The recent Operation “Pillar of Cloud” against Hamas, though of brief duration, did encompass a Shabbat. Yet for those directly affected, both military and civilian, the restrictions of the sacred day were scarcely observed. This was as it should be—but not as it has always been. A look at the history of waging warfare on Shabbat reveals an ambivalence that required major shock therapy to remedy.
To put this issue into its historical context, we must go back to the beginning of the Second Temple period (516 B.C.E.-70 C.E.), when Ezra and Nehemiah found that the laws of Shabbat were being routinely violated. They took remedial action, instigating a series of enactments, or takkanot, which led to a more stringent observance of Shabbat throughout the balance of their era.
Indeed, they were so successful in instilling the spirit of Shabbat observance that during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the Jewish people appear to have taken it to near-fatal excess, refusing to take up arms on Shabbat even in their own defense.
The principal sources of our historical information about this ritual piety are the Apocryphal Books of the Maccabees and the works of Josephus Flavius. In I Maccabees (2:29-37), we find the following narrative about a Greek attack on the Jews:
The [Greeks] arose, suddenly, to fall upon [the Jews] on Shabbat, saying to them: How long will you refuse to obey the king . . . . And the men in their midst did not raise their hands to hurl a stone or to silence them . . . and they fell upon them on Shabbat and killed all those in the cave . . . about 1,000 people.
The deaths of 1,000 Jewish men, women, and children prompted Matthias and the Maccabees to respond. They decided, the text continues, that if they were again attacked on Shabbat, they would fight a defensive battle:
They said to one another: If we all act as our brothers have, and refuse to defend our lives and beliefs, we will shortly be destroyed. They decided on that day: Whosoever will attack us on Shabbat, we will fight back; we will not die like our brothers in the caves.
But, while the Jews now responded to attacks on Shabbat, they still refrained from responding to less imminent threats. Thus, the Syrian general Nicanor attempted to surprise the Maccabees by an attack on Shabbat (2 Maccabees 15:1-5), reasoning that the Jewish defenders would not begin to arm themselves until they actually came under attack on that day. He failed, but only because he lost the element of surprise for long enough to enable the defenders to reach their weapons.
A reformulation of the law was clearly required.
The reformulation can be found in the Tosefta, a collection of early rabbinic comments not included in the canonical Mishnah. The new rule not only permitted self-defense on Shabbat but allowed the storage of arms in soldiers’ individual homes rather than a collective storehouse, precisely in order to prevent the kind of potentially fatal pandemonium caused by Nicanor’s attack.
The regulations now permitted not just self-defense but a posture of defensive readiness. Yet preemptive strikes against the enemy were still prohibited. In 63 C.E., Israel’s next significant foes, the Romans, under the command of their general, Pompey, built a siege ramp to assault Jerusalem. Josephus described the resulting problem (Antiquities Book 14 4:2-3):
Had we not been accustomed, from the days of yore, to rest on Shabbat, that ramp would never have been completed. . . . Even though the law permits us to protect ourselves against attacks, it still does not permit us to engage our enemies when they are not [directly attacking].
In fact, in 66 C.E., when King Agrippa II called on the Judeans to cease their rebellion against Rome, he tried to sap their morale by telling them, in essence, that they would fail whichever way they turned. If they kept the Shabbat scrupulously, the Romans would again take advantage of them, just as Pompey had. And if they broke Shabbat in order to fight, their God would not be responsive to their prayers, since they would have violated His ritual laws.
Fortunately, these words of demagoguery did not describe the actual record of the war against Rome. Josephus reports on a number of Jewish military actions on Shabbat. True, he notes, the Jews of Caesarea were slaughtered by their Gentile neighbors on Shabbat, but only because they were attacked before they were able to mobilize to defend themselves. (Wars Book 2 18:1 ff.) And when the Jews of Jerusalem were attacked on the festival of Sukkot, Josephus notes that they mounted a spirited resistance without regard to the sanctity usually afforded to the day. Indeed, he exults in their decision and its effects: “The intense anger which drew the Jews’ attention away from their sacred rituals, gave them added strength and determination to fight.” (Wars Book 219:2)
Faced with the apparent contradiction in desecrating the Shabbat in order to thwart the further desecration of Shabbat, the Sages concluded, “It is preferable to violate one Shabbat in order to observe many other Shabbatot.” This principle continues to guide such lifesaving activities as emergency medical services on Shabbat and holidays. And since the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the State of Israel, the considerations that allow the waging of war on Shabbat, both defensive and offensive, have been revived and given added force. The presence of religious soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces—indeed, their overrepresentation in the officer corps—testifies that the halakhic issues involved have been successfully resolved. This resolution is a particularly valuable legacy of the Maccabees.
Moshe Sokolow, professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University, is the author of Studies in the Weekly Parashah Based on the Lessons of Nehama Leibowitz (2008).
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