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The Rabbi Wore Battle Fatigues

Rabbi Yehuda Amital

Rabbi Yehuda Amital

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Rabbis Cherlow and Hacohen both belonged to the eighth class of the yeshiva, which began its studies during the 1974-75 academic year – the year after the Yom Kippur War. The following class produced more officers than any other: half of the students in the class served as officers.

Col. (Res.) Bentzi Gruber, later commander of an armored division in the reserves, belonged to that ninth class, and he describes the strong sense of mission Rav Amital imparted to those students who became officers. “He inculcated within us the notion that joining the army leadership was the order of the day. His main reason was the army’s need for officers after the crisis of the Yom Kippur War, but he also spoke about the great privilege of serving in the military after the Holocaust.”

* * * * * Rav Amital’s positive attitude toward military service found expression in other ways as well. Ben-Ner tells how Rav Amital made an astonishing proposal to him in the mid-1970s: he wished to establish emergency weapons storage units near the yeshiva, to be available to the students in case of emergency. The units were not built because the yeshiva did not have enough manpower to justify it, but the proposal demonstrates the importance that Rav Amital ascribed to his students’ military service.

At the rabbinic liaison between the yeshivot and the military, the yeshiva boys’ fitness was more important to Rav Amital than their terms of service. Ben-Ner recounts that Rav Amital would occasionally complain that the soldiers did not get sufficient mechanical or ammunition training.

“When Rav Amital would express concern about the soldiers’ battle-worthiness,” Ben-Ner said, “the commanders would just melt and immediately make the necessary changes.”

Rav Cherlow recalls how surprised he was as a soldier by Rav Amital’s reaction to his students’ complaints about the workload they carried in the army:

“We barely slept. It was a very cold winter, and they worked us to exhaustion because there was a fear of war. Rav Amital came and we thought, great, here’s someone we can complain to. We started telling him about the difficulty, but he said, ‘Excellent!’ We were quite confused. He then explained his views to us. He said, ‘I’m very happy to hear that the guys in the army are working hard, and for two reasons – so that they’re really fit, and so that they’re too busy to get involved in nonsense.”

The importance Rav Amital ascribed to military training occasionally impacted his halachic rulings. Nissan Zisken, a student from the yeshiva’s early years, recalls that about a year and a half after the Yom Kippur War, a state of high alert was declared, and he and his friends were required to train on Shabbat.

“They told us that the decision to train had already cleared all the necessary hurdles, so we trained. But as a tank driver, I tried to do some things in a backhanded manner to mitigate the degree of Shabbat violation involved. A week later I met Rav Amital and told him how I trained on Shabbat. He said to me, ‘There was no need for you to act that way. One cannot train for battle backhandedly.’ ”

One of Rav Amital’s qualities that helped his soldier-students during their military service was his ability to decide halachic questions without hesitation. Rav Ya’akov Medan tells of one such incident:

“In August 1970, a month before the events of Black September, we were designated as the unit on alert for the Airborne Nahal battalion in which we served. One Friday they informed us, about two hours before Shabbat, that they were taking us for training. They expected me to issue a ruling about training on Shabbat, and I had no idea what to do…. I went to the war room, even though I was just a private, and resolutely told the woman in charge there that I must call Rav Amital urgently. She was alarmed and immediately let me call. Rabbanit Amital answered the phone and told me that the rabbi could not come to the phone just then. I gathered that he was taking a shower for Shabbat. I told her that I had to speak with him, and he was out of the shower in a second. He listened to me and said right away, ‘Don’t worry. It’s a mitzvah.’ At that moment, a great burden was lifted off my heart.”

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During the Yom Kippur War and its immediate aftermath, Rav Amital would travel from base to base, visiting his students. His frequent visits brought him into close contact with senior IDF commanders, and soon after the war he was asked by the upper command echelons of the IDF to be the rabbinic liaison between the army and the hesder yeshivot. The military even allowed him unfettered entry, in uniform, into IDF camps.

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