wear a clean type A uniform, if he has it available (Hilkhos Tzava 35:16). In Rav Mordechai Tziyon’s Hilchos Madei Tzahal (no. 17), he quotes Rav Shlomo Aviner (cont., Israel) as saying that it is best to wear type A uniform on Shabbos when you are not working. However, it is not required because experience has shown that it can become overly burdensome to switch clothing repeatedly. Rav Aviner (ibid., no. 18) adds that some commanders allow soldiers to wear white shirts on Shabbos. When that option is available, it is preferred.

The Israel Police Rabbinate recently published the first volume of a Torah journal, titled Hifkadti Shomrim (vol. 1). An unsigned article in this journal discusses what a police officer who is on duty on Shabbos should do regarding the obligation to wear Shabbos clothes (pp. 197-198). The author quotes Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein (cont., Israel) who was asked about a doctor on duty in the hospital (Chashukei Chemed, Yoma 23b). Rav Zilberstein quotes Rav Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (19th cen.) who says that even if someone’s Shabbos clothes are exactly the same as his weekday clothes, he still should change into them for Shabbos (Ben Yehoyada, Shabbos 114). Therefore, Rav Zilberstein says that a doctor should put on a clean white coat for Shabbos. Similarly, a police officer should wear a clean uniform. Presumably, a soldier should also wear a clean uniform if he has no option to wear a nicer shirt or uniform.

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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