Tzahal/Israel Public Relations and Chilul Shabbat by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Israel’s enemies have long sought to wage a war of words against the Jewish State with attempts to delegitimize the Jewish State. The Israeli leadership takes these verbal attacks quite seriously as damage to Israel’s image and regards them as threats to the vitality and even survival of the Jewish State. In fact, Tzahal (the Israel Defense Forces) now routinely sends a videographer into combat situations to record the events to defend Israel from its determined detractors. The fact that Tzahal risks the lives of the videographers by sending them into a combat zone, demonstrates how seriously Tzahal takes these threats. Moreover, important IDF missions are sometimes postponed or even canceled if a videographer is not available to record Tzahal’s activities.

The Israel army spokesman is responsible for defending the moral legitimacy of Tzahal’s activities against Israel’s many detractors. The internet and handheld cameras make the job of the Israel army spokesman that much more challenging. The world of news has become extremely fast-paced and news agencies demand immediate responses from the Israeli army spokesman to anti-Tzahal claims. If the Tzahal spokesman does not respond immediately, then the anti-Israel claim is broadcasted worldwide, causing considerable damage to Israel’s image.

The Halachic Issue

Religious soldiers serving in the office of the Tzahal spokesman have raised the following Halachic question with the Israeli army rabbinate: Are they permitted to violate Shabbat or Yom Tov for the purpose of public relations. Tzahal is undoubtedly permitted to wage war on Shabbat if no reasonable alternative exists, since the military activities save lives. The question is whether the war of public relations qualifies as a war that saves lives. Avihud Schwartz, a young man who worked in the Beit Midrash (think tank) of Israel’s army rabbinate, discusses this issue in an essay printed in volume 30 of the Israeli Torah journal Techumin.

Perhaps the media is to be regarded as a world of falsehoods where truth is not a sacred value and thus waging the media war is fundamentally an exercise in futility. The question is, what is the actual damage incurred by the State of Israel when it loses a public relations battle? Are the consequences simply economic? Is Israel’s security impacted? The answer may very well vary from case to case.

The following are four examples of situations that might be regarded as “borderline Piku’ach Nefesh” (although some of these situations lean more to Piku’ach Nefesh than others). One such situation is where Palestinian media claims that Tzahal deliberately destroyed a mosque and Israeli soldiers in the area vehemently deny the charge. Is the Tzahal spokesman permitted to broadcast a response to counter the Palestinian charge? Israel’s failure to promptly respond will not be interpreted by outsiders as emerging from respect for Shabbat or Yom Tov but rather as a concession that the anti-Israel accusation is true. Such an accusation is quite dangerous as it may spark rioting by some from the Arab community.

A common tactic of some of Israel’s enemies is to fire at Israelis from a crowded civilian area. If Israel captures on film, for example, Arab terrorists firing at Israel from the top of a civilian apartment building, may the Tzahal spokesman broadcast this event on Shabbat in order to justify a Tzahal military response that may unavoidably cause the loss of civilian life (Halacha permits such military activity if no reasonable alternative exists, see Gray Matter 3:211-223)? The broadcasting of such a film will mitigate the severity of the world reaction to Israel accidentally causing Arab civilian injuries and/or deaths. Does the protection of Israel’s image in this situation justify Chilul Shabbat or Yom Tov?

Similarly, if an Israeli drone films Palestinians placing explosives in an ambulance, may Israel’s spokesman broadcast this event on Shabbat in order to discourage such Palestinian behavior?

Our last example was posed by a religious Israeli soldier working in the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C. If the American government demands on Shabbat or Yom Tov an immediate justification/explanation of an activity conducted by Tzahal, does this warrant Chilul Shabbat or Yom Tov?

The Responses of Four Religious Zionist Poskim

Rav Nachum Rabinowitz, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshivat Hesder of Ma’alei Adumim, appropriately responds, “the Halachic response to this issue is not at all simple and clear.” He concludes that each case must be judged upon its own merit as to whether it qualifies as Piku’ach Nefesh and that it is impossible to present an all-encompassing answer of permissible or forbidden regarding this topic.

Rav Rabinovitch correctly fears unwarranted and wholesale violation of Shabbat on the one hand but he also fears for inadequate preservation of Israel’s safety. If our enemies knew that Israel’s public relations office does not function on Shabbat, they can easily manipulate the situation to their advantage and our loss. Thus, each case must be evaluated separately as to its potential impact on Israel’s security.

 Rav Dov Lior, the Rav of Kiryat Arba/Chevron and Rosh Yeshiva of its Yeshivat Hesder, permits activities that are forbidden only rabbinically on Shabbat or Yom Tov but forbids violating Biblical level prohibitions for the purposes of public relations. Rav Lior defines telephone calls and writing on the computer as forbidden only on a rabbinic level. Rav Lior regards public relations as “indirect Piku’ach Nefesh” that is analogous to manufacturing ammunition for military use.

Rav Lior suggests that Biblically forbidden activities, such as driving a motor vehicle, should be performed by a Nochri in case of legitimate need. He suggests that a trustworthy Nochri (such as Israeli Druze soldiers who are deeply loyal to the State of Israel) be designated to drive items such as a disc from a battlefield to military headquarters in Tel Aviv.

Rav Shlomo Levi, the Rosh Kollel of Yeshivat Har Etzion, responds similarly that in general only rabbinic level prohibitions may be violated for the sake of Israel’s public relations and that arrangements should be made in advance to wherever possible have Nochrim perform forbidden tasks on Shabbat and Yom Tov. Rav Levi compares this situation to Chazal’s concern for “Eivah” (hatred or enmity) for which they consider permitting violation of rabbinic prohibitions (see the many sources addressing this issue cited in Nishmat Avraham volume 1 to Orach Chaim 330:2). Rav Levi wisely suggests that experts should be consulted as to help attempt to formulate guidelines as to which public relations situations require immediate attention on Shabbat and which may be delayed until after Shabbat.

Rav Yisrael Rozen of Machon Tzomet, an Israeli institute dedicated to utilizing technology to solve Halachic challenges, argues for utilizing Machon Tzomet equipment in the office of the Tzahal spokesman. He notes that the necessary equipment has already been developed by Machon Tzomet. These include telephones which operate on the “Gerama” principle (accomplishing a task in an indirect manner) and computer keyboards which operate by changing electric current rather than by completing electric circuits. Rav Rozen writes that this type of equipment was developed specifically for these types of “gray areas,” so prevalent in the area of security and medicine, which may be defined as essential but not life threatening.

Two Other Considerations

I would add that two more considerations need to be considered. First is that severe anti-Israel propaganda may incite some Arabs to riot or commit acts of violence against Jews. This is especially dangerous in locations outside of Israel with a large anti-Israel population such as France and Great Britain. The Jews who reside in these countries do not have Tzahal to protect them. The office of the Israeli army spokesman might be able to avoid violent actions against Jews residing in the Galut in cases of severe anti-Israel propaganda.

Another consideration not dealt with in the article is the importance of maintaining a strong alliance with the United States government. This alliance is essential to Israel’s survival which is why anti-Israel activists work so hard to undermine this relationship. When the office of Tzahal’s spokesman deals with an issue which impacts the American-Israeli alliance, its impact is vital for Israeli security. Yielding on Shabbat and Yom Tov to the anti-Israel propaganda machine could negatively impinge on this special relationship which is based on, among other things, shared values.

The Experience of Religious Israeli diplomat Yehuda Avner

Yehuda Avner in an interview with the Orthodox Union’s “Jewish Action” (May 2011) relates his experiences regarding violation of Shabbat for the purpose of furthering Israel diplomacy.

 “I recall an occasion in 1975 when US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was engaged in shuttle diplomacy, negotiating with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in an attempt to bring about an interim agreement in Sinai. The negotiations broke down because Rabin was not satisfied with proposals which impinged on Israel’s security. Kissinger went off in a huff, readying to place the failure of his mission on Israel. This showdown occurred just before Shabbat and Rabin asked me to immediately prepare our case for worldwide broadcast before Kissinger had a chance to brief the pressmen accompanying him on his flight back to Washington. A battle for public opinion was on, not least to win over Congress and the American public at large to accept our version of things, and I was the only one on the premier’s staff who was not only familiar with all the facts but also had the language competence to promptly make our case. But I told Rabin that Shabbat was upon us, and what he was asking me to do was not a matter of vital policy but of Hasbarah (public diplomacy or advocacy), and for that I was not willing to violate Shabbat. Well, do I remember the look of contempt on his face as I left. The next day, Shabbat afternoon, after davening Minchah at the Gra shul in the neighborhood of Sha’arei Chessed, I happened upon Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. He knew what I was engaged in, and he asked me in Yiddish what was new. I told him what had happened, and he said to me in Hebrew, “Are you sure you had all the information to make the right decision?” I took this to mean that I might not have made the right decision after all, and immediately started to walk back to the prime minister’s office. When I got there it was already Motza’ei Shabbat. Rabin was in the midst of an emergency Cabinet session, and as I walked in, he spat at me, “Now you come? It’s too late,” and he showed me the briefing that Kissinger had given the journalists accompanying him on his flight back to Washington, in which he placed all the blame for the crisis on Israel’s shoulders. This had the most serious consequences. President Gerald Ford declared a reassessment of the whole Israeli-US relationship, beginning with a partial arms embargo. To this day I do not know if I did the right thing, and whether following Rabin’s instructions would have made a difference or not.

Mr. Avner’s experience teaches that public relations might have Piku’ach Nefesh ramifications and that Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach might have considered violating Shabbat for its sake. While this incident involved public relations on a far grander scale than the scenarios described at the beginning of our discussion, it nonetheless teaches the importance and highly sensitive nature of Israel diplomacy.


As we prepare for the upcoming Yamim Nora’im, every Jew should consider his role in advancing Israel’s security through public relations. Every Jew should have the basic knowledge to know how to properly respond to anti-Israeli propaganda which seeks to delegitimize and ultimately destroy the State of Israel. Chazal teach, “know how to respond to a heretic” (Avot 2:19). In our times this includes playing a role in insuring security by knowing how to respond to those who seek to undermine the state of Israel with propaganda.

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