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Questions from the Battlefield

Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin speaks with Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon

Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon is an internationally acclaimed posek, author, educator and lecturer. Individuals and communities from around the globe turn to him with complex questions in halachah, the responses to which have been pivotal in helping shape the contemporary Jewish world. Rabbi Rimon is president of World Mizrachi, rosh yeshivah of Lev Academic Center (JCT), chief rabbi of Gush Etzion and community rabbi of Alon Shvut South. Rabbi Rimon is the author of Hilchot Tzava, a practical guide to halachah for soldiers in the army.

Since October 7, he has visited with thousands of soldiers, answering their she’eilot and providing chizuk. Additionally, many hundreds of soldiers in Gaza, who are without cell phones due to army regulations, have sent letters to the rav with their questions.

After meeting countless soldiers and visiting dozens of bases, Rabbi Rimon says, “I have a suit jacket that I don’t ever want to take off except for dry cleaning—I have hugged thousands of soldiers wearing it; it is very holy!”


Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin: What are some of the most frequently asked questions you have gotten since October 7 from soldiers?

Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon: The most common question I receive is from soldiers in Gaza who have a short break and want to return home on Shabbat. Are they allowed to do so? To answer this question, one must take various things into account. One consideration is pikuach nefesh, saving a life, which overrides the restrictions of Shabbat. But in this case, since its wartime, it may not only be personal pikuach nefesh but also pikuach nefesh of the tzibbur, the public at large. The halachot during wartime are obviously different. Even if there is a slight possibility that a break will alleviate some of the soldier’s stress and help him be more effective when he returns to the battlefield, we can permit him to go home on Shabbat. 

But suspending the laws of Shabbat depends on many factors. What exactly is going on in the war? How much time was the soldier on the battlefield? How long is his break? Can we give him a break at a different time? There are lots of questions that need to be considered before allowing a soldier to go home on Shabbat.

I would like to share a story. At one point, a logistics officer called me and asked the following: Soldiers who had been in Gaza for some time were given an eighteen-hour break. They were being sent to an army center in Ashkelon where they would be able to shower, relax and visit with their family, and the next day they would return to Gaza.

They were told they could leave Gaza on Friday at noon and return on Shabbat morning. The question was as follows: Their wives, children and parents wanted to visit, but if they drove to see the soldiers in Ashkelon, they would not make it back on time for Shabbat. These soldiers hadn’t seen their family members for weeks and had no idea how long the fighting in Gaza would go on. If they got a break but were unable to visit with family, they might feel depressed and discouraged. For a soldier, mood and morale can have life-and-death implications. In light of the situation, according to halachah, could the families drive home on Shabbat? 

I asked the officer if there was a possibility the families could stay in a nearby hotel for Shabbat, but the IDF coordinator said the army could not pay for that.

I can personally attest that you can really feel the Shechinah [in the military camps]. I believe this is because it is a milchemet mitzvah, an obligatory war of self-defense, and G-d is with us.

It was Thursday evening when I was speaking to the officer, and I was in my car driving to another base. In general, when I travel to army bases, only my assistant is in the car with me. Often, a group [on a solidarity mission] accompanies me by bus. However, this particular time, members of a solidarity mission from Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in New Jersey asked if they could accompany me in my car. The rabbi of the shul, who was seated next to me, heard the conversation. He turned to me and said: “We would be happy to pay for the hotel.” The shul ended up funding a wonderful Shabbat for our soldiers and their families. While the hotels were all closed in Ashkelon, we were able to find a guesthouse that could accommodate 180 people, including the soldiers, their wives and children. A team of volunteers brought food and toiletries, and even toys and books for the children. Thanks to the generosity of this Teaneck shul, these soldiers and their families were able to enjoy a very moving and meaningful Shabbat together. 

The officer in charge, Yitzhak Schwartz, who managed to uplift the soldiers and their wives over Shabbat, was injured a few days later. Baruch Hashem, his life was saved, but he suffered a serious spinal cord injury. When I visited him in the hospital, he said: “Pray for me.” “Of course,” I replied. Then he told me: “Rabbi, pray that I get well soon. I have to go back to Gaza to be with my soldiers.”

RB: What a moving story! Can the Rav elaborate on any she’eilot related to tefillah and the battlefield?

RR:  Yes, of course. 

Minyanim are often set up in tents, and the army brings sifrei Torah for some of the minyanim. I was asked the following: Between fifteen to twenty chayalim come together for a minyan, but there are four chayalim who cannot come to the tent because they are required to remain at their posts some 200 meters (600 feet) away. Can the minyan bring the sefer Torah from the tent to those four soldiers and daven there with them? This way, they won’t miss keriat HaTorah. 

Generally, one is not supposed to transport a Torah scroll from its usual location to be used in another location for temporary use. This is because it is considered disrespectful to take a Torah to those who need it; rather, those who need it should come to the Torah. The soldier asked me what to do. I told them, “First of all, there is a machloket. What happens if you don’t go to the sefer Torah not because you don’t want to, but because you don’t have the ability to do so? Let’s say you are in jail; may one bring a sefer Torah to jail? There are Rishonim who permit bringing the Torah in such a case. There are other Rishonim who do not permit it. Secondly, perhaps in this particular case the sefer Torah might not be considered to have a set location, as it is housed in a tent in a war zone. Finally, we can argue the following: The Talmud Yerushalmi states that there is an exception to the rule: one can take a sefer Torah to an adam chashuv, a prominent person.

Who is an adam chashuv? Usually, we would say a talmid chacham, a rabbi, the president of a country or some other high-level official. But I told him I believe that a soldier who sacrifices his life to protect Am Yisrael . . . he is the most significant adam chashuv. And therefore, I said, it is acceptable to bring the sefer Torah to the chayalim. 

RB: That is incredibly moving. 

RR: Here is another question concerning tefillah that came up recently. 

As you know, during the tefillah of Tachanun, the custom is to bow one’s head. The Rokei’ach writes that one should not bow during Tachanun if the room does not have a Torah scroll. He cites the verse in Yehoshua 7:6 as evidence of this: “Yehoshua thereupon rent his clothes. He and the elders of Israel lay until evening with their faces to the ground in front of the Ark of G-d.” Seemingly, bowing is necessary in front of the Ark of G-d [which can also apply when there is a sefer Torah].

One soldier asked the following: In our particular camp in Gaza, we do not have a sefer Torah with us. Should we bow during Tachanun?

Based on the Rokei’ach, there is room to argue that bowing is required in every place where there is a revelation of the Shechinah, as we find with Avraham Avinu (Bereishit 17:3) and in many other places in Tanach. The Torah itself attests that the Shechinah is found in a Jewish military camp, as the pasuk (Devarim 23:15) states: “Since Hashem, your G-d, moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you, let your camp be holy; let [G-d] not find anything unseemly among you and turn away from you.” I therefore responded that they should bow even without a sefer Torah.

With all the visits I have made to military camps these last few months, I can personally attest that you can really feel the Shechinah there. I believe this is because it is a milchemet mitzvah, an obligatory war of self-defense, and G-d is with us. 

RB: That’s remarkable. I imagine you also received some unique questions regarding mourning and burial?  

RR: There were many questions. What happens if only parts of a body are found and a burial takes place? Does the family sit shivah? And if they sit shivah and the rest of the body is found a few months later, what then? Does the family sit shivah again? These are questions that have not been asked for decades. What happens if there is no body at all, just blood? This occurred in the tragic case of Daniel Perez, Hashem yinkom damo, the son of Rabbi Doron Perez.  

All of these questions are terrible, and for years we were fortunate not to have to ask such questions.  

RB: Have soldiers asked questions that inspire you?

RR: Most of the questions soldiers ask me or the stories they share with me inspire me! They indicate the extraordinarily high moral caliber of our army. I’ll give you an example. Soldiers in Jenin had a mission to destroy the home of a terrorist. They went to the building and saw that they could destroy the apartment in ten minutes. But they stayed a few hours. Why? They realized that if they would proceed with their plan, they would damage the whole building. If they worked for an hour, they would destroy the terrorist’s apartment and damage two surrounding apartments. They ended up working for a few hours so that the apartment of the terrorist would be destroyed without damaging surrounding property. 

To me, this is very inspiring because the world fails to understand that our army has the highest level of morality. No one comes close to us in this regard. 

Those soldiers were in Jenin for a few hours. A few hours! I asked them: “If you stay a few hours, is it more of a risk?” They said, “Of course, it’s a risk.” In this scenario, every minute in Jenin is a risk. I’m not sure they did the right thing—putting their lives at risk just to protect property. . . . But while I’m not convinced it was the right thing to do, one thing I am sure of—no nation, no army in the world, would do something like this. 

Here’s another question that really moved me. A woman recently called me and said: “Rabbi, we are a young couple and we have been trying to get pregnant for a long time. I just got a positive answer that I’m pregnant.” I said, “B’sha’ah tovah!” Then she said: “My husband is in Gaza and he doesn’t have a phone, but once every ten days or so, he has access to a phone and then he has two minutes to talk to me. I know he’s going to call me in two more days. Rabbi, I long to tell him that I’m pregnant. I really want to, we’ve been waiting so long, but I don’t know if I’m allowed to. I know that the Rambam says that when a man goes to war, he should not think about his wife or his children, but only about the people of Israel.”

I ask you: is there another woman like this in the world? 

What did I tell this woman? 

. . . the world does not understand that our army has the highest level of morality. No one comes close to us in this regard. 

I told her, “You know your husband better than anyone else. What do you think? If you tell him, will it make him feel stressed or will it make him really happy?” She thought for a moment and said, “It depends on how I say it. If I cry, it will stress him out; if I say it happily, it will strengthen him.” I told her, “You have two days. Cry now, and stop crying in two days. When you feel that you can tell him happily, tell him.”

So many people call me; I usually don’t know who they are or what happens after I give them a particular pesak. But some time later, a soldier called me. He said, “Do you remember a woman called to ask you how to tell her husband she’s pregnant? That husband is me! I want you to know how much it affected me. You really strengthened me and strengthened my motivation to fight—I have to protect my future child.”

RB: Last question. I’m curious what the Rav says to soldiers who don’t have the same resolve they might have had months ago at the beginning of the war?

RR: Indeed, we are in a very difficult situation. There are dead and wounded soldiers as well as hostages. We cry and we grieve. But in the midst of difficulty, one must constantly lift himself up and feel the greatness. We are the generation of redemption. We have seen so many miracles before our eyes, we know Hakadosh Baruch Hu is with us and that, with His help, we will win.

How do we know? Because throughout all of our history, every nation that tried to kill us is not here anymore. Vehi she’amdah—It is this that has stood by our fathers and us. Shelo echad bilvad amad aleinu lechaloteinu—For not only one has risen against us to annihilate us, but in every generation they rise against us to annihilate us. V’Hakadosh Baruch Hu matzileinu miyadam—But the Holy One, Blessed is He, rescues us from their hand.  

We know Hashem is with us, and with Am Yisrael unified, we are going to win. 

Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin, a member of the Jewish Action Editorial Committee, is the founder of 18Forty, a media site discussing big Jewish ideas. Some of the content in this article is from the 18Forty podcast entitled “Yosef Zvi Rimon: What Happens to Jewish Law During War?”

More in this Section

What Does the Torah Have to Say about Military Ethics? by Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Brody

On the Frontlines with Rabbi Shlomo Sobol, as told to JA staff

The Holiest Work: A Conversation with Miriam Neumark Shalev of the IDF Chevra Kadisha’s Women’s Unit by Leah R. Lightman

A Different Kind of Battlefield by Carol Green Ungar


Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski

Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon at an army base. Courtesy of the Office of Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon

Rav Rimon published this practical guide to the halachot of war that perfectly fits into the pants pocket of an IDF uniform. There is precedent for a sefer like this—the Chafetz Chaim wrote Sefer Machaneh Yisrael for Jewish soldiers in the Russian army. Courtesy of the Office of Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon

Rabbi Rimon (center) visiting with soldiers. Courtesy of the Office of Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon

Photo: Abir Sultan/Flash90

Soldiers in Gaza asked Rabbi Rimon if a sefer Torah could be brought to soldiers who could not leave their post. Photo: Phil Sussman/Flash90

This article was featured in the Summer 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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