Israeli rabbis are issuing guidance about how to adjust Jewish law during wartime

Since Hamas’s Oct. 7 onslaught, the rabbinic principle of pikuach nefesh, or preserving life, has taken precedence above all – though not everyone agrees on what it means

Israeli soldiers pray with a rabbi during a break in the southern Israeli city of Beit Kama, October 16, 2023. (Thomas Coex/AFP)
Israeli soldiers pray with a rabbi during a break in the southern Israeli city of Beit Kama, October 16, 2023. (Thomas Coex/AFP)

JTA — On a normal Shabbat, Orthodox Israelis turn off radios, silence cell phones and — if they have one — lay down their gun. These past two sabbaths were not normal.

Israelis had special dispensation from the country’s top rabbis to bear arms. They were told to leave communication devices on, albeit at low volume. And synagogues were instructed to make sure someone brought a phone.

The decree from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate offered a striking window into how war is changing the religious strictures that are typically baked into the cadences of Israeli life. In keeping with centuries of Jewish tradition, a wide range of rabbis are issuing opinions on everything from kosher food to transportation to the laws of how husbands and wives relate to each other.

The opinions are almost all rooted in the core Jewish idea that pikuach nefesh, or the preservation of life, overrides nearly every other religious law. That principle is what made it not only possible but obligatory for Jews who are observant of halacha, or Jewish law, to break the laws of Shabbat in order to respond to Hamas’s bloody onslaught on October 7 — and to continue to depart from traditional halacha in certain circumstances.

All of the Chief Rabbinate’s Shabbat decrees about keeping radios and phones on were meant to ensure that Orthodox Jews were able to hear safety alerts and instructions from Israel’s Home Front Command, which is responsible for civil defense. Israel is being barraged nonstop with rockets from Gaza, has carried out the largest military reserve call-up in its history, and is on the brink of a major ground force offensive in Gaza.

The Chief Rabbinate also permitted departures from the country’s regular restrictions on public transportation. Most Israeli cities have never had public transit on Shabbat or Jewish holidays due to opposition from Haredi Orthodox lawmakers and voters. Its national carrier, El Al, also does not operate on Shabbat.

So when Hamas attacked, on Shabbat and a holiday, public transportation across the country was not functioning. That meant reservists had to make their way to their bases on their own.

Last Shabbat, trains ran on Shabbat through select stations across the country due to the ongoing emergency situation. The trains stopped only in Tel Aviv, at Ben Gurion Airport and Haifa — where the United States had sent a ship to retrieve its citizens starting at 9 a.m. Sunday.

Rabbis in Israel also granted permission for El Al to fly on Shabbat, marking the first time the airline has operated on Shabbat since the 1982 Lebanon War. The airline said in a statement that it had received permission from “relevant halachic authorities” to operate flights — two from the United States, one from Bangkok and one from Madrid — to carry reservists, rescuers, medics and members of the security forces “whose arrival into the country is vital.”

Illustrative: Lahak-United Hatzalah medivac teams fly air rescue missions across Israel’s south on October 7, 2023. (Courtesy: United Hatzalah)

Wartime has also, in some cases, prompted more stringent observance of Jewish law. Food prepared and served by the Israeli army must be certified kosher by the military rabbinate, so after 2,000 meals that it donated to Israeli soldiers were thrown away, the Tel Aviv hotspot Ha’achim asked President Isaac Herzog to help it get kosher certification. After retraining staff and overhauling its kitchen, the restaurant now produces and distributes meals to soldiers full-time.

“I don’t eat kosher food, but I respect it,” co-owner Yotam Doktor told Israel Hayom. “Leaving our soldiers begging for food before they go into battle is an impossible situation.”

While the interaction with Jewish law has been most stark in Israel, where the crisis is acute and where rabbinic authorities have influence over state law and policy, rabbis in the Diaspora have also issued opinions related to the war.

In the United States, Rabbi Herschel Schachter, one of the leading Modern Orthodox rabbis, ruled last week that worshipers should insert Avinu Malkeinu into their Shabbat liturgy. The plaintive prayer is typically recited only during the High Holidays and considered at odds with the joyous tenor of Shabbat, when it is generally not recited. Notably, when Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat, Avinu Malkeinu is still omitted from nearly all services.

Within Israel, in addition to state rabbis issuing national decisions, respected rabbis with smaller public pulpits have begun considering wartime questions as well. Several of them have weighed in on the issue of kosher food for the armed forces.

Rabbi Avraham Stav has authored books on Jewish law and is also an army reservist in the 439th artillery battalion, which is now called up for duty in Israel’s south. He has continued to answer questions from the front, including about the kosher status of homemade donated food sent to the army bases.

Druze residents hand out food to Israeli soldiers who guard on a road near the Israeli border with Lebanon, on October 9, 2023. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Whether homemade food is kosher can be hard to ascertain, since there is no kosher certificate attached to a home kitchen, Stav wrote on Facebook. But he said that according to Jewish law, if a person attests that their food is kosher, even with just a handwritten note, the food should be considered kosher, so long as there is no reason to suspect that the person was saying so out of ignorance or disdain. All the more so, he wrote, “out of sincere concern for observant soldiers.”

Turning to another rabbi for a second opinion, Stav asked Rabbi Asher Weiss, one of the leading halachic authorities in Israel, who replied, Stav says, “Of course.”

Another rabbi who has drawn attention for his wartime legal opinions is Yoni Rosensweig, an Orthodox rabbi who leads a synagogue in Beit Shemesh and has built a substantial following both due to his legal opinions and his mental health advocacy. Rosensweig, too, ruled that soldiers and others in need should be lenient when assessing the kosher status of homemade, donated food. But a ruling on another topic ignited a backlash.

On the first day of the war, Rosensweig received a question about whether a man heading into battle could hug his wife goodbye if she was at a point in her menstrual cycle when touch would otherwise be prohibited under traditional Jewish law.

Rosensweig’s answer, posted on Facebook, was clear: Yes, provided that the embrace was for comfort only.

“There is no greater emotional need — both for the husband and for the wife — than this hug before embarking on a military operation to defend the people and the land,” he wrote.

The backlash was swift. For days, Rosensweig fended off criticism and responded to questions about how he could rule in contravention of mainstream opinions about Jewish law. After several days, he sought to put an end to the fighting with a new post.

“The reality is that I’m impressed that most of the public didn’t wait for me for this ruling at all. They did what they thought was right,” he wrote. “Those who wanted gave a hug, and those who didn’t — did not. And that makes sense. Because when you are right there, at that very moment, you do not call the rabbi, but do what you think is right.”

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