The Religious and the Non-Religious Soldier

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by R. Gil Student

In the Israeli army, it is common for fully Torah observant soldiers to serve by the side of soldiers who are not. When a soldier has to serve a shift on Shabbos, this raises the question of whether the observant soldier can or should trade days with a non-observant soldier. Sometimes, a non-observant soldier will volunteer for duty so his colleague can observe Shabbos in the traditional way. These possibilities raise halakhic questions with somewhat counter-intuitive answers.

I. Unintended Shabbos Labors

Rav Shmuel Eidels (Maharsha, 17th cen., Poland) has a fascinating insight about a Shabbos violation that has an unrelated goal (Commentary to Bava Basra 119b). The Gemara (Shabbos 96b) quotes R. Akiva says that the mekoshesh, the man who violated Shabbos by collecting wood (Num. 15:32-36), was Tzelophechad, whose daughters famously asked Moshe for a portion of land in Israel (Num. 27). Maharsha suggests that Tzelophechad was a righteous man who did not violate Shabbos on a biblical level. Rather, Tzelophechad performed the forbidden act in order to teach a lesson. That constitutes a melakhah she-einah tzerikhah le-gufah, a labor that is not necessary for its own sake, which according to the dominant view is only rabbinically forbidden. Tzelophechad gathered the wood not because he cared about the wood but because he had something he needed to teach. Since the outcome was not his goal, his action is forbidden only on a rabbinic level. However, since no human court can decisively determine someone’s intent, Tzelophechad was still punished for a Shabbos violation.

Based on this Maharsha, Rav Moshe Tzvi Landau (20th cen., Hungary) suggests that a religious soldier during World War I who is forced to do non-life saving work on Shabbos violates only a rabbinic prohibition (Shulchan Melakhim, p. 281b n. 23). This soldier does not primarily desire the result of his labor on Shabbos. Rather, he merely wants to avoid the severe punishment given to someone who disobeys orders. This intent changes his actions into a melakhah she-einah tzerikhah le-gufah, which is only rabbinically forbidden. Therefore, perhaps it is better for an observant soldier to work on Shabbos and violate only rabbinic prohibitions than for a non-observant soldier, who is not as careful with his intent for his work on Shabbos. On the other hand, Rav Landau adds, if the non-observant soldier is only working on Shabbos in order to free his colleague from that obligation, maybe his acts also constitute a melakhah she-einah tzerikhah le-gufah.

II. Scholars Saving Lives

The Gemara (Yoma 84b) says that when Shabbos must be violated to save a life, it should be done specifically by Torah scholars, if possible. We should not ask children or gentiles to do this work for us. Rambam explains in his Mishnah commentary (Shabbos 18:3) says that those who are less learned may not understand the unusual circumstances that warrant this behavior and may be led to treat Shabbos less seriously (see also Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Shabbos 2:3). While that is said regarding the treatment of someone who is ill or a similar case, and the question is which of the bystanders will help, perhaps it also applies to a case when we choose who will be in the situation of being coerced to violate Shabbos. Rav Landau leaves this an open question.

In the IDF, the situation is somewhat different. The rules dictate that only actions that are necessary for security may be done on Shabbos. In theory, any required Shabbos violation in the IDF is a permissible life-saving measure. The question is whether an observant soldier should take on this role of violating Shabbos in order to save lives or he may switch shifts with a non-observant soldier. Rav Nachum Rabinovitch (20th cen., Israel) says that serving IDF duty on Shabbos constitutes a mitzvah and should not be avoided (Melumedei Milchamah, no. 11).

Rav Yosef Tzvi Rimon (cont., Israel) adds another consideration (Halakhah Mi-Mkorah: Tzava, vol. 2 p. 136). The Gemara (Kiddushin 81b) says that if someone intends to eat pig meat but accidentally eats kosher lamb still needs atonement. His intention to sin renders his act sinful even if he does not fulfill his intent. Perhaps if a non-observant soldier intends to violate Shabbos on his duty, then he needs atonement even though he is actually fulfilling a mitzvah. On the other hand, the Gemara (Menachos 64a) quotes a debate regarding the following case: if you hear a child drowning in the sea, you throw in a net to catch fish and also catch the child, are you liable for catching fish on Shabbos? Your action constitutes a life-saving measure but you intended it as a prohibited act. Rava says you are liable for the Shabbos violation while Rabbah holds you are exempt.

But why is there even a debate? If you try to eat pig and end up eating lamb, you are liable. Shouldn’t the same apply if you try to fish on Shabbos but end up saving a baby’s life? Rav Rimon quotes Rav Yitzchak Shmelkes (19th cen., Ukraine) who explains that if you attempt to sin and instead do something neutral, you are liable for a sin. But if you attempt to sin and end up doing a mitzvah, then you are exempt (Responsa Beis Yitzchak, no. 8). You will not be penalized for performing a mitzvah. So too, argues Rav Rimon, a non-observant soldier who performs life-saving work on Shabbos is doing a mitzvah, even if he intends to sin.

III. The Shabbos Volunteer

Until now we have discussed whether it is proper to switch Shabbos shifts. What if a non-observant soldier volunteers to switch shifts with you? Is it better for an observant soldier to take the Shabbos duty? Rav Mordechai Leib Winkler (20th cen., Hungary) was asked about such a situation in a diaspora army (Levushei Mordechai, Tinyana, Orach Chaim, no. 58). Rav Winkler replied that there is no concern that the non-observant serves as the agent (shali’ach) of the observant soldier, nor that the observant soldier assists him in his violations (mesaye’a). Therefore, it is best that the observant soldier passively accept the other soldier’s offer to take his Shabbos work.

Rav Yosef Tzvi Rimon (ibid., p. 137) says that while an observant soldier may not ask to switch Shabbos shift with a non-observant soldier, he may accept an offer to switch. Since otherwise the non-observant would be violating Shabbos, there is some benefit to him instead serving in army duty on Shabbos. However, Rav Yehoshua Neuwirth (21st cen., Israel) writes that an observant soldier should reject the non-observant soldier’s attempt to switch shifts (Shemiras Shabbos Ke-Hilkhasah 41:35n85). Rav Neuwirth points to the rule that when Shabbos needs to be violated to save a life, it should be done by Torah scholars. Similarly, the observant soldier should be the one to violate Shabbos for life-saving army duty.

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.

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