Living in Yesha during Dangerous Times by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Some people have criticized the Jewish residents of Yehuda, Shomron, and Aza (Yesha) for recklessly endangering their lives and the lives of their families.  In this essay, we seek to demonstrate that these people’s actions are both Halachically sound and heroic.  We will also discuss the implications of this issue for the Halachic propriety of American Jews visiting Israel during challenging times.  Our discussion is based on an essay written by Rav Dov Lior (Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshivat Hesder of Kiryat Arba) and an address by Rav Moshe Lichtenstein (a Rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion) to students at the Torah Academy of Bergen County. 

The Value of Life

We must emphasize that the Torah greatly values life.  The Mishna (Sanhedrin 4:5) in a celebrated passage teaches that whoever saves a life has saved an entire world.  The Rambam (Hilchot Shabbat 2:3) refers to those who do not believe that one may perform Melacha (forbidden labor) on Shabbat in case of danger to life as Apikorsim (heretics).  In fact, the Halacha forbids frivolously risking one’s life, such as engaging in dangerous recreational activities.  For example, Rav Yechezkel Landau (Teshuvot Noda Biyehuda Yoreh Deah 2:10) forbids recreational hunting, Rav Yehuda Amital (in a Shiur delivered at Yeshivat Har Etzion) forbids taking dangerous hikes, Rav Mordechai Willig (personal communication) forbids skiing, and Rav Shlomo Cohen-Duras (Techumin 22:120-126) forbids bungee jumping.  Nevertheless, there are occasions when one is permitted to risk his life for worthwhile purposes.

Risking One’s Life for the Sake of Earning a Living

The Gemara (Bava Metzia 112a, as interpreted in the aforementioned responsum of the Noda Biyehuda) indicates that one may risk his life in the course of earning a living.  The Gemara, in the course of interpreting Devarim 24:15, notes that people risk their lives when working in high areas such as trees, in the course of earning a livelihood.  The Gemara does not criticize this practice and seems to accept it as Halachically acceptable.  The Noda Biyehuda concludes that the Halacha permits endangering oneself in the course of earning a livelihood.

An explanation for this Halacha might be based on an idea of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik.  The Torah in Sefer Bereishit records that Hashem gave mankind the mandate to develop the world (Bereishit 1:28 as explained by the Ramban).  The word used by the Torah to describe the development of the world is “Vikivshuha,” that you must “Conquer it.”  The Rav notes that the choice of the word “conquering” in reference to the development of the world indicates an aspect of this process.  Unfortunately, during wartime, conquering inevitably involves sacrifice.  Similarly, the process of developing the world necessarily involves risks, and regrettably, inevitable sacrifices.  Thus, it is understandable why the Torah sanctions the taking of risks for the sake of earning a livelihood and developing the world.

Risking One’s Life for Israel

The question, though, is whether one must risk his life in order to live in Eretz Yisrael.  Tosafot (Ketubot 110b s.v.  Hoo) cite Rabbeinu Chaim Cohen who argues that one is not obligated to risk his life in order to live in Eretz Yisrael.  Tosafot present Rabbeinu Chaim Cohen’s ruling in their comments to the Mishna in Ketubot that states that a spouse may force his or her mate to move to Eretz Yisrael.  Tosafot state that this Mishna does not apply in their time since it was dangerous then to move to Eretz Yisrael.  The Shulchan Aruch (Even Haezer 75:5) presents the words of Tosafot as normative.  See, however, Pitchei Teshuva 75:6 who records dissenting opinions, most prominently the Teshuvot Maharit (58) who asserts that the Tosafot in Ketubot represents a scribal error and is not authoritative. 

We must emphasize three important points in this context.  First, Tosafot do not forbid moving to Israel in time of danger; they only state that one cannot coerce his spouse to move to Israel in very dangerous times.  Indeed, Jews (including the Ramban) moved to Eretz Yisrael during the time of the Baalei Tosafot’s despite the danger, and helped maintain a continuous presence of Jews in Eretz Yisrael even after the destruction of the second Bait Hamikdash.  Our hold on parts of Eretz Yisrael today is to a great extent due to the heroic efforts of Jews throughout the ages to live in Eretz Yisrael despite the dangers and difficulties.  Second, the Ramban (commentary to Shabbat 130b) rule and almost all other Rishonim that one may not ask a non-Jew to perform Melacha on Shabbat, even in order to facilitate the fulfillment of a Torah level obligation.  The Ramban notes that we cannot extrapolate from the Gemara (Gittin 8b) that permits asking a non-Jew to do work on Shabbat in order to secure the purchase of land in Eretz Yisrael from a non-Jew.  The Ramban explains that the Mitzvah of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael differs from all other Mitzvot because it serves the entire Jewish community by ensuring that our holy land does not remain desolate (i.e., under non-Jewish control).             

Third, Pitchei Teshuva (ad. locum.) cites the Teshuvat Mabit (2:116) that travel to Eretz Yisrael is not considered dangerous if people regularly travel to Israel for business purposes.  Travel at any time involves some risk and therefore there was a need for the Mabit to establish a standard for tolerable risk.  The risk level that is tolerable for business purposes is certainly tolerable for the sake of fulfilling a Mitzvah.  Accordingly, living in Yesha is permissible as business people regularly travel there for business purposes.

Interestingly, Poskim use this criterion for other areas of Halacha as well.  Rav Lichtenstein was asked if one might interrupt his Torah study and leaves the Bait Midrash in order to attend a rally.  He responded that if one would leave work to attend the rally, then one might leave the Bait Midrash to attend the rally.  Rav Yitzchak Cohen of Yeshiva University told me that he thought that it is appropriate to cancel Yeshiva because of inclement weather if employers would give their employees the day off under such circumstances.  This approach seems to be rooted in the approach of Shammai (Berachot 53b) to one who has forgotten to recite Birchat Hamazon.  He argues that since one must return to the place where he ate to recite Birchat Hamazon, even if he has traveled a considerable distance.  He argues that since, if one forgot a fortune of money, he would return a great distance, so too one should return a great distance to recite Birchat Hamazon.  We should treat the Torah with no less seriousness than we treat our money.  In addition, the Gemara writes in a number of places (Shabbat 129b, Yevamot 12b, and Nidda 31b) that when an activity is regarded by a society as an acceptable risk, then one is permitted to engage in such an activity despite the risk.  Rav Aharon Soloveitchik stated (in a Shiur at Yeshiva University in 1986) that airplane travel is an example of such an activity.

Risking One’s Life to Save Another from Certain Death

We have justified those who live in areas of Yesha where merchants commonly visit for business purposes.  What about those who live in more remote and/or dangerous areas where most merchants do not venture due to safety concerns?  This issue might hinge upon an important Halachic debate, that is, whether one is permitted to risk his life in order to save another from certain death.  The Bait Yosef (Choshen Mishpat 426) cites the Jerusalem Talmud that appears to teach that one must risk his life in order to save another from certain death.  Nonetheless, the Sma (426:2) notes that the Shulchan Aruch does not cite this passage from the Jerusalem Talmud.  The Sma explains that the fact that most Rishonim (including the Rambam, Rif, Rosh, and the Tur) do not cite this passage demonstrates that it does not constitute normative Halacha.  The Pitchei Teshuva (C.M. 426:2) cites the Agudat Eizov who explains that the omission of this Jerusalem Talmud passage by the major Rishonim and the Shulchan Aruch is because the Babylonian Talmud (which is more authoritative than the Jerusalem Talmud) rejects this assertion of the Jerusalem Talmud.  We should note that subsequent Acharonim seek to discover which specific passages in the Talmud Bavli (such as Nidda 61a, Sanhedrin 38a, and Bava Metzia 62a) indicate a rejection of the assertion of the Jerusalem Talmud.  For a summary of this literature, see Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer (9:45). 

Accordingly, normative Halacha does not require one to risk his life to save another.  It is not clear, however, if one is permitted to risk his life on behalf of another.  There appears to be a contradiction in a celebrated responsum of the Radbaz (Teshuvot Radbaz 627) regarding risking one’s life in order to save another from certain death.  The Radbaz rules that one is not required to assume such a risk.  However, regarding whether it is permissible to assume such risk, on one hand, he refers to one who does so as a “Chassid Shote,” a pious fool.  On the other hand, the Radbaz writes that it is Midat Chassidut (a pious and meritorious act) to risk one’s life in order to save another from certain death.  Rav Eliezer Waldenburg (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 9:45:11) and Rav Ovadia Yosef (cited in Nishmat Avraham 1:121) explain that the pious fool is one who assumes an extraordinarily great risk in order to save another.  One’s actions are deemed praiseworthy, as Midat Chassidut when the risk that one assumes is not extraordinary.

Rav Lior asserts (and many, and perhaps a majority, of Jewish Israelis agree) that the Jewish presence in Yesha serves as a wall of protection against Arab terror.  Many wonder if the State of Israel would survive if not for the historic and brave stand of the Jewish residents of Yesha in the face of incredible pressure.  Accordingly, the Jews in Yesha are risking their lives in order to save the lives of millions of Jews who reside within the pre-1967 borders.  Rav Lior argues that these Jews are not assuming an extraordinary risk that would be defined as “Chassidut Shel Shtut” (foolish piety).

Moreover, Rav Lior cites Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 13:100 who rules that one may assume an extraordinary risk in order to ave others in time of war.  Rav Waldenburg proves his point by citing the Gemara (Shavuot 35b) that condones a Jewish king risking the lives of up to a sixth of the entire population in order to save the nation.  We see that in war we focus on the needs of the community over the needs of an individual.  Similarly, in times of war, he argues, one is permitted to assume a very great risk to save another.  Thus, Rav Waldenburg permits an army medic to enter an area that is under enemy fire in an attempt to save the life of a wounded soldier lying in the field unshielded from the enemy fire.  Rav Lior, in turn, asserts that it is permissible and meritorious to live in very dangerous areas of Yesha as we are essentially at war with Palestinian terror groups.

American Jewish Tourists

Many ask if it is permissible to assume risk and visit Israel in difficult times.  We are familiar with the great economic and psychological need Israelis have for American Jews to visit Israel.  The practice of so many Rabbanim and Orthodox organizations encouraging trips to Israel is most certainly halachically sound and meritorious.  First, the risk involved in visiting Israel is relatively minimal as many merchants routinely visit Israel even during times of Arab violence.  Second, Rav Moshe Lichtenstein notes that the Arabs are waging a war whose focus is to defeat Israel by disrupting Israeli life.  He argues that the essential battle in Israel is to continue to live a “normal” life despite the Arab violence.  Thus, even driving to work on a daily basis is part of this struggle.  Rav Moshe argues that American Jews must take their part in the battle for Israel’s continued existence not only by political lobbying and battling media bias against Israel, but also by visiting Israel to the same extent as they would if the Arabs were not engaged in violence.  Accordingly, one is permitted to assume even a very great risk in this unconventional war that is being fought on the roads, schools, workplaces, and homes of Israel.


Rav Lior concludes by citing the Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 7:15) that one who is in battle is forbidden to be afraid.  Rav Lior notes that the emotion of fear is sinful and that we are obligated to overcome this emotion.  He notes that one who has faith in Hashem can overcome fear.  This is reminiscent of the story Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik relates (as cited in Al Hateshuva) that a psychologist once asked him why we pray on the Yamim Noraim (High Holidays) “Uvichein Tein Pachdecha Al Kol Maasecha,” that Hashem should place His fear on all beings.  The psychologist noted that anxiety is the root of psychological illness, so why do we ask for fear and anxiety?  The Rav responded that the fear of Hashem eliminates all other fear.

Accordingly, the Jews of Yesha appear to be fulfilling a heroic and historic role in insuring the viability of Medinat Yisrael, which represents the future of the Jewish People.  Their heroic stand will most likely be greatly admired by future generations its the courage and determination.  Similarly, those Jews who reside in Chutz Laaretz will most likely be judged by future generations as well to see if they displayed courage and determination and continued to visit Israel in its time of need.

Bishul Akum by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Kol Torah Responds to Queries regarding Wills and Shtar Chatzi Zachar by Rabbi Chaim Jachter