As I mentioned in another question, I was reading the Book of Maccabees over Shabbat (I and II).

In the book of Maccabees, it mentions that early on in the struggle, there were a group of Jews hiding out in caves. The Greeks found them and were going to attack them on Shabbat. The Jewish people in the caves, said they would not desecrate Shabbat no matter what, and all got killed.

In response to this, Judah aka Macabeaus, makes a proclamation that it is ok to fight on Shabbat so that they do not all get killed in this manner. Very reasonable.

Centuries later, in the books by Josephus*, Josephus mentions that the Romans were building siege engines, and the Jews would throw down stones to stop the construction. This foiled the Romans, until they started building the siege engines on Shabbat, and noticed that no stones came down on them. Eventually, the Romans only built the siege engines on Shabbat, and the people in Jeruselem got sacked and killed and all sorts of bad things happened. (This was years before the destruction of the temple btw.) Again, a proclamation is made, and the Jews are allowed to fight the Romans on Shabbat.

Later in the Gemorah (Shabbat 19a) (Right before talking about chanukah ironically enough) it is stated that you may not siege a city 3 days before Shabbat. Shamai however states, based on the passuk "Until it is conqureed" that you may siege a city even on Shabbat, until the city is completely taken. (Based on that verse in the Chumash).

Does anyone know what is going on here? Why did the people think they could not fight on Shabbat? Why, 300 years later, did they think so again, and why in the Gemora do they also make the assumption until Shamai says it's ok? Also, why today is it so universally agreed upon that you can break Shabbat when serving in the Army even not during wartime. (If it's ordered/required by the Army to do so)?

  • Quote from Josephus:

"The Jewish War" page 40 (I, 156) (Herod's Predecessors)

Pompey himself on the north side was busy filling in the trench and the entire ravine with material collected by the troops. This was a formidable task, as the depth was immense and the Jews interfered from above in every possible way. The Romans would never have reached the end of their labors if Pompey had not availed himself of the seventh day, on which for religious reasons the Jews will not set their hand to any work, raising the level of his earthworks while keeping his men out of all armed clashes; for only in self-defense will Jews fight on the Sabbath. When at last the ravine was filled in he erected high towers on his artificial platform, brought up the engines he had fetched from Tyre, and began to batter teh walls while the stone throwers prevented any interference from above."

  • Shammai lived prior to the destruction of the temple. Any tradition concerning him is dealing with a period of time before Josephus, not after.
    – Shimon bM
    Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 10:04
  • @ShimonbM Before Josephus, but after the book of Maccabees. Maccabees say break shabbat, Shamai says break Shabbat, but Josephus says they did not break shabbat, until there was a new ruling. Then the Talmud gets written down after Josephus, and the Amoraim say no siege on Shabbat.
    – avi
    Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 13:44

1 Answer 1


About the events described in Maccabees, R. Yitzchak Isaac Halevi offers the following explanation (Doros Harishonim 1:340ff):

These Jews hiding in the caves originally had no intention of waging war against the Greeks and their Jewish Hellenist allies, and no reason to think they'd be successful in doing so. But they figured that, while the Hellenists didn't want them to be able to observe mitzvos publicly, they wouldn't bother chasing after them into the deserts. When the Greek army did catch up with them on Shabbos, it was already too late to organize any kind of effective defense: at best they might have been able to take out a few Greek soldiers with them (in the spirit of Shimshon's "let me die with the Philistines"), but there was no natural possibility of saving their own lives - and so there was no overriding consideration to allow them to violate Shabbos.

When Yehudah Maccabee and his brothers heard about this, they realized that indeed the Greeks are not going to be satisfied with eradicating Judaism from the cities and towns; any practicing Jew anywhere in the land was in danger. Which meant, then, that it was time to start organizing themselves into fighting forces rather than just hiding. And then the halachos of warfare would apply, where defensive fighting is always permissible, and even offensives begun more than three days before Shabbos may be continued on that day (as per Shammai's statement - he lived long after these events, of course, but it is common for the Gemara to cite a teaching in the name of a later authority).

About the events before the destruction of Jerusalem: can you cite a source in Josephus? Because I'm not finding it; on the contrary, in Wars 2:19:2 he describes how the Jews made a surprise attack against the forces of Cestius Gallus. (It may indeed be that part of the surprise was exactly that - that the Romans figured that the Jews wouldn't fight on Shabbos, not realizing the above distinction between a time of war and one of peace.)

  • Great explanation of the Chashmonaim, but regarding the gemorah, I'm asking about those who did not hold like Shammai, (That Shammai had to correct them) I'll try to find the source in Josephus.
    – avi
    Commented Dec 19, 2011 at 7:13
  • the question has been updated.
    – avi
    Commented Dec 19, 2011 at 9:00
  • @avi: about Shammai, there actually doesn't seem to be any opinion that differs with his. ("Rabbi X says Y" doesn't have to imply that anyone else disagrees; it may be that they all accepted this principle, just that he cited a Scriptural verse to support it.) About Pompey's siege - maybe that was a different situation because it was basically a civil war between Hyrcanus and Aristobulus (with Pompey on the former's side) rather than a war against Rome per se. (Here's an interesting article on the topic by R. Shlomo Goren.)
    – Alex
    Commented Dec 19, 2011 at 16:30
  • the Gemora/bareita says anonymously that we don't do a siege 3 days before Shabbat. R. Shammai corrects them and says we do, because the verse says "until it's conqured" (This is a list of things some don't do 3 days before shabbat)
    – avi
    Commented Dec 19, 2011 at 17:43
  • @avi: no. The Gemara (by the way, it's on 19a) says: "We do not begin a siege of a non-Jewish city within three days before Shabbos. However, if they started [I don't know whether this means that they transgressed this rule and started such a siege within the three days, or if it simply means that a siege is ongoing], they should not stop. And thus did Shammai say, 'Until it comes down' - even on Shabbos." So no, he is not arguing with the author of the previous statement, just bringing a proof that warfare can be conducted on Shabbos in certain cases.
    – Alex
    Commented Dec 19, 2011 at 21:53

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