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    Religious Jews violate
    Shabbos in response to
    even a life threatening
    situation. Religious
    soldiers fight war 24/7
    in order to protect
    lives. This is widely
    understood nowadays.
    But was it always accepted that we may
    wage war on Shabbos? Some claim that
    this religious permission arose only in the
    time of the Second Temple, during the
    Hasmonean revolt. As we will see, this
    idea is illogical, unnecessary and lacking

    any basis in Jewish history even if non-
    Orthodox scholars accept it as true.

    The book of Maccabees (1:2:31-41) tells
    the story of how the Hasmoneans originally
    refused to wage war on Shabbos and were
    slaughtered. After that, Matisyahu ruled
    that they must fight back on Shabbos.
    This account is repeated by Josephus
    (Antiquities 12:276). Prof. Louis Feldman
    (Jew & Gentile in the Ancient World, pp.
    160-161) lists other ancient attestations
    to this refusal to fight on Shabbos, such
    as Strabo (16:2:40:763) and Dio Cassius
    (37:16). The question is why they refused
    initially and what did Matisyahu change.
    Isn’t it piku’ach nefesh, a life threatening

    situation that merits violating Shabbos?
    Why did they need Matisyahu to tell them
    that they are allowed to fight on Shabbos?
    Rav Moshe Tzvi Neriah, a leading student
    of Rav Kook and the rosh yeshiva of the
    entire Bnai Akiva school system, published
    a 1959 book about war on Shabbos fittingly
    titled Milchamos Shabbos. Rav Neriah
    asks (p.77ff) how the Jewish people could
    possibly have survived until that point
    if they did not violate Shabbos to save
    lives. There were so many wars during
    the First Temple era. How were the Jews
    not conquered and killed if they refrained
    from fighting on Shabbos? When the Jews
    returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian
    exile, they were under constant attack when
    they rebuilt the Temple to the point that half
    of them worked on the building and the
    other half stood guard: “We worked in the
    construction, half of them held the spears
    from the rising of the morning until the
    stars appeared” (Neh. 4:15). Why didn’t the
    enemy just attack on Shabbos and destroy
    the newly returned community and all
    their work? Furthermore, why is there no
    mention of this transition in midrash or
    Talmud? Rather, argues Rav Neriah, this
    is all a misunderstanding by historians
    looking for halachic change when none
    Rav Neriah quotes Rav
    Yitzchak Isaac Halevy (Doros
    Ha-Rishonim, part 1, vol. 3,
    p. 340ff) who says that when
    you look at this passage in the
    context of the Chanukah story,
    the entire question disappears.
    This episode occurred before
    there was a Hasmonean army

    fighting against the Syrian-
    Greeks. At this point in the

    story, they were individual
    Chasidim, Jews clinging to their
    religion against foreign oppression. They
    had two options in the face of oppression,
    flee or give up their lives in martyrdom.
    They fled and hid in caves. However, the
    government’s soldiers found them and
    tried to force them to violate Shabbos, for
    which the pious Jews instead chose to die
    al kiddush Hashem. When Matisyahu heard
    about this incident, he declared that we will
    not run, we will not hide, we will not die
    peacefully. Rather, he organized an army to
    fight back against the oppressors. When they
    come to force us to violate Shabbos, we will
    be ready for them and fight back. This was
    not the point in history when Matisyahu
    decided that it is permissible to fight back
    on Shabbos. It was when he decided we
    would fight back, we would join together
    in an army and defend ourselves. In this
    case, it was about Shabbos because that
    was when the enemy came but the story
    is about deciding to fight back against
    the mighty Syrian-Greeks, not deciding
    to violate Shabbos to save lives.
    Additionally, Rav Neriah points
    out, there is a difference between
    individuals defending themselves and
    an army fighting a war. Once Matisyahu
    organized an army to fight against the
    Syrian-Greeks, they were not limited
    to defending themselves on Shabbos to
    a specific immediate threat, like with
    normal piku’ach nefesh. They could
    defend themselves even against a remote
    possibility of a threat. They also were
    not limited to defense. This was war and
    they could attack on Shabbos, as well.
    Rav Shlomo Goren, the first chief rabbi
    of the Israel Defense Forces, takes a
    different approach to this question in
    his collection of army responsa (Meshiv
    Milchamah 1:2). Even if we accept that
    the Hasmoneans were already organized
    as an army at that time, and refused to
    fight back on Shabbos until Matisyahu
    changed course, that still does not mean
    that they believed that fighting a war
    in general is forbidden on Shabbos.
    In previous wars, whether against the
    Assyrians, the Babylonians or the
    local residents when the Jews returned

    from exile, Jews defended themselves on
    Shabbos. In the case of the Chanukah story,
    the Syrian-Greeks knew how important
    Shabbos is to Jews and wished to force
    them to fight on that day. Thus, there was
    a shmad-gezerah, an anti-religious decree,
    specifically to fight on Shabbos. Therefore,
    the Hasmonean beis din initially ruled not
    to fight — when gentiles try to force us to
    violate a law we must choose martyrdom
    over violating it. In this case, the enemy
    tried to force us to fight on Shabbos and
    the Hasmoneans chose martyrdom over
    submitting to this religious oppression.
    Matisyahu subsequently ruled to the
    contrary, that they must fight back. When
    the Syrian-Greeks continued this strategy
    of fighting specifically on Shabbos and
    it became an existential threat to the
    continuity of the Jewish people, the
    religious leadership of the time ruled
    that the continuity of the Jewish people
    overrides the law of martyrdom and they
    must fight to save Klal Yisrael.
    As the Israel Defense Forces fight back

    against the deadly threat of brutally anti-
    semitic terrorists, they fight on any day of

    the week and the year. The enemy attacked
    us on Yom Kippur fifty years ago and on
    Simchas Torah (in Israel) this year. They try
    to force us to violate our holy days but they
    do not know that Matisyahu taught us that
    we fight back at all times, with all our might,
    with Hashem’s help to defeat our foes.