Religious Soldiers in Israel's Army

Israel's armed forces, like many Israeli institutions, make special provisions for the religious needs of Jewish participants.

Print this page Print this page

Prayer: Every soldier is entitled to receive time for daily prayer, 3 times a day: 30 minutes for Shaharit, 15 minutes each for Minha and Ma'ariv, with added times for holidays and Torah reading. In practice, religious soldiers who serve in units with predominantly secular soldiers have to request special permission to pray, and they usually receive prayer time in place of normal activity. This can sometimes cause tension within a unit, as those who pray do so "at the expense" of their friends, who have to complete the same tasks with fewer people to help.

Shabbat: In order to maintain basic and emergency functions, many army tasks, which would normally be forbidden on Shabbat, must be performed on Shabbat. A guiding principle for Shabbat-observant soldiers is pikuah nefesh -- preserving life. If the function may plausibly save a life, it supersedes the laws of Shabbat. Before using electric equipment for radio communication, writing, and performing guard duty, observant soldiers consider whether they could be justified according to the principle of pikuah nefesh.

Co-ed units: Most units in the army are mixed male/female. Religious soldiers, even those who do not have a problem in principle serving in such units, sometimes deal with difficult or uncomfortable situations created by the mixed-gender environment. For example, a religious soldier who holds him/herself to a high traditional standard of personal modesty, including not having any physical contact with members of the opposite sex, not even shaking hands, will probably face challenges in a co-ed unit.

Dress code: Religious soldiers are allowed certain changes with regard to the army's stringent dress code. Women soldiers can obtain permission to wear a skirt or not carry a weapon, in order to avoid prohibitions against wearing men's garments. Men in the army can obtain permission to grow or maintain a beard.

Food:  All food in the IDF is kosher. Some religious soldiers only eat glatt (strictly) kosher food, and the army provides special food for them.

Observant Officers

A phenomenon of the past decade is the ascent of Orthodox officers to the rank of general. For many years, the top brass of the IDF was a preserve of the secular elite, with the vast majority of generals hailing from upper middle class secular backgrounds. More recently, two religious generals were appointed to the general staff: Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh was appointed Head of the Homefront Command in 2003, and Maj. Gen. Elazar Stern was appointed Head of the Manpower Division in 2004. This phenomenon extends through the ranks of the IDF, where increasing numbers of religious officers can be found. This is an indication of the greater comfort and acceptance religious Israelis are coming to feel in once-secular bastions of Israeli society.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Eliav Rodman

Eliav Rodman, an informal Jewish educator, is a Lieutenant in the IDF reserves and holds a degree in International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.