At present, when our heroic soldiers endanger themselves on the battlefield for the sake of saving the nation and state, it is fitting to re-emphasize the tremendous sanctity of the commandment they are fulfilling with their very bodies. The soldiers fulfill two great commandments, each one a general commandment equal to all other commandments: the first is saving Jewish lives, and the second is settling the Land.
Saving Jewish Lives: We are commanded that if we see a fellow Jew in danger, we must make an effort to come to his aid, as the Torah says: “Do not stand by your brother’s blood” (Leviticus 19:16). And for this, one must be willing to take certain risks. All the more so, when the entire Jewish people is in danger, that there is an obligation to make effort toward saving the Jewish people. Our Sages already said in the Mishnah: “Whoever saves a single Jewish life, it is as if he saved an entire world” (Sanhedrin 4:5). Therefore, one who takes part in sustaining the entire nation, it is as if he literally sustained an entire world. And this is an absolute, obligatory war (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 5:1).
Defending the Land: We are commanded to inherit and settle the Land of Israel, meaning that the land should be under Jewish sovereignty, and settled with Jews across its entire length and breadth. And this commandment is equal to all other commandments (Sifrei, Re’eh 53).
These Commandments Override the Preservation of Individual Lives
Indeed, there is no commandment to endanger oneself in a situation where it is probable that the would-be rescuer will be killed in order to save individual Jewish lives. However, during wartime, when it is necessary to endanger soldiers in order to win the battle, soldiers must be willing to enter situations where the danger outweighs the potential rescue. As Maran HaRav Kook wrote, the principle of “ve’chai ba’hem” (‘and you shall live by them’, i.e., the words of the Torah), from which we learn that pikuach nefesh (saving lives) overrides all commandments in the Torah, does not apply during warfare, since the laws for the public differ from those for the individual. And for the sake of sustaining the public, individuals must be willing to enter danger (Mishpat Kohen 143). Based on this, the responsa Tzitz Eliezer (13:100) wrote that also the principle of “chayecha kodmim le’chayeh chavercha” (“your life takes precedence over your friend’s life”) does not apply during warfare, “rather, all war recruits are obligated, together as one person, to sacrifice, each one his soul, for the sake of saving the life of his fellow. And this too is included in the laws of the public, and under the guidelines of national conduct and ordinances.”
Similarly, the commandment to conquer the Land of Israel, and thereby defend it, overrides the preservation of individual lives, since the Torah did not intend for us to rely on miracles. And since there are casualties in every war, the commandment to conquer the Land obligates us to endanger lives on its behalf (Minchat Chinukh 525, 614; Mishpat Kohen p. 327). All the more so, there is a commandment to fight in order to defend sections of the Land of Israel already under our control.
Spilling Blood – Be Killed, Rather Than Transgress
From the general commandment, we continue to the specific commandment to sacrifice one’s life rather than transgress one of the three severe prohibitions – idol worship, forbidden relations, and spilling blood. We will deal here with spilling blood. If evildoers present a person with two options: either murder so-and-so, or be killed – one should choose death, rather than transgress, and murder another person.
The Talmud relates an incident of a man who came before Rabba, head of the Pumipedita academy, with a dire question: the city ruler commanded me to murder so-and-so, and if I do not do so, he will kill me; is it permitted for me to murder him in order to save my life? Rabba responded: be killed, and do not kill, for who is to say that your blood is redder – perhaps that man’s blood is redder?! (Sanhedrin 74a).
Even When It Seems His Life Takes Precedence
Even when it seems to a person “that his blood is redder than his fellow’s,” meaning, that his life takes precedence over his fellow’s life because he is young and healthy, while being told to kill an elderly man who no longer recognizes those around him – even in such a case, he should be killed, and not kill that person. This is because the reasoning of “who is to say your blood is redder” is not the reason that a person must surrender himself to be killed rather than kill his fellow – it is merely illustrating the logic of the law. The law itself stems from the fact that murder is absolutely prohibited. Thus, under no circumstances may a person save himself by murdering his fellow (Mishpat Kohen 143 p. 319).
Surrender Your Fellow or We Will Kill You
Also, when one is not being asked to murder a person with his own hands but to cause his death – he should be killed, rather than transgress. For example, if they demanded that he surrender a person to criminals or enemies, or reveal to them where he is hiding so they can kill him – he should be killed, and not surrender. This is because accessories to bloodshed (abetting murder) also fall under “be killed, rather than transgress” (Razah, Nimukei Yosef, Ramban, Chinukh 296).
Similarly, if they demanded he provide a weapon so they can kill someone, without which they would be unable to kill him – he should be killed, rather than surrender the weapon (Ritva, Radbaz 4:92). And similarly, if they demanded he throw someone to a predatory animal thereby causing his death – he should be killed, and not throw him (Minchat Chinukh 296:25). Likewise, if they demanded he testify false testimony in order to execute someone – he should be killed, and not testify false testimony (Chatam Sofer, Ketubot 19a).
A Group is Demanded to Surrender One for Execution
If a group of people are demanded to surrender one of them for execution, no matter who, under the threat that if they do not hand one over, they will kill them all – they should all be killed, and not hand one over for killing (Tosefta Terumot 7:23). This is because the prohibition of murder is absolute, and even to save many, it is forbidden to transgress the prohibition of murder. Some halachic authorities permit them to cast lots to decide whom to surrender (Tiferet LeMoshe, Yoreh Deah 157). Others forbid casting lots to decide whom to surrender, since only via ruach ha’kodesh (Divine spirit) is it permitted to employ lots (Chadrei Deah 157, Nachal Yitzchak, Choshen Mishpat 87:3).
The Meiri wrote that if they demand handing one over for execution, and if not, they will kill everyone, and there is present a treifah person – i.e., one who sustained an injury to a vital organ that will likely cause his death within a year – it is permitted to hand him over in order to save the rest (brought in Shayarei Kneset HaGedolah notes to Beit Yosef Yoreh Deah 157:36. However, actively killing him is forbidden – Degel Reuven; Tzitz Eliezer 9:17).
One Who Sacrifices Himself to Save His Comrades is Called Holy
When Gentiles demand one person for execution or else they will kill everyone, it is permitted for one of them to volunteer to surrender himself in order to save his comrades, similar to the self-sacrifice of the martyrs of Lod. The daughter of a Roman ruler was found murdered, and the Jews of Lod were threatened that if the murderer was not surrendered, they would all be killed. Lulianus and Papus volunteered, saying, we killed her; they were executed, saving all their brethren (Rashi Bava Batra 10b). Our Sages said of the Lod martyrs: “Those executed by the government – no one can stand in their enclosure” (Pesachim 50a).
It is Permitted to Surrender One Like Sheba Ben Bichri
If the demand is to surrender a specific person for execution like Sheba ben Bichri, and if not, they will kill everyone – they should surrender him, and not be killed (Yerushalmi Terumot 8:4). Sheba ben Bichri was a scoundrel who incited Israel against King David, and when Yoav the army commander waged war against him, he fled to the city of Abel Beit Maacha, and fortified himself there. Yoav laid siege on the city, with the goal of destroying it, and killing its inhabitants who had assisted the rebellion. “A wise woman called out from the city ‘Listen, listen! Tell Yoav to come here so I can talk to him!’ He approached her, and the woman said ‘Are you Yoav?’ ‘I am’, he replied. She said to him ‘Listen to what your handmaid has to say’. ‘I am listening’, he said… ‘I am one of those who seek the welfare of the faithful in Israel. But you seek to bring death upon a mother city in Israel! Why should you destroy the LORD’s possession?” Yoav replied, “Far be it, far be it from me to destroy or to ruin! Not at all! But a certain man from the hill country of Ephraim, named Sheba son of Bichri, has rebelled against King David. Just hand him alone over to us, and I will withdraw from the city.” The woman assured Yoav, “His head shall be thrown over the wall to you.” The woman came to all the people with her clever plan; and they cut off the head of Sheba son of Bichri and threw it down to Yoav. He then sounded the horn; all the men dispersed to their homes, and Yoav returned to the king in Jerusalem” (II Samuel 20:16-22).
When the Gentiles Demand a Specific Person who does Not Deserve Execution
In the opinion of Rabbi Yochanan, even if the one whom the Gentiles are demanding to be surrendered is not legally liable for execution, since on account of him the Gentiles are coming upon the whole group, they may surrender him in order to be saved. In contrast, according to Reish Lakish, only if the one they request deserves death like Sheba ben Bichri, may he be surrendered. But if he does not deserve death, it is forbidden to surrender him, thereby causing his death in order to save themselves. The halachic authorities are divided over whom the law follows.
The Story with Ola ben Koshev and Elijah’s Revelation
The Yerushalmi (Terumot 8:4) tells of Ola ben Koshev who fled from the government and hid in Lod, near Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi. The Romans surrounded Lod, and threatened that if he is not surrendered, they would destroy the city. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi went to Ola ben Koshev and convinced him to surrender himself.
Before then, Elijah the prophet was accustomed to frequently reveal himself to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, and from then, on ceased to appear. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi fasted several fasts for Elijah to return and reveal himself. Elijah appeared and argued “Do I reveal myself to informers?!” Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi replied: ‘But did I not act legally, for if someone specific is sought he should be surrendered’? Elijah responded: “But that is not the way of the pious.”
Some halachic authorities say the law follows Rabbi Yochanan, that it is permitted to surrender the one sought by the Gentiles despite not being legally liable for execution, and as Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi practiced (Ran, Ritva, et al). Others say the law follows Reish Lakish, and Ola ben Koshev would have been permitted to surrender, since he was liable for execution by the government (Rambam 16).
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.