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What Does Rambam Say About Military Service?

Dear Editor,

Rabbi Yair Hoffman’s essay “Torah Scholars and the IDF” (March 14) deduces from a number of Aggadic accounts in the Talmud the propositions that (1) there are three categories of war in halachah and (2) the contemporary defense of Israel falls within a middle category, in whose participation Torah scholars are exempt. The discussion, however, neglects to address a significant halachic source of guidance on the subject. The only systematic codification of the laws of war among the Rishonim is the “Laws of Kings and Their Wars” of the Rambam. In Chapter 6, which deals with exemptions, there is no suggestion of a third tier of classification, or of an exemption from conscription of Torah scholars, either from voluntary or mandatory wars.

The inference that the Rambam posits no such exemption is reinforced in the “Laws of Talmud Torah” (6:10). There, the Rambam recites the exemption of Torah scholars from corvee and taxation, but pointedly fails to reference any exemption from conscription. (See also to the same effect, Rambam Commentary on the Mishnah, Avos 4:7, at the conclusion.)

The inference is further reinforced in the “Laws of Shemittah and Yovel” (12:12,13). In discussing the special stature of the Tribe of Levi, the Rambam declares that the Levites are separated from the ways of the world, and accordingly they do not array in war, do not inherit land, and do not receive provision by dint of their own efforts. The Rambam continues that this special status can be achieved by any person who devotes himself exclusively to the service of the L‑rd, and upon achieving this exalted status such a person will be divinely provided for. Notably, the Rambam does not say that such a person will be relieved of the obligations of military service. (For a contrary though unconvincing interpretation of this passage in the Rambam, see Rabbi Shimon Krasner, Nachlas Shimon, I Melachim, Part 2, Chapter 44, p. 133 (1997).)

This is not to say that we necessarily follow the Rambam in these matters. It may well be that we depart from the opinion of the Rambam here, as we do regarding the compensation of rabbis and teachers. Compare Rambam, Commentary on the Mishnah, Avos 4:7 with Rema Yoreh Deah 246:21, and generally Yehuda Levi, Shaarei Talmud Torah, shaar vav, Chapter 3 (5766). It may also be that reliance is placed on the ruling of the Rambam, “Laws of Kings” 3:9, based on the Talmudic passage in Sanhedrin 49a cited by Rabbi Hoffman, to the effect that there is no liability for rebellious conduct against the monarchy for an act of mitzvah. Or perhaps the laws of war are not the correct framework for analyzing military service in contemporary Israel. Be that as it may, a halachic discussion of the conscription of Torah scholars should necessarily present the Rambam’s position.

Rabbi Hoffman goes on to cite the works of a number of 20th-century rabbinical figures in the Zionist camp, suggesting that they are supportive of the exemption of Torah scholars from military conscription in Israel. I cannot speak to the positions of Rav Kook, Rav Herzog, or Rav Yisraeli, although in the first volume of Eretz Chemdah, at the end of shaar aleph, siman 11 (Mossad Harav Kook 5759), Rav Yisraeli has strong and stirring words for universal participation in the defense of the Land of Israel.

The uncertainty surrounding the alleged 1948 writing of Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin arguing for military service of yeshiva students, and Rav Zevin’s 1973 article in Hapardes condemning the Mafdal (National Religious) Party for supporting the conscription of yeshiva students, are addressed at some length in a blog post by Professor Marc Shapiro available at It is interesting in this regard, however, to read Rav Zevin’s comprehensive essay on war appearing in L’Or Ha-halachah (edition dedicated to R. Aharon Mordechai Zevin), which is readily accessible and of unquestionable authorship. He devotes eight pages to the topic of “mi v’mi ha-holchim”—who it is that goes to war (Chapter 3, pages 25–32). There is no suggestion in this discussion of an exemption for Torah scholars.

A central motif of Rabbi Hoffman’s essay is the analogy between the participants in the Manhattan Project of World War II, who did not engage in combat but nonetheless served a vital function in the war effort, and those who study full time in yeshiva. There is a certain flaw in the analogy. Speaking here of the scientists, the Manhattan Project was a disruption in their lives. After the bombs were dropped and the war came to its end, with a few notable exceptions, the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb returned to the universities rather than continue with nuclear-weapons development.

Hans Bethe, who headed the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos and went on to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1967, remembered, “We all felt that, like soldiers, we had done our duty and that we deserved to return to the type of work that we had chosen as our life’s career, the pursuit of science and teaching . . .” (Quoted in Richard Rhodes, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” Epilogue 754 (1986).) No one is suggesting that those in the yeshivas are putting their lives on hold in order to study for the protection of the country. As Rabbi Hoffman states, they understand Torah study to be their life’s work. Their sacrifice is of a wholly different kind than the sacrifice of the soldiers, who defer their careers and other aspects of their personal lives to serve in the IDF. We should not forget that.

More fundamentally, I am uneasy with the basic, albeit widely held, premise of the analogy—the equivalence in the defense of Israel of those who fight and those who study, because G‑d will protect Israel on account of those who study Torah in the yeshivos uninterrupted by military service. It is notoriously difficult to explain or predict the ways in which G‑d manages His world, as it were, even where the Torah seemingly guarantees an outcome. S’char mitzvah b’hai alma lekah seems to mean at a minimum that the relationship in this world between deed and consequence is often obscure (Kiddushin 39b). How much more so is this the case in the absence of an express declaration of reward.

Yoav may have said it best when he said to his brother Avishai in the two-front war against the Arameans and the Amonites, “Chazak v’nischazek b’ad ameinu uv’ad arei Elokeinu, v’Hashem ya’aseh hatov b’einav” (II Shmuel 10:12). The well-taken idea seems to be that we should motivate ourselves rather than ascribe motivations to the Master of the Universe.

Abbe Dienstag


Rabbi Hoffman Responds

I appreciate the very learned response on the issue by Abbe Dienstag and would also point out that my article was a response to Barry Jacobson’s innocent question as to what are the sources for the chareidi point of view. The issue boils down to whether there are three types of milchemes mitzvah or two types, and the two very different manners in which to understand the Rambam in Hilchos Shemittah and Yovel.

It is not up to us, or the readers, to determine which reading is more cogent. This is a matter left up to poskim.

Yair Hoffman

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Posted by on March 20, 2014. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.