The Clash Between Hareidi Torah Study and Enlistment

The article below by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed presents one of several religious-Zionist positions on the issue of hareidi yeshiva students and IDF enlistment. Key paragraphs are highlighted in red.

By Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

Translated and edited by Baruch Gordon and Yonatan Bahar

Are yeshiva students obligated to serve in the army?

Question: Are yeshiva students required by Jewish law to serve in the IDF or are all those who learn Torah exempt, regardless of their numbers?

Answer: The obligation to enlist in the army is based on two great mitzvoth – 1) rescuing a Jew and 2) settlement of the land of Israel. There are, in fact, 17 mitzvot (Torah commandments) connected to army service, and Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, a Chabad Rabbi who served as the first editor of the Talmudic Encyclopedia, listed and explained them in his book L’eor HaHalacha. Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Valdenberg  in his important response Tzitz Eliezer and Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda HaCohen Kook in his book L’Netivot Yisrael also clarified the mitzvah of enlistment in the Israeli army. Other great Torah sages delved into this same topic of the mitzvah of military service in Israel.



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Rescuing Jews in Danger

Every man is commanded to rescue his fellow Jew in danger as it says: Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow man. (Leviticus 19:16). The Code of Jewish Law [Orach Hachayim 329:6] clearly states that in order to save a community from enemy attack, Jews are obligated to risk their lives and desecrate the Shabbat. How much more of an obligation there is to come to the aid of the entire nation when under assault – this is the mitzvah of war.


This is in accordance with the opinion of the Rambam who writes (Laws of Kings 5:1): “What is the Jewish legal definition of an Obligatory War (milchemet mitzvah)? …to come to the aid of Jews under enemy attack.” The difference between an Obligatory War and the regular commandment to save another person’s life is that war obligates one to risk his life. It overrides the otherwise important commandment of guarding oneself from danger (Tzitz Eliezer 13:100 and Mishpat Cohen 143).

Settling the Land of Israel

The Torah states: “Conquer the land and settle it…” (Numbers 33:53-54). The sages of the Talmud said that this mitzvah is equal in importance to all the other mitzvot combined together (Sifri, Re’eh Parsha 53). This mitzvah too supersedes the commandment for individuals to guard themselves from danger, because we were commanded to conquer the Land, which requires entering life-endangering situations. The Torah didn’t command us to conquer via relying upon some miracle. Since there are casualties in every war, it is clear that an Obligatory War calls for sacrificing one’s life and relieves one of the need to guard himself from danger (Minchat Hinuch 425 and 604, Mishpat Cohen pg. 327).


There is no room to argue that the mitzvah of settling the Land is not incumbent upon Israel in these times because Jewish law rules according to the opinion of the Ramban and the majority of the sages who state that this mitzvah is applicable in every generation…[see full Hebrew article for further clarification].

The Clash Between Torah Study and Enlistment

Even though Torah study is equal in importance to all other mitzvoth combined, the rule is that a mitzvah that cannot be performed by others overrides Torah study (Moed Katan 9a). And such is the case regarding the enlistment in the IDF. If there are not enough soldiers to maintain Israel’s security needs, Torah study is suspended in favor of service in the army. Furthermore, when an entire sector of the Jewish population refuses to enlist, it weakens the national resolve.


Concerning the case of a man who built a new house but hasn’t dedicated it, etc., the Talmud (Sotah 44b) exempts him and several similar cases from army enlistment. But the Talmud is referring to a an optional war (milchemet reshut) , for example, when a country wages battle for economic interests. But when it comes to a milchemet mitzvah (an obligatory war), such as a war to rescue Israel from an enemy – “the entire nation must go out to war, even a groom from his chamber, and a bride from her pavilion.” This is also the ruling of Rambam (Laws of Kings 7:4).

We have also found that the students of Yehoshua bin Nun and King David went out to war without relying on miracles, and were not concerned about the neglect of Torah study.

The Importance of Yeshiva Student’s Torah Study

Nonetheless, the most important mitzvah is Torah Study, and no other mitzvah protects and maintains the Jewish nation to the same extent. Therefore, along with the mitzvah to serve in the army, every Jew must devote a number of years in his life to Torah study, to the best of his ability. This is the meaning of our Sages statement: “The study of the Torah has greater value than saving lives” (Megilah 16b). Saving a life involves the momentary rescue of a person, whereas Torah Study revitalizes the body and soul of the Jewish nation for a long period.

When Necessary, Enlist! When Not, Defer

Practically speaking, when enlistment is necessary for the protection of the nation and the Land, the mitzvah of Torah Study does not override it, just as Torah Study does not override fulfilling the mitzvoth of marriage, tzedakah, and additional ones that cannot be performed by others. This was the instruction of our teacher and mentor, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook during the ‘War of Independence’, that yeshiva students must enlist in the army, because the situation at the time required the mobilization of all young men.


However, when there is no necessity to recruit all young men, then it is the duty of the Jewish nation to exempt students who are worthy of developing into Torah scholars for the sake of the nation, so they can grow and become rabbis and educators – provided they do so with respect and amity towards the soldiers protecting our nation and country. For only Torah learning which stems from such a position can make a full contribution to raising the spirit and courage of the nation. 

Seeing as the State of Israel is surrounded by enemies, the majority of yeshiva students must, according to Torah, perform a significant service in the army, similar to that of Hesder yeshiva students (14 months of active military service combined with another 3.5 years of Torah study) or ‘Hesder Merkaz’ (a special program of shortened military service for students who commit to years of Torah study), so they can integrate into the reserve forces. In time of war, the primary strength of the IDF is its ability to call up numerous reserve soldiers.

However, those few students worthy of becoming important Torah scholars, and whose engaging in military training is likely to harm their studies, should continue yeshiva studies for several, unlimited years, for the benefit of the nation.

The New Law

The law in question allows not just exemption for special Torah scholars who will likely develop to be great, spiritual leaders. Rather, it grants full exemption from military service to roughly 20% of all yeshiva students. The government pays for these students’ tuition at their respective yeshivas at the expense of public coffers. This stems from recognition of the importance of Torah study, and the national need to give greater weight to Torah learning in yeshivas following the spiritual and physical crisis the Jewish nation experienced in recent generations.


For this, the representatives of the hareidi community should have expressed gratitude to the Members of Knesset and the government, instead of ranting, raving, and spreading lies, as if nowhere in the world were yeshiva students ever required to enlist in the army. [Note: many religious-Zionist Rabbis agree with the hareidi Rabbis that the new law introduces exaggerated budget cuts to the yeshivas which has greatly harmed Torah study. Though, on the point of this article - the principle of yeshiva students’ enlistment- they agree that most yeshiva students should be drafted to the IDF or national service. BG]

Anyone Who Says There is No Mitzvah to Serve in the Army is Not a Torah Scholar

Q: Is it true you said that an eminent Torah scholar cannot possibly say there is no mitzvah to serve in the IDF? 

A: Indeed, anyone who says that it is not a mitzvah to serve in the IDF cannot be considered an eminent Torah scholar (gadol ba’Torah). Yes, there can be a debate between scholars about the number of yeshiva students who need to enlist; there can also be Torah scholars who say that in the present situation, which is not an immediate state of danger to life, it is better for the Jewish nation that all yeshiva students continue their studies, including those who do not study diligently, because in the army they are liable to decline spiritually.

And while we believe such an opinion is mistaken, the debate revolves around the details of the implementation of the mitzvah to enlist. But no Torah scholar can possibly claim it is not a mitzvah to serve in the army, just as it is impossible to claim that a person who saves a human life, or settles the Land of Israel, does not fulfill a mitzvah. If he does make such a claim – this proves he is not a Torah scholar.

As far as I know, the rabbis who are considered eminent Torah scholars in the hareidi community, such as Rabbi Elyashiv, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, and Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef of blessed memory, agreed in principle that it is a mitzvah to serve in the army, and only opposed compulsory enlistment for yeshiva students at the present time.

The Severe Allegation Against the Hareidi Community

This is the severe allegation against the hareidi community: why don’t they explicitly say that those serving in the army fulfill a mitzvah? Why don’t they pray for the welfare of the soldiers? One can argue about the current, practical need for yeshiva students to serve in the army, and claim that the mitzvah can be fulfilled by others, but how have they allowed themselves in heat of the debate to erase a mitzvah from the Torah?

This accusation is directed primarily to all the spiritual supervisors (mashgichim) and various spokesmen, however, the eminent hareidi rabbis also bear responsibility. For various reasons, most of them avoid speaking about this great mitzvah, thereby paving the road to the faulty conclusion of many of their students, who brazenly dare to claim that serving in the army is not a mitzvah.

Enlisting Will Guard the Sanctity of the Army Camp

If the representatives of the hareidi community would have invested even a tenth of the effort they devoted in the fight against enlistment, to the struggle of preparing the army for the absorption of members of their own community, they would have accomplished far more. Because then, by preparing special bases where, for example, women do not mingle amongst the troops and appear in immodest, off-duty clothing, the fear that the young, hareidi men may decline spiritually in the army would wane, and all those yeshiva students who do not study diligently could enlist in the army without concern. In turn, the harsh feelings and complaints of the secular public against the hareidi community would disappear.

By influencing the army to create an atmosphere which caters to the special needs of the hareidi community, their spiritual leaders would have created a positive outlet where those frustrated young men who are unable to find their place in full time studies could express themselves and excel in contributing to the nation in the IDF. This would thus strengthen the IDF in terms of security and spirituality.

Furthermore,  they would have a positive effect on the state of modesty of all soldiers, and as a result on the entire country – similar to the religious-Zionist soldiers – the yeshiva students – that by means of their good example have already influenced the entire army. Gradually the IDF will become much more fitting in general for religious individuals. And as the number of serious, observant soldiers increases with the influx of hareidi soldiers, so will we merit greater sanctity of our military camp, and as a result, be privileged to see the Final Redemption, speedily in our days.


The expanded Hebrew version of this article originally appeared in the March 6, 2014 edition of Besheva Magazine.


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed serves as Chief Rabbi and Dean of the local Hesder Yeshiva in Har Bracha, an Israeli town in Samaria (AKA the West Bank). Rabbi Melamed authors the popular series of Hebrew books on Jewish law entitled Peninei Halacha. He is not to be confused with his father, Chief Rabbi of Bet El Zalman Melamed.

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  • reuven c
    commented 2014-04-21 17:53:35 -0400

    Unfortunately, almost each time I read an article from torah-observant people defending the israeli draft of haredi yeshiva students, there is a problem that is often not addressed: social engeneering.
    The biggest fear of the haredim, above the fact of not studying, is the use of the army to transform them into hilonim.
    According to figures provided by dati leumi rabbis themselves (even rav Melamed if I remember correctly) a significant percentage of D"L become hilonim in the army. If some people agree with taking this risk, not everyone does and their point is as respectful as yours. And given the fact that there is no shortage of manpower in the IDF (to the contrary, since some people are playing on the radio during their so-called service) there is no rush in drafting haredim. Since the beguining of the state, the army is the factory of the israeli westernised culture and the new jew. The haredim are not interested in these two goals. they want to stay old jews and keep their jewish culture with as less influence from western culture as possible.

    Other comments:
    - The IDF rabbinate is at odds with haredi halacha so how to solve it? The chief rabbi says that hearing women singing is not a problem. The fact that it’s not a problem for him is a big problem. There might be other cases where he will say mutar when it’s assur according to other haskafot.
    - I’m surprised to read the accusation that the haredi leadership didn’t invest in preparing the army to include haredim. What about the netzar yehuda/nachal haredi and the shachar programs? It was precisely the purpose of these programs.
    - It should be explained why, from a religious point of view, there should be a mandatory draft? Isn’t it involuntary servitude? Even though it’s a mitzva, why this particular one should be enforced against the will when others also. What about creating a law ordering mandatory limud for everyone during high school or during the army to share the burden of limud? Or simply a vote ordering the discarding of non useful topics of the bagrut (like civics, world history, physical education, literature) and replacing it with mandatory talmud to receive the bagrut?

    To summarise: if those who want to include haredim want to force them in the army, first provide (in almost all units) food they can eat, disband women, enforce rules of modesty among men, allow time for prayer & for minimal limud and prohibit orders (i.e. revoke immediately from the army those who order the following) like mandatory shaving, hearing women singing, visiting churches on yom yerushalaim, mandatory transgressions of shabbat for other things than pikuah nefesh according to haredi definition of pikuah nefesh (important because in discussions I noticed that the common definition is way to permissive). Then, after proving that they are serious by taking steps like these, discussions can be held and a solution can be found for a majority of haredim. Without these conditions, the whole talk is about social engeneering (aka how to secularise the haredim) at worst, or creating buffalo soldier units at best.

    Anyway, we can talk and debate as much as we want. In the end they (the haredim) will win because their motivation is very high. And, until now, the only effect of this whole process is to bring an halt to the trend of haredi recruitment that was growing this last years…..

    a zionist haredi

    PS: in my synagogue, we pray for IDF soldiers