Soldiers and Tzitzis

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by R. Gil Student

After the horrific terrorist attacks of October 7, there was a sudden burst of interest in tzitzis. So many people, particularly soldiers, wanted to start wearing tzitzis that there was a severe shortage. Based on the sudden demand, the IDF Rabbinate needed 60,000 garments with tzitzis fringes. Volunteers joined together to wrap and tie tzitzis for soldiers on special khaki garments. This became such a phenomenon that the media reported on it at the time and it was even recently mentioned by the Christian editor of First Things magazine. However, there is a question whether soldiers should wear tzitzis.

On very hot days, the additional tzitzis garment may add to the stress of the heat. When a soldier engages in a physically challenging exercise or even battle, he may sweat profusely on the tzitzis garment (also known as a tallis katan). Perhaps that is disrespectful to the tzitzis. More importantly, perhaps the additional clothing will harm the soldier’s health or reduce his ability to function. Is it proper for a soldier in such a circumstance to refrain from wearing a tzitzis garment?

I. The Importance of tzitzis

On the one hand, the Torah obligation is for a man to wear tzitzis on four-cornered garments. A garment with more, fewer or no corners is not obligated in tzitzis (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 10:1). Nowadays, we do not regularly wear four cornered garments. In order to fulfill the mitzvah, men wear tzitzis garments (usually under our shirts) with four corners, in addition to a large tallis during morning prayers. Technically, we are not obligated to wear a tzitzis garment. If so, it should be totally optional and a soldier should be free to refrain from wearing one when it is uncomfortable or potentially harmful.

However, the Gemara (Menachos 41a) says that Rav Katina was wearing a cloak that was exempt from tzitzis. An angel warned him that he would be punished for failing to wear a cloak with tzitzis. Rav Katina objected that he was not obligated in tzitzis. How can he be punished for failing to fulfill a mitzvah in which he was not obligated? The angel replied that at a time of divine anger, people are punished for failing to take the initiative and fulfill a positive mitzvah. This Gemara implies that we are required to find ways to obligate ourselves in a mitzvah and fulfill it. Otherwise, we risk punishment at a bad time.

Similarly, the Gemara (Pesachim 113b) says that seven people are excommunicated from Heaven. One of these seven is someone who does not wear tzitzis on his clothing. Tosafos (ad loc., s.v. ve-ein) say that this refers to someone who has a tzitzis garment and doesn’t wear it. Or perhaps it means that you must even go out and buy such a garment in order to wear it. If a man refrains from obligating himself in this mitzvah, he is judged harshly.

Presumably the reason for the expectation of wearing a tzitzis garment is that the mitzvah is said to be considered equivalent to all the other mitzvos combined (Menachos 43b). Whether or not that is meant literally, it clearly means that this mitzvah is important. Generally speaking, it is so easy to fulfill, failing to wear tzitzis is a conscious choice not to do a mitzvah. The Gemara (Shabbos 118b) says that Rav Nachman was careful to never walk four amos without wearing tzitzis (see Rashi, ad loc.). Particularly relevant for soldiers, Rav Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (20th cen.) writes that tzitzis serves as protection for the one who wears it, as it says (Ps. 17:8) “hide me under the shade of your corners” (Ben Ish Chai, year 1, Noach, intro.).

II. tzitzis and Ball Playing

There is an ongoing debate among halakhic authorities whether it is ever appropriate to wear a tzitzis garment directly on your skin. On the one hand the mitzvah is to wear tzitzis strings on a garment. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (20th cen., Israel) says that since it is normal to wear a shirt directly on your skin, there is nothing wrong with wearing a tzitzis garment on your skin (Halikhos Shlomo, Tefillah 3:11). Rav Yisroel Belsky (21st cen., US) says that since the garment is intended for a mitzvah, we should treat it respectfully and wear it on top of an undershirt (Piskei Halakhah of HaRav Yisroel Belsky on Orach Chaim and Yoreh De’ah [March 2012], p. 28). Rav Shmuel Katz (cont., Israel) published a halakhic guide to tzeni’us for Religious Zionist youth that was popular when I was young in the 1980s. He writes that he asked both Rav Ovadiah Yosef and Rav Mordechai Eliyahu whether it is proper to wear a tzitzis garment directly on your skin on a very hot day. Rav Yosef told him that it is allowed when necessary. Rav Eliyahu told him that you always have to wear it on top of an undershirt (Kedoshim Tihyu [expanded edition], p. 104 nn. 67-68). Rav Ephraim Greenblatt (21st cen., US) quotes this book and adds that presumably Rav Eliyahu was concerned about treating a tzitzis garment disgracefully (Rivevos Ephraim, vol. 4, no. 14 part 1). Rav Greenblatt adds that in the back of Kedoshim Tihyu (p. 252), the author includes a letter from Rav Binyamin Zilber (20th cen., Israel) who says that you may occasionally wear a tzitzis garment on your skin but should not do it on a regular basis.

Rav Shmuel Katz also says that while playing ball, you should not remove your tzitzis garment if you are sweating a bit (Kedoshim Tihyu, p. 105). It is better to wear a light tzitzis garment and sweat into it than to wear none. Similarly, Rav Belsky (ibid.) says that when playing ball, it is better to wear a tzitzis garment on your skin rather than not wear it at all. Rav Binyamin Zilber (Az Nidberu, vol. 2, no. 55) writes that someone who removes a tzitzis garment because it interferes with his ball game is insulting a mitzvah (tucking tzitzis in is fine). If you need to wear tzitzis while praying and learning Torah in order to remember the mitzvos, you are required even more to wear tzitzis during leisure activities.

III. A Soldier and tzitzis

Based on the above, it would seem that a soldier should wear a tzitzis garment on top of an undershirt. If the heat is too much, he may wear a light (i.e. cotton) tzitzis garment, even if he sweats. However, Rav Shlomo Aviner (cont., Israel) was told that some commanders insist that a soldier to wear any extra clothing on a difficult training exercise or military engagement. When every ounce being worn or carried for long distances matters, an extra piece of clothing is an extra burden (Hilkhos Madei Tzahal, p. 32). Rav Aviner says that a soldier is allowed to refrain from wear a tzitzis garment for limited amounts of time if he feels it is necessary. Of course, he should not refuse orders or fight with his commander. But, Rav Aviner adds, it is hard to understand how a tzitzis garment adds meaningful weight to a soldier. Additionally, it is best to wear a tzitzis garment while fighting. Bar Kochba’s army fought while wearing tefillin! In our time, we can at least wear tzitzis while fighting.

A 1971 halakhah guide for Israeli soldiers, Dinei Tzava U-Milchamah by Rav Shlomo Min HaHar and others, also strongly encourages soldiers to wear tzitzis. However, a soldier is allowed to use his discretion whether to remove his tzitzis garment or just his undershirt (p. 36). Similarly, Rav Asher Weiss (cont., Israel) allows for leniency in certain cases (Responsa Minchas Asher, vol. 3, no. 47). The concern here is not violating a prohibition or even failing to fulfill a commandment. The issue is denigrating a mitzvah by failing to chase after an opportunity to fulfill it. In a case of significant need during difficult exercises on extremely hot days, a soldier may refrain from wearing a tzitzis garment.

Rav Yosef Tzvi Rimon (cont., Israel) writes that it is true that, when necessary, a soldier may refrain from wearing a tzitzis garment. However, he adds, it is not worth it to act leniently because the mitzvah is so important (Halakhah Mi-Mkorah, Tzava, vol. 1, p. 53). The mitzvah adds divine protection to the soldier and tzitzis serves as a reminder of the obligation to observe all the Torah’s laws, which is particularly important in the social atmosphere of the army.

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.

3 comments

  1. You wrote “Bar Kochba’s army fought while wearing tefillin!”
    What is the source?
    If we’re concerned about tzisis inhibiting fighting effectiveness, than surely surely Tefilin will certainly get in the way while fighting. Also certainly unable to maintain kavanah!

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