Exemptions from Military Service in Judaism

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

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There is another category, which not only is exempt from reporting for duty, but is also excused from all alternative service such as provisions and weapon supply, road repair, special security expenditures, or even oversight of defensive installations. This category derives from the following verse. "When a man has taken a bride, he shall not go out with the army or be assigned to it for any purpose; he shall be exempt one year for the sake of his household, to give happiness to the woman he has married." (Deuteronomy 24:5)

The Rabbis Extended the Exemptions

According to the Mishnah, the absolute exemption of one year for one who has consummated his marriage applies also to "one who has built his house and dedicated it" as well as to "one who has planted a vineyard and never harvested it."

All the exemptions are characterized by their universal access. There are no exemptions based on birth, education, or professional class, not even on religious status. This fits the moral purpose of conscription, which is to universalize or randomize the risks of war across a generation of men. By not creating a special exclusion even for religion, the Torah underscores that when life is at stake there can be no respecting of persons.

The purpose of all of the exemptions is not made explicit. The most prominent seems to be that they seek to remove from the field those who cannot concentrate on the battle. The presence of such people increases fatalities resulting from disarray and failure of nerve. Other suggestions include the need to mitigate individual hardship, to give courage to those who remain, to maintain the sanctity of the camp, or to prevent depopulation of urban areas.

Four Sorts of Exemption Were Recognized

At any rate, the Talmudic rabbis, by grasping each case as illustrative of a principle, extended the exemptions to cover four categories of handicaps: the economic, the familial, the psycho‑moral, and the physical. Claims for economic and familial exemptions are subject to substantiation. The other two are assumed to be self‑evident.

Although the psycho‑moral exemption does not require independent confirmation, its meaning is far from self‑evident. The Torah mentions two categories: "afraid" and "tender‑hearted."

According to Rabbi Yose HaGalili [a sage of the Mishnah], "afraid" means apprehensive about his sins, "tender‑hearted" means fearful of war lest he be killed. According to Rabbi Akiva [another Mishnaic sage], "afraid" means fearful of war, "tender‑hearted" means compassionate‑-apprehensive lest he kill. Taken together, there would be grounds for exempting the psychologically timid as well as the morally scrupulous.

Power to Object is Implicit, Says a Commentator

Besides having to be substantiated, the economic and familial exemptions share another common denominator. Projects such as starting a house, beginning a vineyard, or getting engaged mostly affect men in their prime, which is precisely the age of maximum combat readiness. A large number of exemptions for this age group can so hamper mobilization efforts as to impair the military effort.

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Dr. Reuven Kimelman

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