Orthodox Jews have taken on more and more responsible government positions and have been trusted with clearances to see highly sensitive classified materials. Many years ago I had such a job. It never happened to me, but I can envision a situation where an unpublicized national security incident has resulted in the Jewish White House or Defense Department worker to be called into the office on Shabbos. He/she goes to his rav to ask whether he can go in. The rav says he needs to know the nature of the emergency. Assume the rabbi does not have security clearances.

  1. Can the rav give a heter simply by relying on the assurance of the congregant that the issue involves a classified matter that is of national importance, potentially life-and-death, and requires his/her personal attention and that he can't tell him anything more?

  2. If the rav insists on more information, does he have a halachic responsibility to not disclose the confidences of his congregant, similar to the requirement of a Catholic priest not to devulge confessional information (I say this because the parrishoner-priest confessional is a recognized privilege in courts of law)?

  3. Would American law permit or prohibit any disclosure to the rabbi? A retired Army chaplain told me he thinks that the congregant would not be held responsible, but I've been unable to find a source in statutes or in case law. Moreover, I've seen cases where someone lost their clearances because, during a polygraph examination, he admitted to revealing information to his wife -- where there is also a legal privilege recognized in courts.

  • 1
    I would think any disclosure would be a violation of law and his obligations to maintain the secrecy of the information.
    – Seth J
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 18:50
  • 1
    @SethJ: Personally, I think you're right, which makes the first option I mentioned (basically letting the rabbi trust the congregant's determination that his presence at work is essential) more important. I've sent this question to a friend who teaches government employment law at Yale. He is an expert in this issue and I will pass on his answer if he gives me one. Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 20:01
  • @Scimonster yes, you're right -- that was a bad edit on my part. Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 19:44
  • After 9/11 this question did arise in actuality. I believe the rav was able to pasken based on the congregants determination and based on the unclassified parts that the congregant was (legally) allowed to disclose. The main part was how the congregant should behave while staying at ---- during Shabbos. Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 14:19

3 Answers 3


For parts 1 and 2 see this answer. This answer addresses part 3.

I have a US security clearance, and the rules that came with that say that I could suffer penalties ranging from losing my clearance to going to jail if I reveal classified information to anybody who (a) does not have a clearance or (b) does have a clearance but does not have a government-recognized need to know. ("Need to know" is a technical term.) There is no provision in the documents I've seen to support exceptions for confidential conversations such as with lawyers or clergy, though I haven't specifically asked about this case.

If the rabbi also has a security clearance then the congregant might be able to argue that there is a need to know, but the congregant should check with his security officer about how to make that determination before he reveals any information.

Published case histories where clearances were considered for revocation might make for interesting reading, though I couldn't find any cases there that directly bear on this question.

  • Back in the "Year of the Spy" (1986), I, too had a TS/SCI clearance, and as I said to Seth, I think you're right. But I've asked the question of a Yale professor I know who would know for sure. The question, I think, has come up with people and their psychiatrists, including works of fiction discussing a president's psychiatrist. Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 20:11
  • @BruceJames, I'll be interested in seeing what the professor has to say. (And just to be clear since you said "I too", I never said what level of clearance I have. :-) ) Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 20:14
  • 1
    Got the answer: According to Prof. Eugene Fidell of Yale Law School, "Interesting question, but in my opinion he [congregant] would have no defense [to charges of unlawful disclosure of classified information]. The solution here is to consult a uniformed rabbi." I replied jokingly, "isn't a black suit, white shirt and black hat a 'uniform'?" Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 20:23
  • 2
    @ShmuelBrin yeah, what's the world coming to? :-) Commented Feb 27, 2013 at 1:25

Possible answer to part 1.

1) Here you find the well known statement that

"Gemara (Yerushalmi Yuma 8:5) puts it very pithily: “The one who acts with alacrity is to be praised; the one who is asked (concerning whether to desecrate Shabbos) is disgraceful; and the one who asks is a murderer.”

The statement is qualified

This is because every rav has the responsibility to teach that pikuach nefesh supercedes Shabbos. If someone still finds it necessary to ask a shylah, this is an indication that the rav has been lax in his duties.

It must be noted that the Gemara’s condemnation is referring specifically to where time is of the essence. If this is not the case, then one is encouraged to ask a halachic authority (Aruch HaShulchan Orach Chaim 328:1-2).

So, in order not to have to ask when there is a time-sensitive situation, the congregant should ask his rav before the need arises.

2) Even when there is time to ask, the rav will have to rely on the congregant's information at some point (eg that the documents are real and came to the congregant in a permitted way). If the rav knows the congregant, he can assume he can trust him.

Approach to question 2 based on an essay I wrote on Professional & Ethical Issues in Counselling but relevant here too.

In a review of medical ethics (1), the late Chief Rabbi I Jakobovits noted that professional secrecy did not excite special interest in Jewish thought because it was taken for granted as being already covered by the general injunction against talebearing.

This injunction mentioned in Leviticus [You shall not be a talebearer…] (2), is generalised by Rabbi Gombiner, (3) who says that someone who tells over something he heard without permission to tell it over has violated a Torah prohibition.

Several other authorities rule similarly and the Vilna Gaon (4) specifically states that revealing confidences and “bearing tales” are the same transgression. So we see that confidentiality should be absolute. 1) I Jakobovits, “Judaism and Medicine – an overview” Assia 7, nos 3-4 (1980) pp57, 58. 2) Leviticus 19, 16 3) Rabbi A Gombiner, to Sh. A., O. Ch. 156. 4) Biur HaGr’a Ch. M. 425, 10.

  • 2
    Very good points, and in the first case, excellent advice, IMO. Generally, when something comes up that's serious enough to set Shabbat restrictions aside, time is of the essence. It would seem impractical for someone in a role that includes such activities (e.g. a doctor or a national security official) to consult a rabbi before participating each time something comes up.
    – Isaac Moses
    Commented Feb 27, 2013 at 16:15
  • The situation did arise after 9/11 in which there was sufficient time (until the next Shabbos) to ask the sh'aila but the pikuach nefesh still existed. Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 14:15

With regard to question #3: According to Prof. Eugene Fidell of Yale Law School, who is an expert on government labor law and the military criminal la, the congregant would have no defense to a charges of unlawful disclosure of classified information if he disclosed classified info to s civillian rabbi. Therefore, the annswer to question #2 is moot. His only reccourse is to find a rabbi/chaplain on active duty and with sufficient clearances.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .