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The Story of the Halachic Ruling that Obligated Yeshiva Students to Serve in the Army

The revolutionary first halachic ruling that imposed the obligation of military service on yeshiva students was written by Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, following an appeal by students, former underground fighters, led by Rabbi Shaar Yashuv Cohen ztz”l * Before the initiative matured, and after great effort, they managed to print a pamphlet with the ruling in besieged Jerusalem, but then, Rabbi Shaar Yashuv fell captive to the Arab Legion, and was unable to see the fruits of his labor * Eight months later, recovering from his wounds and captivity period in a convalescent home, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda came to visit him, and gave him the pamphlet with a heartfelt dedication 

The Commandment to Draft Yeshiva Students

In light of the upcoming memorial day for my teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook ztz”l, which begins on the 14th of Adar, it is fitting these days to recall that our rabbi was the first to write a thorough halachic clarification regarding the commandment that obligates even yeshiva students to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.

The clarification was written at the initiative of Rabbi Shaar Yeshuv Cohen, the Chief Rabbi of Haifa, son of Rabbi David HaCohen “the Nazir” (Nazirite) ztz”l, one of the heads of Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav. It can be said that Rabbi Shaar Yeshuv was the first child to grow up in the bosom of the Torah of the Land of Israel, and thanks to his faith, studies and talents, paved the way for those after him, such as clarifying the commandment of military service for yeshiva students, and paving the way for combining army service with yeshiva studies, which continues with the immense sanctification of God’s name by all Hesder yeshiva students, until today.

This what Rabbi Shaar Yeshuv ztz”l wrote me: “…I am personally connected with the first attempt to establish a yeshiva for Torah students within ‘The State and Army in Formation’ – an attempt that led to the first halachic ruling, which obligated yeshiva students to enlist. This was done in the winter of 1948 through me, together with my comrades in the Hagana, Etzel and Lechi, from Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav, and other yeshivas in Jerusalem. This was immediately after November 29th (ed., the Partition Resolution of the U.N.), and with the beginning of the wave of violence preceding the War of Independence, as part of the mobilization for the ‘Army in Formation’ in Jerusalem, during the months of Shevat, Adar and Nisan 1948…”

At that point in time, the halacha had not yet been decided that yeshivas students must also go to war for the milchemet mitzvah of ‘conquering the Land of Israel’ and ‘saving of Israel from those who rise up against her’. As is well known, the very idea of combining Torah and fighting is ancient, from the days of Yehoshua Bin-Nun, peace be upon him… (See Sanhedrin 44b; and compare to Megilah 3a, and Tosafot ‘va’yalen‘, Yerushalmi Hagiga Chap.2, Tosafot Bavli Hagiga 16b, ‘Av’, Eruvin 63 Tosafot ‘miyad‘). It is implied that already in the days of Yehoshua and the first conquest of the Land of Israel, the warriors combined Talmud Torah with Milchemet Mitzvah. Apparently then, they fought during the day, and studied Torah at night – and this is the source of inspiration for King David’s words: ‘Let high praises to God be heard in their throats, while they wield two-edged swords in their hands’ (Psalms 149:6).”

Establishing the First Integration from Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva

He added: “In order to prepare the IDF, the Zionist leadership established the ‘Mobilization Center for National Service’ at that time. In Jerusalem, the head of this center was none other than the senior rabbi of Merkaz HaRav, Rabbi Mordechai HaLevi Fromm ztz”l, husband of the Rebbetzin Tzipora, may she live, granddaughter of the ‘Israel’s Holy Light’, Rabbi Kook, ztz”l, and daughter of our teacher and rabbi, the Gaon Rabbi Shalom Natan Raanan Kook ztz”l, the yeshiva’s administrator.

“In order to enable all of us, the yeshiva students, graduates of the various undergrounds of the Hagana, Etzel and Lechi, to fight together, we initiated the establishment of a ‘Fighting Yeshiva’ as part of the defense of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. This was the only place where the three undergrounds had already united into one fighting force, under the command of our comrade from ‘Brit HaChashmonaim’, Moshe Rosenak z”l, from the Hagana’s ‘Moriah Battalion’, together with his deputy Isser Natanson z”l, from Etzel. Through our efforts, it was agreed to establish a ‘Fighting Yeshiva’ to defend the Old City, and a synagogue and dormitory were made available to us, and it was also agreed with the Jewish Quarter’s command, on a daily schedule: eight hours manning a position, eight hours prayer and Torah study, and eight hours for eating, rest and sleep, and all personal needs.”

The Blessing of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda and the Nazirite

“I received the blessing and consent for this initiative from the head of the yeshiva, my teacher and rabbi Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook ztz”l, and of course the blessing of my father, my teacher and rabbi, the holy Nazir ztz”l. There were indeed yeshiva heads who were hesitant about the initiative, perhaps due to the concern that it would lead to the cancellation of the ‘draft deferment arrangement’ practiced until today. The head of Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav, the Gaon, Rabbi Yaacov Moshe Charlap ztz”l, remained silent, but there were members of his family, and those close to him, who acted against the idea…

“In those days, the Jewish Quarter of the Old City was under siege. We tried to enter it in a convoy of the British army, which passed through the lines once or twice a week, carrying medical staff and vital supplies. I managed to enter the Quarter, to participate in the battle for its defense… my comrades, unfortunately, did not succeed, but fought within the IDF, and some of them fell as kedoshim (holy martyrs) in the heavy fighting.

“I believe that within the IDF, we were the first (soldiers to combine yeshiva and army)… Sincerely, with great thanks and appreciation, Rabbi Shaar Yeshuv Cohen”.

Rabbi Shaar Yeshuv’s Request from Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda to Write a Torah Opinion

In another article, Rabbi Shaar Yeshuv related how Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda was motivated to write the halachic clarification (printed at the end of vol. 2 of Netivot Yisrael, Bet El Publishing):

“In 1948, there was a debate over the participation of Jerusalem yeshiva students in the campaign to defend the besieged city. We, students of Yeshivat ‘Merkaz HaRav’, followed the path of our rabbis, Maran Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook ztz”l, and my father and teacher, the Nazir… we reported to the ‘National Service Mobilization’, the body that laid the foundations for the IDF which was then in its formative stages, but many yeshiva heads did not accept this. There was also a debate within Yeshivat ‘Merkaz HaRav’ itself (although yeshivas not affiliated with the framework of the ‘Yeshivot of the Land of Israel’ established by ‘Israel’s Holy Light’, Rabbi Kook ztz”l, later also enlisted in a special battalion that built fortifications in Jerusalem, which our comrade Rabbi Tuvia Bir z”l led, and called it the ‘Tuvia Battalion’, but this was already at a later stage, during the height of the siege)…

“As stated, I volunteered to serve in the special units… One day, I noticed, next to the yeshiva on Rabbi Kook Street, a huge poster titled as ‘Daat Torah’ (‘Torah Opinion’) of Maran Rabbi Kook ztz”l against the draft of yeshiva students into the army, with sharp words quoted from one of his letters about the severity of someone who involves Torah scholars in battle, and stating his opinion that it was improper to draft Torah students into the army, and that they must be discharged, things that greatly shocked us.

“I stood before this poster and thought ‘what do we do now?’ – was each student from the yeshiva acting, heaven forbid, against the ruling of Rabbi Kook? After reading the poster, I walked along, preoccupied with thoughts and confusion, heading downtown along Rabbi Kook Street. Suddenly, my teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, emerged towards me, limping slightly as was his custom, walking slowly. Being very close with him, he could assess (from my facial expression), what mood I was in. And he said to me: ‘Shaar Yeshuv, what happened, why are you so upset and pale?’ I told him what had happened, and when I pointed to the poster, he practically roared out loudly (even someone who remembers Rabbi Kook’s roars when he got excited, never heard such a roar): ‘It’s a forgery! It’s an outright forgery!’ That’s how he shouted, in a loud voice, again and again.

“After he calmed down, he explained to me: ‘The words are taken from Rabbi Kook’s letter to Rabbi Dr. Hertz, the Chief Rabbi in London, regarding the draft into the British army. Yeshiva students who arrived as refugees from Russia or Poland to London after World War I, and studied Torah, were omitted from the list of ‘priests in training’ that the British Chief Rabbi submitted to the authorities (exempt from military service similar to their clergy, le’havdil). Rabbi Kook scolded him for this, and it has nothing to do with Jerusalem’s battle.’

“When I asked him to clarify his opinion in writing, he replied that the besieged city had no printing press capable of operating without fuel, except for one used by the ‘Situation Committee’. When I took upon myself the matter of printing, he agreed to write his famous booklet ‘On the Commandment of the Land – Regarding the Obligation to Enlist in the Guard of the People of Israel’. Dr. Yitzchak Raphael, of blessed memory, worked to get the pamphlet printed, but I did not see it, because I was summoned to the battle of defense in the Old City, and fell captive to the Arab Legion…”

Concern for his Fate

While the pamphlet was being printed, the Old City fell into enemy hands, and the Nazir and Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda were informed that Officer Shaar Yeshuv was severely wounded, and his fate was unknown. Imagine their feelings. They had ruled there was an obligation to serve in the army, knew the price could be extremely painful, and now, while arguing with other rabbis about the mitzvah of army service, the Nazir may have to sit shiva for his only son (he had a daughter, the wife of Rabbi Goren), and Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda would have to mourn his beloved student, who went out to battle at their encouragement, and did not return.

After several agonizing months they were informed that he was severely wounded, and held captive by the Jordanians. Let us return to the story, as written by Rabbi Shaar Yeshuv:

Receiving the Pamphlet

“When I returned wounded and injured from enemy captivity, after eight months around Hanukkah 1949, we were transferred for rehabilitation to the Aharonson family villa convalescent home in Zikhron Yaakov, which was dedicated to the wounded soldiers. The next morning, I believe it was Thursday, at the end of prayer, I see through the window Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda climbing up the hill to visit me. I was very moved (traveling then from Jerusalem to Zikhron Yaakov was long and exhausting). Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda entered my room, hugged and kissed me, and burst into tears. Suddenly, he took out from his pocket the small aforementioned booklet (containing his clarification on the obligation to serve in the army), with a dedication: ‘To my coveted and beloved friend, Rabbi Eliyahu Yosef Shaar Yeshuv, son of Rabbi David HaCohen, the counselor, the advisor and demanding initiator; a booklet prepared and kept from its initial appearance, to return the redeemed of God to Jerusalem, with all the joy of salvation which is from of old and forever, her redemption in the year of incense (1949), Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook.’

Wedding in Military Uniform

Afterwards, Rabbi Shaar Yeshuv was appointed rabbi of the Air Force. Before his wedding, in joint consultation with his brother-in-law Rabbi Goren ztz”l, they decided that in order to express the great commandment of military service, he would marry in military uniform, in a military ceremony. Many of Jerusalem’s greatest rabbis and sages attended the wedding, both on the side of the Nazir, the groom’s father, and on the side of the bride’s grandfather, the famous philanthropist Harry Fischel.

One person approached Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda and argued: “In Jerusalem, it is customary for the groom to come to the wedding canopy with a streimel hat, and traditional holiday clothes.” Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda replied: “There is much room to doubt the sanctity of streimels, but there is no room whatsoever to doubt the sanctity of IDF uniforms, and on the contrary, ‘the groom resembles a king’, and the uniforms are royal garments.”

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated

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