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What Can We Learn From Our Sources About the War in Gaza? Responsa in a Moment: Volume 3, Issue No. 5, January 2009

Question: Much has been written about the current war against Hamas in Gaza. What can we learn from our sources about the current conflict?

Responsum: (This responsum is based on my articles in Insight Israel, Jerusalem, 2003, pp. 76-79 and Insight Israel, Second Series, Jerusalem, 2006, pp. 193-199. For further discussion of some of these issues, see Rabbi Brad Artson, Love Peace and Pursue Peace, New York, 1988; Rabbi Elliot Dorff, “A Time for War and a Time for Peace”, Los Angeles, 1987; Rabbi Reuven Kimelman in: Steven Katz, ed., Frontiers of Jewish Thought, Washington, D.C., 1992, pp. 309-331; Yitzhak Blau, Tradition 34/4 (Winter 2000), pp. 39-60; Torah Sheb’al Peh 43 (5762) (five articles)).

During the past eight years, Palestinian terrorists have fired many thousands of rockets at civilian targets in Israel. To be more specific, since Israel withdrew from Gaza in August 2005, in order to allow the Palestinians to govern themselves, and December 31, 2008, terrorists  fired 6,300 rockets and mortars at civilian targets in Israel. Finally, on December 27, after many explicit warnings, the State of Israel decided to react by bombing launch cites, terrorist bases, homes of Hamas leaders and some 600 tunnels which have been used to smuggle weapons and rockets. It then sent in ground troops in order to stop the constant barrage of rocket attacks on civilian targets. The moral situation is extremely complex because the Hamas terrorists purposely hide behind civilians, in Mosques, schools and even hospitals. It is difficult for our soldiers, officers and leaders to know what to do.

Our Sages taught us in Pirkey Avot (5:22) “hafokh bah vahapekh bah d’kholah bah“, “turn it and turn it again for everything is in it”. That is why, in times of trouble, Jews have traditionally gone “back to the sources” in order to find comfort and guidance. The sources below attempt to do just that.

I) Palestinians Are Not the Seven Nations

There are some Jews who want to kill Palestinians or expel them from Israel on the basis of the biblical obligation to destroy the seven Canaanite nations (Deut. 7:1-2; 20:16-18). However, King Solomon already ignored this command and did not destroy their descendants (I Kings 9:20-21). Furthermore, our Sages emphasized that this command does not apply to other nations (Midrash Tannaim to Deut. 20:15, ed. Hoffmann, p. 121) and Maimonides ruled that the memory of the seven nations “has been lost” (Laws of Kings 5:4). He  may have based himself on Mishnah Yadayim 4:4 that Sennacherib King of Assyria already came up and mixed up all of the nations. Therefore, the law of the seven nations has not been applicable for over 3,000 years.

II) Self-Defense

On the other hand, there is no doubt that it is permissible to kill terrorists in self-defense, for the following three reasons:

a) The Torah rules that if a “thief is discovered tunneling [into a house for housebreaking] and is beaten and dies, there is no bloodguilt in his case” (Exodus 22:1). Rava explained that the thief assumes that the home-owner is going to defend his property and he, in turn, will be willing to kill the homeowner. Therefore, the Torah is telling us: “If somebody comes to kill you, kill him first” (Sanhedrin 72a). In other words, if someone tunnels into anindividual’s home in order to steal, and even more so if he intends to kill that person, that person should kill the attacker as an act of self-defense. It is worth noting that the Torah gives the example of tunneling, one of the standard activities of the Hamas terrorists.

b) Furthermore, a group of Jews is allowed to defend itself against attackers, even on Shabbat. This was first determined by Mattathias and the Maccabees, after the Greeks killed 1,000 Jews on Shabbat – men, women and children – because they would not defend themselves. “Let us fight against every man who comes to attack us on the Sabbath day; let us not all die as our brethren died in their hiding places” (I Maccabees 2:29-41).

The Talmud ruled (Eruvin 45a) that if a group of non-Jews besieged Jewish towns on Shabbat in order to kill Jews, the Jews go out in their armor and desecrate Shabbat. Furthermore, in a border town, the Jews go out in their armor and desecrate Shabbat even if the non-Jews only came to rob the townAnd so ruled Maimonides (Laws of Shabbat 2:23) and the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 329:6-7). The Rema adds (ibid.): “and even if they have not yet come but only want to come”. In other words, in a border town, a pre-emptive strike against the enemy is permissible on Shabbat even in order to protect property; kal vahomer, how much the more so, to protect lives on a weekday.

c)   Finally, two sources go much further. They state that a war of self-defense is not only permitted but rather required. Midrash Shmuel determines (22:2, ed. Buber, p. 110) that David’s war against the Philistines – which was self-defense – was a mitzvah, a commanded war, or a hovah, an obligation. Moreover, Maimonides ruled (Laws of Kings 5:1) “which war is a commandedwar? …to help Israel against an enemy who attacks them”.

Thus, according to Jewish law, if a person comes to kill you, you should kill them first; a group of Jews is allowed to fight on Shabbat in self-defense; and a war of self-defense is a mitzvah or obligation.

III) The Attitude toward POWs and Non-Combatants

On the other hand, there are sources which warn us not to harm prisoners or innocent people.  We are told in the Second Book of Kings (6:21-23) that the Prophet Elisha asked God to temporarily blind the troops of Aram and he then led the troops to Samaria. The King of Israel asked Elisha: “Shall I strike them down?” Elisha’s reply is not entirely clear, but according to Rabbi Levi ben Gershom (ad loc.), he replied: “Would you strike down with your sword and bow people whom you captured?!

Similarly, Philo of Alexandria stated in the first century c.e. that Jews do not kill non-combatants (The Special Laws 4:224-225):

The Jewish nation, when it takes up arms, distinguishes between those whose life is one of hostility and the reverse. For to breathe slaughter against all, even those who have done little or nothing amiss, shows what I would call a savage and brutal soul.

When I was a reservist in the IDF, I used to guard Palestinian prisoners. I therefore know from first-hand experience that Palestinian prisoners are treated well. Indeed, the prisoners had better living conditions than the reservists who were guarding them, including couches, TVs, stoves and more. As for non-combatants, that is obviously a major challenge in Gaza, which is densely populated and where the terrorists use civilians as human shields as standard procedure. Nonetheless, Israel takes great efforts not to harm civilians and there is a ceasefire every day for three hours in order to allow trucks of food into Gaza.

IV) Two Words of Warning before Every Battle

We must teach our soldiers to remember two sources when they go out to fight our enemies:

1. When Jacob heard that Esau was coming, it says: “And Jacob was greatly frightened and distressed” (Genesis 32:8) and themidrash explains: “frightened – lest he be killed; and distressed – lest he kill” (Genesis Rabbah 76:2; cf. Ginzey Schechter, vol. 1, p. 60 and Rashi on the verse).

2.  When Israel left Egypt “the angels wanted to sing. Said God:“My handiwork [=the Egyptians] are drowning in the sea — and you are singing?!” (Megillah 10b).

V) A Jew Must Share in the Distress of the Community

We have learned in Ta’anit fol. 11a:

Our Rabbis have taught: When Israel is in trouble and one of them separates himself from them, then the two ministering angels who accompany every man come and place their hands upon his head and say, ‘So-and-so who separated himself from the community shall not behold the consolation of the community’. Another Baraita [Tannaitic source from ca. 200 c.e.] taught: When the community is in trouble let not a man say ‘I will go to my house and I will eat and drink and all will be well with me.’ For of him who does so Scripture says, “And behold joy and gladness, slaying oxen and killing sheep, eating flesh and drinking wine – Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we shall die (Isaiah 22:13).”…But rather a man should share in the distress of the community, for so we find that Moses, our teacher, shared in the distress of the community, as it is said, “But Moses’ hands were heavy, and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat thereon (Exodus 17:12).” Did not then Moses have a bolster or a cushion to sit on? This is then what Moses meant to convey, “As the Israelites are in distress, I too will share with them. He who shares in the distress of the community will merit to behold its consolation”. Perhaps a man will say, “who is there to testify against me? The very stones of his house and its beams testify against him…In the school of R. Sheila it was taught: The two ministering angels who accompany every man testify against him…R. Hidka says: A man’s own soul testifies against him… And some say: A man’s own limbs testify against him…

The message of this passage is clear: when Jews or the State of Israel are in trouble, other Jews must share in their distress by taking part in solidarity missions and demonstrations and by donating tzedakah in order to help those in distress. Some cynics say that missions and demonstrations are a waste of time; they are not. They give encouragement to the Jews of Israel who are constantly criticized by the United Nations and many countries and they strengthen the Jewish identity of the participants. During the past few weeks, Schechter students and staff have donated food and toys to communities near Gaza and hosted families and children who sought respite from the rocket attacks. This is at it should be. Jews must share in the distress of the community.

VI) Israel and the Nations of the World

The next passage appears in Midrash Esther Rabbah (7:13, to Esther 3:9, ed. Vilna, fols. 12c-d):

“If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed” (Esther 3:9). Resh Lakish said: When the wicked Haman said to Ahashverosh: “Come let us exterminate Israel”, Ahashverosh replied: “You cannot prevail against them, since their God will not entirely forsake them. See what he did to the kings who preceded us and who laid hands upon them and who were much mightier and more powerful than we are. Whoever comes against them to destroy them and whoever schemes against them is wiped out and becomes a byword to all mankind. How much the more so we who are not equal to those others. Let me hear no more of this.” In spite of this, the wicked Haman pressed this upon Ahashverosh on every occasion, and tried to persuade him to oppress Israel. At length, Ahashverosh said to him: “Since you are so insistent, let us consult the wise men and the magicians.”

He thereupon convened all the wise men of the nations. When they were all assembled before him, he said to them: “Is it your desire that we destroy this nation? They all replied with one voice: “Who is he who presumes in his heart to do so!” (Esther 7:5)… If you destroy Israel, [the world cannot stand]; for it stands only through the merit of the Torah which was given to Israel… Furthermore, all the idolaters are called strangers before [God]… whereas the Israelites are called near ones… Furthermore, they are called sons, as it is written “Israel is my son, my firstborn (Exodus 4:22)… And if a man seeks to lay hands upon the relatives and children of [God], how shall he escape, since He rules over those above and those below, and the soul of all living is in His hand to raise up or to cast down, to kill or to bring to life? Take a lesson from the previous kings who transgressed by laying hands on Israel; see what happened to them, as for instance to Pharaoh and Sennacherib.”

Haman thereupon said to them: “The God who drowned Pharaoh in the sea and performed for Israel the wonders and mighty deeds of which you have heard is now old and cannot do anything, since Nebuchadnezzar has already gone up and destroyed His house and burnt His temple and exiled Israel and scattered them among the nations. Where is His strength and might, since He is now old?!…

When he spoke to them in this fashion, they came round to his opinion and agreed to destroy Israel, and they wrote letters and signed them… [Their letter details how the Jewish people “took advantage” of the poor Egyptians, Amalekites, Sihon and Og, Midianites, and Sisra.]

The author of Kohelet wrote (1:9) “v’ein kol hadash tahat hashamesh“, “there is nothing new under the sun”. This midrash, which was apparently edited in the eleventh century (see Zunz-Albeck, Hadrashot B’yisrael, Jerusalem, 1947, pp. 129-130), could have been written yesterday. All we need to do is substitute Haniyeh or Ahmadinejad for Haman; and the United Nations for “all the wise men of the nations”. It should be noted that “the wise men of the nations” do not tell Ahashverosh not to destroy the Jews because it is immoral; only because it is too dangerous. When Haman tells them that the Jewish God is now weak and unable to protect the Jews, they immediately agree to kill all of the Jews. The United Nations as a body does not want to destroy the State of Israel, but there is no question that many of its members want to harm the State of Israel if they think they can get away with it.

VII) “Af Al Pi Khen” – Despite it All

Yosef Hayyim Brenner (1881-1921) was born in Ukraine and immigrated to Palestine in 1909. He was an important proponent of Labor Zionism and made important contributions to modern Hebrew literature. He wrote the following passage in a book review published in 1917:

Our youth throughout the world must now know the truth about the Land of Israel.  They should know that the place is not a bed of roses, that the land is poor, hardly magical, settled by others wherever something could be done, hard to settle where it is still unsettled… Wages are low, food is scarce and expensive, the needs are greater than our capacity; lofty spirituality can be found at every corner, and on top of that, malaria eats up body and soul…

All of this should be known in the Jewish Diaspora, and should give birth to a sentiment of  “af al pi khen” – “despite it all” in the hearts of our youth!  That same “despite it all” that should come at the end of all the negative calculations… Despite it all!  Especially when in Eastern Europe the future is very grim, and the present is very gloomy – for there is nothing to lose, for the yearning calls to start everything from scratch and whatever happens, happens!… And only that halutz[pioneer], whose “despite it all” becomes part of his very being, only that halutz  who is ready for everything – and not only in words, only he should be allowed to come. He and no one else (Yosef Hayyim Brenner, Ketavim, Tel Aviv, 1978-1985, p. 1622. My thanks to Rabbi Dr. Einat Ramon for sharing this passage and to Rabbi Ramon and Etka Leibowitz for their preliminary translation).

Af al pi khen – despite it all – this has been the motto of the State of Israel since it was founded. Arab armies and terrorists have been trying to destroy the State of Israel since 1948 and yet we have built a vibrant Jewish State which is the only democracy in the Middle East. We shall persevere despite it all because “The Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Psalms 121:4).Am Yisrael Hai!

David Golinkin
17 Tevet 5769

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

Prof. David Golinkin is President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate it, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at  The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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