What Torah Should a Soldier Learn?
Q. A soldier in active times, which sadly we find ourselves at the time of this writing, often has only a few minutes a day in which he can learn Torah. In this extremely limited time, what should he learn?
A. Obviously, a soldier’s primary duty is his military mission. This must take priority and he should not do anything to jeopardize it. Assuming he does have a few minutes of unstructured time, what Torah should he learn? I have never personally served in the army, but current and past soldiers tell me that there is almost always time to learn something. What follows is what I have seen published. I am sure there is more and everyone should ask their own Rav or Rosh Yeshivah.
Learning Torah in the Army
Rav Nachum Rabinovitch, the late Rosh Yeshivah of the Hesder Yeshiva in Ma’aleh Adumim, was asked about soldiers attending entertainment events that include women singers (Responsa Melumedei Milchamah, no. 116). He begins by saying that “bnei yeshiva,” soldiers who went to yeshivah, should spend whatever free time they have learning Torah and should not attend entertainment events in the army. The question, says Rav Rabinovitch, is whether soldiers who are bnei yeshiva should object when other soldiers attend such events.
In an article in the Sivan 5723 (May 1963) issue of the IDF Rabbinate journal, Machanayim, Rav Shlomo Goren discusses the obligation to learn Torah in the army “between battles, between missions and between conquests.” He points out that the very source for the obligation to learn Torah day and night was a command to Yehoshua, as he was about to lead the nation in conquering Israel (Josh. 1:8). The Gemara (Megillah 3a-b) explains that an angel came to Yehoshua during war and accused him of failing to learn Torah when he was not fighting (Josh. 5:13-14). Rav Goren, at the time Chief Rabbi of the IDF, concludes that every soldier is obligated to learn Torah whenever and wherever possible, whether “at military bases and camps, at positions and posts, at home and in the field.”
In normal circumstances, a man is obligated to learn Torah day and night. In theory, he is advised to divide his study schedule in three — one third for Tanach, another third for Mishnah and a third for Gemara (Kiddushin 30a). However, Rabbeinu Tam (Tosafos, ad loc., s.v. lo) explains that today we can fulfill this by learning Gemara, which includes biblical verses and Mishnayos. Rema follows Rabbeinu Tam in his glosses to Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 246:4). The Shach (ad loc., 5) adds that a working man, who can only learn three or four hours a day (!), should make sure to learn practical Halachah in addition to Gemara. You have to know how to follow Jewish law in your daily life and you can only do that by learning practical Halachah.
However, this does not eliminate other learning obligations that stem from other requirements. We still must complete the weekly Torah portion with the community. This means that each week we must review shnayim mikra ve-echad targum (the verses twice and translation once). In order to practice Judaism properly, in addition to learning practical Halachah, we also need to strengthen our faith and our ethics. Learning Mussar texts is an important part of daily life just to maintain your religious state, and certainly to grow.
What to Learn in the Army
Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan, known as the Chafetz Chaim, wrote a Halachah manual, titled Machaneh Yisrael, for the many Jewish soldiers in the Russian army. In chapter 6, the Chafetz Chaim emphasizes the importance of a soldier studying practical Halachah, whether from his book, Shulchan Aruch or any shorter codes like Chayei Adam. You have to know, and constantly review, how to act. However, adds the Chafetz Chaim, a soldier who cannot learn that should at least learn something — Chumash, Navi or just say Tehillim. If he has free time, he should fill it with Torah because otherwise the time can lead to improper activities.
In 1986, Rav Zechariah Yosef Ben Shlomo (of Yeshivat Sha’alvim) published a comprehensive halachah guide for Israeli soldiers, which he expanded in 2001. His Hilchos Tzava is a pocket-sized, softcover 900 page book with 100 chapters. Chapter 8 addresses the obligation to learn Torah. Rav Ben Shlomo writes (par. 5) that since time is extremely limited, a soldier should learn practical Halachah, particularly those laws that apply to a soldier’s situation. Preferably, he should learn from a concise code, such as Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Chayei Adam, Ben Ish Chai or an equivalent (he is too modest to recommend his own book). If he is unable to learn halachah, he should learn Tanach, whether the weekly Torah portion or something else. Particularly at night, when a soldier is tired and struggles to concentrate, he should learn something easy.
Both the Chafetz Chaim and Rav Zechariah Shlomo emphasize the importance of learning Torah together with other soldiers, when possible. It strengthens yourself and others, and enables the learning of those who do not have the skills or ability to do so on their own.
I heard in the name of Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl that a soldier should endeavor to do shnayim mikra because the Gemara (Berachos 8b) says that one who does so merits a long life. Presumably this is a bare minimum of what to learn.
Rav Shlomo Aviner (Piskei Shlomo, vol. 6, p. 265) was asked what a soldier can do to avoid spiritual decline while serving in the army. While this is requires a lengthy discussion, Rav Aviner briefly offers five pieces of advice, of which two are relevant our conversation:
1) Whenever you have free time, learn Torah on any subject you want
2) Learn Mussar, like Mesilas Yesharim
Rav Mordechai Tzion, the editor of this and many other books by Rav Aviner, told me that this is a general principle Rav Aviner teaches to soldiers. The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 19a) says that a person can only learn Torah from a text that his heart desires. Rav Aviner advises soldiers to choose a Torah text that excites them and keep a pocket-size volume with them constantly for learning when there is time.
The very conversation about soldiers learning Torah is itself inspiring. May all the Israeli soldiers see continued growth and success, health and holiness, long lives and spiritual wholeness.