Enlisting in the IDF

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by R. Gil Student

I. Employment and Slavery

The issue of drafting Israeli yeshiva students into the IDF is a perennial political topic. I would like to discuss a related topic but without any political connection. In order to survive, a country has to be able to draft soldiers into its army. In halakhah, we call that part of mishpetei ha-melukhah, the governmental mandate discussed in 1 Samuel 8 and in Rambam’s Mishneh Torah (Hilkhos Melakhim 4). Rambam (ibid., 10) refers to soldiers as a king’s “servants and soldiers.” What is the difference between these two groups? Rav Eliezer Waldenburg (20th cen., Israel) explains that the servants are those who are drafted into the standing army while the soldiers are those who volunteer during wartime. I would like to discuss a third type of soldier — someone who voluntarily enlists into the standing army. Is it halakhically permissible to enlist? This is not a question related to current political arguments but something more basic and fundamental in halakhah and in Jewish thought.

The Gemara (Bava Metzi’a 10a) derives the fact that an employee may quit at any time from the verse “For to me the children of Israel are slaves” (Lev. 25:55) — slaves to God and not slaves to people. An employee is not a slave and therefore he has the right to quit, even in the middle of a workday. While a person can sell himself into slavery, it is forbidden to do so absent extreme financial need. If that is the case, how is a person allowed to enlist in the army where he is not allowed to quit in the middle of his service, which could be two or three years long? Does that not constitute submission to some form of servitude, at least according to halakhah? If he is drafted, then he has no choice. How can he volunteer for a military service that effectively turns him into a slave in the sense that he cannot quit anytime?

II. Perishable Merchandise

An important exemption to this employment is when the employee deals with perishable items. The Mishnah (Bava Metzi’a 75b) and subsequent Gemara discuss when an employee is and is not allowed to quit on the spot. If he is working on a perishable item and his quitting would cause that item to decline in value, what is called a davar ha-avud, then he is required to finish his work. His right to quit does not give him the right to cause financial damage to his employer. Later authorities expand this beyond perishable merchandise to other cases where an employee quitting causes non-financial damage to an employer.

In an important responsum, Rav Yisrael Isserlein (15th cen., Austria) expands on the rules of employment (Terumas Ha-Deshen 1:329). Regarding house servants, he writes that if they leave in the middle of their term of employment, their employers will be unable to perform basic house functions and perishable items will go bad. This constitutes a davar ha-avud. He ends that this matter is not entirely clear. Rav Isserlein seems to be extending the concept of davar ha-avud away from perishable merchandise to any loss by the employer. If an employee quitting causes an unavoidable loss, he must work for his full term.

Rav Moshe Isserles (Rema; 16th cen., Poland) quotes this ruling without qualification (Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 333:5). However, Rav Shmuel de Modina (Maharshdam; 16th cen., Greece) notes that Rav Isserlein was non-committal and therefore leaves the employee the right to quit mid-term, especially when the owner can find a way to handle the responsibilities himself (Responsa Maharshdam, Choshen Mishpat 1:119). Rav Shabsai Cohen (17th cen., Poland) writes that this is left to the judgment of a rabbinic judge (Shulchan Arukh, ad loc., no. 23).

In other words, in some cases, a house servant accepts a job without the right to quit anytime because his quitting would cause an unavoidable loss to his employer. Does this apply to an enlisted soldier? In times when the army is short of manpower, every soldier is needed. Perhaps in such a case, it would be permissible to enlist even without the right to quit because regardless he would not be allowed to leave mid-term.

However, Rav Yair Chaim Bacharach (17th cen., Germany) discusses a case in which a maidservant for a grumpy old lady could not take her boss’ abuse anymore and quit halfway through her six month initial term of employment (Chavos Yair, no. 106). Because she quit, the employer could not perform some of her basic daily tasks. Rav Bacharach rules that if the employer has multiple servants who can carry the slack or can otherwise get by without this particular maidservant, then the employee may leave mid-term. While every situation is different, it seems that a standing army has enough soldiers that one person quitting would not cause irreparable harm because other soldiers can carry the slack. It might be uncomfortable, but it is possible, although this might vary by unit. It seems that davar ha-avud does not offer a broad avenue to permit enlisting in the army.

III. Holy Service

Rav Bacharach was asked about a cantor who had accepted a position by vowing to remain at the post for ten years but after three years was offered another lucrative position (Chavos Yair, no. 140). The cantor argues that he is forbidden to accept a job for ten years and therefore his vow is null and void, and he may leave for another position. Rav Bacharach replies that the prohibition to accept a job with no option to leave is based on the idea that we are servants of God, not people. However, a cantor’s job is prayer, making him a servant of God. Therefore, the prohibition does not apply to him and he may accept a cantorial position for ten years without an option to leave. Rav Bacharach argues that this applies only to a cantor and not to a Torah teacher. We are not allowed to accept direct payment for teaching Torah and therefore a teacher is paid for minor activities, whether babysitting or teaching how to read, which do not constitute serving God. This distinction is important because Rema (ibid., 333:3) says explicitly that a Torah teacher or a scribe may not accept a job for more than three years because of the above concern. Rav Bacharach says that a cantor is different.

Rav Aryeh Leib Heller (19th cen., Ukraine) argues with Rav Bacharach’s distinction regarding a Torah teacher (Ketzos Ha-Choshen 333:7). Is there anyone serving God more than a teacher of Torah? Rather, since we see that a Torah teacher may quit anytime, we can deduce that a cantor may, as well. Rav Yaakov Reischer (18th cen., Germany) likewise disagrees with Rav Bacharach’s claim that someone working as a professional Jew, whether a cantor or Torah teacher, is exempt from the ability to quit anytime (Shevus Ya’akov l, vol. 1, no. 6). However, Rav Avraham David Wahrman of Buchach (19th cen., Ukraine) defends Rav Bacharach’s distinction between a Torah teacher and a cantor (Kesef Ha-Kodashim on the Ketzos, ad loc.). After all, the teacher of young students is primarily a babysitter. According to Rav Bacharach and Rav Wahrman, someone who serves God in his work is not subject to the requirement of being able to quit anytime.

(Regardless of the above debate, there is another reason why a Torah teacher may not quit mid-term. Rav Shlomo Ben Shimon Duran (Rashbash; 15th century., Algeria) rules that if a Torah teacher quits, students will run wild which even for a short time causes irreparable damage. Therefore, a Torah teacher may not quit because it constitutes a davar ha-avud (Responsa Rashbash, no. 112). Rav Mordechai Ben Hillel rules likewise that students who miss some learning will never catch up and therefore a Torah teacher may not quit mid-term (Mordekhai, Bava Metzi’a, ch. 6, no. 343). See Rema (ibid,. par. 5))

Rav Ya’akov Ariel (cont., Israel) is the retired rabbi of Ramat Gan and, among other positions, the President of the Hesder Yeshiva of Ramat Gan. He was asked about soldiers who are drafted and qualify for special service that involves additional training and a longer term in the army. Is a drafted soldier who qualifies for this special service allowed to volunteer for a longer term of army service? This is a unique instance of the question with which we began. Rav Ariel acknowledges the halakhic issue and follows Rav Bacharach’s view that someone serving God in his job is not subject to the above concern. An IDF soldier is protecting God’s people on God’s land. He is not a servant to man but a servant of God. Therefore, Rav Ariel concludes, a soldier may volunteer for a longer army service with no ability to quit. Presumably, someone exempt from the draft may also volunteer to serve in the IDF for the same reason.

IV. Multi-Year Contracts

Rav Betzalel Stern (20th cen.) served as a rabbi and rosh yeshiva in many places around the world, including Israel. When he was in Australia (1954-1968), he was asked about the multi-year contracts offered to Jewish professionals who were transported together with their families at great expense (Be-Tzel Ha-Chokhmah, vol. 2, no. 67). The community demanded long-term commitments in order to invest that much money in a new rabbi, teacher or communal functionary. Rav Stern analyzes the literature and then proposes a new approach.

Rav Stern notes that we need to read carefully the source for Rema’s ruling that a Torah teacher may not accept a contract for more than three years. The source is the Hagahos Mordekhai, quoted in Shakh (Choshen Mishpat 333:17). The Hagahos Mordekhai says:

”It seems to me that for this reason a Torah teacher, a scribe or [one who performs] other labors must be careful not to hire himself to be in the house of the employer, established with him (be-keva imo) and eating at his table, without break (beli hefsek) for more than three years…”

Rav Stern focuses on the words “without break.” In old times, house servants lived in the homes of their employers and worked there for their entire term of employment. They did not have vacations. However, if an employee has vacation time or breaks between semesters, then he is not considered like a servant but rather like a free man. Therefore, Rav Stern argues, every employee must have vacation time and then he may accept a multi-year contract.

If we accept this approach, then perhaps this applies also to IDF soldiers. In the nineteenth century Russian army, Jewish soldiers were taken from their homes for many years, sometimes decades. During peacetime, IDF soldiers regularly receive leave for weekends and sometimes longer to return home or do whatever they want. This is free time, family time, rest time, laundry time. Even during wartime, most soldiers receive some time to return home from the fronts to see their family and recharge their batteries. While it is always too infrequent and too short, these leaves constitute a break.

It can be argued that because IDF soldiers receive these breaks, they do not fall under prohibition as described by the Hagahos Mordekhai and codified by Rema. Therefore, enlisting in the IDF is not agreeing to be a servant even though you cannot quit but you are allowed breaks in your army service. In this respect, Hesder service may be preferable because it entails larger breaks in army service for yeshiva study.

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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