Exemptions from Military Service in Judaism

An incomplete lifecycle process or an unsuitable attitude may exempt you from service.

Print this page Print this page

In addition to the exemptions from military service noted below, one more should be mentioned. In an optional war, one who is engaged in a commanded religious activity is not required to cease this activity to take up arms. This is one of the sources for exempting yeshiva students in Israel from serving in the army. The following is reprinted with permission from Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly 49 (1987).

The Sanhedrin [the supreme rabbinic court, active until the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, which must approve any optional war] is also to factor the issue of popular support into its endorsement of a war policy. This does not imply a government by referendum. 

Even those who maintain that sovereignty ultimately rests with the community hold that, during their tenure, representatives are authorized to express the collective will. Even democracy, the contemporary halakhist Eliezer Waldenberg notes, does not necessarily entail government by referendum. After all, representative government is not government by the people, but government by its agents.

exemptions from jewish warConcurrent with theories of majority rule, however, Jewish political theory has made provisions for minority rights. Do such provi­sions also apply in war? Presumably not. Apparently, once the proper procedure has been complied with, the individual has no recourse but to fight. If the duly constituted authorities have determined the necessity of war, who is the individual to review the government's decision?

Moreover, if it is a defensive war, how could anyone be exempt from the obligation of self‑defense, the duty to rescue others, and the need to come to the defense of the state whose very existence shields all?

Biblical Exemptions for Discretionary Wars

Do these considerations for individual as well as collective defense apply to discretionary wars as they do to defensive wars? That is the question. The answer involves a discussion of a peculiarity of the Biblical rules of warfare: exemptions from military service. According to the Torah, before commencing hostilities, the officials must address the troops as follows:

Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it…or planted a vineyard but has never harvested it…or spoken for a woman in marriage but has not married her?…Let him go back home, lest he die in battle and another (do) it.

The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say, is there anyone afraid and tender‑hearted? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his. (Deuteronomy 20:5‑9)

Individuals in these categories are required to report for duty first before being assigned alternative service.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Dr. Reuven Kimelman

Reuven Kimelman is a Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University.