The Yom Kippur War in 1973 serves as a stark reminder why the IDF must be on alert every day, especially on the holiest day of the year, and rabbis guide soldiers on the best way possible to maintain the delicate balance between a soldier’s obligations to national defense with his or her religious needs.
Day-to-day work in the IDF comes to a halt on all holidays like Yom Kippur, but essential security work must be active 24/7 as a result of constant threats posed by Israel’s enemies. In 1973, Syria and Egypt abused the holiness of the day by attacking Israel while most of soldiers were fasting at home or in the Synagogue.
For IDF soldiers who are on duty, some of the laws of Yom Kippur are not possible or even dangerous to observe fully. Yom Kippur is well known for its 25-hour fast, it also is forbidden to wash, bathe, apply lotions or oils to the skin or wear leather shoes.
Some soldiers observe the custom of immersing in the mikveh, the ritual bath before Yom Kippur. For soldiers who do not have access to a ritual bath, they fulfill the tradition by taking a three-minute shower, the equivalent of 12.5 liters of water.
All soldiers are exempt from wearing the leather IDF boots that are part of the standard uniform. Soldiers are entitled to wear their own personal shoes made from canvas, rubber, or in some cases, sandals. Troops who are in areas that require sturdy footwear, such as in fields with snakes or scorpions, are permitted to wear their leather boots until they are finished with the work, after which they can switch back into non-leather shoes.
Almost every base has a synagogue in one form or another. Before the holiday, the IDF Rabbinate ensures that every IDF base has enough of the special Yom Kippur prayer books. Cantors are sent to many bases around Israel in order to lead the intense prayer services.
Soldiers who are not on active duty are able to fast, but while on duty are allowed to have the equivalent of a capful of water and a tiny amount of food every nine minutes. The intervals are shortened depending on the intensity of the situation.
One new innovation to comply with the law allowing a certain amount of water is to use popsicles, which perfectly portion water out .Individually-wrapped mini ice popsicles work well not only because of their easy portion control but because they also provide a small amount of sugar for soldiers who need it.
Some soldiers are not able to fast at all due to their line of work. Refraining from food and water while on duty be dangerous for the soldier and for national security since it could distract from a soldier’s abilities.
Lieutenant Colonel Malakhi Ra’avad, head of the branch responsible for interpreting religious law, said that a soldier’s health and safety comes above all else. “We would not allow a pilot, for example, who will need to fly a plane during Yom Kippur, to fast at all. It would put his life in danger. Keeping our soldiers out of harm’s way is our most important concern.”
Soldiers who have questions regarding observance of Yom Kippur while on duty have several options in the army. In addition to advice from their own personal rabbi, soldiers can speak with the rabbi of their base or call the Rabbinate Hotline to get quick answers about observing Jewish law in the army.
Even the soldiers who go home for the holidays must still be prepared to be called back to base at a moment’s notice. Some soldiers keep their cell phones with them, even if for religious reasons they would not otherwise touch electronics during Yom Kippur.
When the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973, Brigadier General (res.) Avraham Baram saw firsthand what happened to the holiday: “The very second the war broke out, Yom Kippur ended for us.” He said that whoever was at synagogue during the holiday did not find out about the war or emergency call-up until many hours later. “It would have been so different even if I had this plain phone,” Brig. Gen. (res) Baram said, pointing to his smartphone.