Ask the Rabbi: May Jews fight wars and extinguish fires on Shabbat?

Many firefighters, soldiers and volunteers bravely (and correctly) extinguish fires while acting to prevent more from igniting, even as their activity inevitably involves Shabbat violation.

December 22, 2016 17:29
4 minute read.
Fire in Jerusalem

Fire in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)


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The wave of fires that swept Israel in November, including some purposely set by terrorists, renewed interest in the laws of extinguishing and preventing fires on Shabbat, especially those set with nationalistic motivations.

Throughout Israel, many firefighters, soldiers and volunteers bravely (and correctly) extinguished fires while acting to prevent more from igniting, even as their activity inevitably involved Shabbat violation.

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It seems, however, that matters were not always this simple. The Book of the Maccabees records that in 167 BCE, the Seleucids initially succeeded in defeating Jewish pietists by attacking them on Shabbat and slaughtering them, because of the lack of resistance. As historians Moshe Herr and Eyal Regev have documented, similar incidents occurred previously in the fourth century BCE with the conquest of Jerusalem by Ptolemy Lagos and later with Pompey’s conquest of the Temple Mount in 63 BCE.

Scholars have long debated the motivation behind the lack of resistance portrayed in these incidents, as recorded by Josephus and others. A popular interpretation today asserts that this attitude reflects the practices of the Sadducees and other similar sects who refused to violate Shabbat even in the case of warfare. Indeed, explicit testimony to this effect is found in the Book of Jubilees and further indicated in a few texts attributed to Dead Sea sects.

Maccabees I records that this outlook was rejected by the Hasmoneans. Mattathias declared, “If any man comes against us on the Sabbath day, we shall fight against him and not all die as our brothers did in their hiding places.” This sentiment was not accepted by many Jewish sects, but was certainly endorsed within rabbinic (i.e., Pharisaic) texts.

Accordingly, the Tosefta (Eruvin 3) records the following rabbinic position: “Gentiles who came against Israelite towns, they go forth to do battle against them carrying weapons, and they violate the prohibitions of the Sabbath on their account.

Under what circumstances? When they came for blood. But if they did not come for blood, [the Israelites] do not go forth against them carrying weapons, and they do not violate the prohibitions of the Sabbath on their account. [If, however,] they came against towns located near the frontier, even to grab straw, even to grab a loaf of bread, they go forth against them carrying weapons, and [the Israelites] violate the prohibition of the Sabbath on their account.”


Other texts further assert that the rabbis, led by the famous sage Shammai, declared that Jews can even initiate warfare on Shabbat for the sake of protecting or conquering the Land of Israel. Warfare done for the sake of military expansion (so-called optional warfare, milhemet reshut) should ideally not be initiated within three days of the Sabbath as a token of respecting Shabbat (k’vod Shabbat) or to avoid placing oneself unnecessarily in a situation where Shabbat desecration might become necessary.

Once warfare has begun, however, it does not need to be suspended for Shabbat.

In any case, contemporary Israeli warfare, whether initiated by Israel or our enemies, certainly falls into the category of mandatory wars which seek to protect our homeland.

As the Tosefta makes clear, the Sages initially did not afford dispensations to protect against raiding marauders who only sought financial gain (unless dealing with border towns, which had to be protected at all costs). Similarly, with regard to fires, the Sages initially asserted that one may extinguish the fire only when it threatens lives; the potential loss of losing property alone, however, did not mandate Shabbat desecration. Over time and in different circumstances, however, scholars deemed any attack or fire as a potential life-threatening situation and therefore allowed Shabbat desecration to thwart attacks and put out the flames.

Another significant dispensation, already declared in talmudic times, allowed for fighters to return home with their weapons on Shabbat, even after the threat had passed and in spite of the prohibitions against traveling outside of one’s territory (tehumin) and carrying objects in public domains (hotza’a). These dispensations were declared to ensure that fighters would not be caught unprepared if the threat suddenly reappeared, and also to prevent them from thinking twice about leaving their homes and becoming stuck for the duration of Shabbat.

As support for Shammai’s declaration, the Talmud cites the biblical verse that allows one to conduct sieges “against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced.”

Based on this sentiment, Rabbi Shlomo Goren asserted that Jewish law allows for special dispensations in wartime beyond those permitted on the traditional rationale of immediate life-saving pressures (pikuah nefesh). Accordingly, he permitted a series of wartime activities on Shabbat, ranging from evacuating corpses from battlefields to allowing arms factories to operate to providing soldiers with hot drinks in cold weather. While scholars continue to debate the scope of Shabbat desecration permitted for soldiers in non-life-threatening situations, the broader trend asserts that we do not allow Shabbat observance to hinder our security.

This attitude should not be taken for granted. As we see from antiquity, a fundamentalist outlook might assert that Shabbat should be kept at all costs. The Hasmoneans and Sages taught us, however, that sometimes the Sabbath must be desecrated, alas, so that the Jewish people can observe many more Sabbaths in the future. We should live for Shabbat, but not die for it.

The writer, author of A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates, directs the Tikvah Overseas Student Institute and is a presidential scholar at Bar-Ilan University Law School.

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