Should Yeshivah Students Serve in the Israeli Army? – Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter



In last week’s issue, we began our discussion concerning a Yeshivah student’s obligation to serve in the army, and we mentioned the differences between a Milchemet Reshut and a Milchemet Mitzvah. We continue that discussion in this week’s issue. This series is dedicated L’Ilui Nishmat our beloved and honored Moreinu V’Rabbeinu HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l on the occasion of his first Yahrtzeit.

HaOseik BeMitzvah Patur Min HaMitzvah

The Talmud (Berachot 11a and Sukkah 25a) posits the rule of HaOseik BeMitzvah Patur Min HaMitzvah - while one is involved in the performance of one Mitzvah, he is excused from performing another one. The Ra'ah and Ritva (Sukkah 25a) assert that not only is the one involved in performing a Mitzvah excused from other mitzvot, but he is forbidden to perform them. Accordingly, some argue that Yeshivah students engage in constant Torah study, so they may not abandon their learning to serve in the Israeli army. This suggestion is somewhat problematic, because we generally assumed that HaOseik BeMitzvah Patur Min HaMitzvah does not apply to Torah study. The Gemara (Mo'eid Katan 9a-9b) explains that if others are not able to perform a specific Mitzvah, the student must interrupt his studies to perform that Mitzvah. This being the case, Torah scholars should be obligated to serve in the Israeli army as long as the army needs them.

Rav Zalman Melamed (Techumin 7:330-334) argues, however, that the Israeli army (in 1986) can function without the service of every man in the country. If he is correct, Torah study could exempt Torah scholars based on HaOseik BeMitzvah Patur Min HaMitzvah, as others perform the Mitzvah to defend Israel. Furthermore, the democratically elected government of Israel releases those who study in Yeshivah from the army (albeit due to political considerations). Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe, Yoreh Dei’ah 4:33) writes that this governmental exemption constitutes recognition that those who sincerely study Torah deserve a draft exemption. He consequently rules that one who has a strong desire to learn Torah and strives to become great in Torah scholarship should study in Yeshivah and avoid the draft. This idea may be especially true if the army itself does not desire to draft Yeshivah student. Writing in 1986, Rav Avraham Sherman (Techumin 7:343) notes that many in the army's top brass do not believe that it will benefit the army to draft those Yeshivah students who want exemptions.

Rabbanan Lo Tzrichei Netiruta

Rav Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky (HaTorah VeHaMedinah, reprinted in Betzomet HaTorah VeHamMedinah 3:212-213) exempts Yeshivah students from the Israeli army based on the Gemara's statement that rabbis need not contribute towards the construction of a protective wall around their town (Bava Batra 8a). The Gemara explains that this exemption exists since "rabbis do not require protection" ("Rabbanan Lo Tzrichei Netiruta"). Similarly, argues Rav Tukachinsky, rabbis need not serve in the army, as they do not require protection.

Rav Yehudah Shaviv (Techumin 1:37) cites the Chatam Sofer's opinion that the Gemara excuses rabbis from paying only communal taxes, but they still must fight in defensive wars. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein (Techumin 7:314-329 and Tradition 19:199-217) also asserts that one would have to reach a very high spiritual level to fall into the category of those who do not require protection.

The aforementioned Gemara also exempts rabbis from actively participating in communal construction projects. Rav Tukachinsky bases the exemption of Yeshivah students on this Halachah as well. Rav Shaviv, however, claims that the Rambam cites this Halachah (Hilchot Talmud Torah 6:10), yet he never compares communal construction projects to military service. Hence, Rav Shaviv argues, Torah scholars are not exempt from military service.

Regarding the Israeli army today, one might suggest that Rav Tukachinsky and Rav Shaviv's debate depends upon the type of unit in which one would serve. Combat units involve directly defending the people of Israel, so their soldiers do more than just routine community service. However, those soldiers who have profiles numbering lower than 72 generally may not serve in combat units. These soldiers (colloquially known as "jobnikim") perform all kinds of activities, ranging from gathering intelligence information (which may directly save lives) to mowing the lawn at army bases. Those "jobnikim" who would do the latter type of jobs might have a stronger claim that their work is a communal contribution which has little to do with fighting Milchamot Mitzvah. As such, studying Torah should exempt them from service.

Aggadic Statements

A number of Aggadic (non-legal) statements appear in the Talmud that are commonly cited to support exempting Torah scholars from army service.

Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Hilchot Medinah 3:3:4) cites an Aggadic statement from the Gemara (Makkot 10a) to prove that Yeshivah students do not have to serve in the army. The Gemara states:

What is the meaning of the [Psalmist's] words "Our feet stood within thy gates, oh Jerusalem"? [It is this:] What enabled us to "stand" in war? The gates of Jerusalem - the place where students engaged in the study of Torah.

Rav Waldenberg and many others explain this text to mean that Yeshivah students do not have to serve in the army, because their study enables the soldiers to succeed. One could argue, however, that if this were truly the case, there would be an unambiguous halachic source exempting Yeshivah students from military service. Rather, perhaps the Talmud is referring to the studies of those people who cannot serve in the army due to illness or age.

Another frequently cited source supporting military exemption appears in Masechet Nedarim (32a):

Rabi Avahu said in the name of Rabi Elazar, “Why was our father Avraham punished by having his descendants pressed into Egyptian servitude for two hundred and ten years? Because he coerced Torah scholars into serving in his army.”

A similar idea appears in Sotah (10a), explaining why King Asa was stricken with illness at the end of his life. The Gemara suggests that he was punished for using Torah scholars in his army. It is important to note that Rabi Elazar's opinion is only one of several possible causes that the Gemara cites for the enslavement in Egypt, and the other opinions might disagree with his idea. Furthermore, Rav Lichtenstein asserts that, at most, these texts contend that the Israeli Government should not coerce Yeshivah students into army service. They do not necessarily serve as a basis for the Yeshivah students' lack of initiative to serve.

Other Considerations

Rav Lichtenstein writes that serving in the Israeli army constitutes an act of great kindness. It also fulfills the Torah's command, "Do not to stand idly by your brother's blood" ("Lo Ta'amod Al Dam Rei'echa" - VaYikra 19:16). In addition, these students are performing the great Mitzvah of yishuv Eretz Yisrael - settling and developing the Land of Israel. On the other hand, those who opt to learn in Yeshivah and avoid military service believe that they contribute toward the spiritual development of the Land of Israel. They also feel that their Torah study helps ensure that God protects the people of Israel physically. Furthermore, Rav Avraham Sherman (Techumin 7:336-350) reports that, during his tenure as an army chaplain, he witnessed many observant Jews who abandoned Torah and Mitzvot after their experiences in the IDF influenced them negatively.


There does seem to be a strong Halachic basis for claiming that there is a Mitzvah to serve in the IDF, as it defends the Jewish people. Nonetheless, many rabbis argue that service in the Israel Defense Forces is a Mitzvah that others, who do not study full-time, are able to perform. However, there are prominent rabbis, such as Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, who view army service for Yeshivah students as a moral imperative.

Creating a Community Eruv that Satisfies Lubavitch and Sephardic Shiurim by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Should Yeshivah Students Serve in the Israeli Army? by Rabbi Chaim Jachter