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Anti-tank trenches and Jerusalem’s survival


This week’s essay is devoted to one short chapter in the life and rich legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Goren, when the fate of Jerusalem was determined as the Jewish state was re-established in May 1948.

The two works under review that are the sources for  this episode are “Rabbi Shlomo Goren: Torah Sage and General” (Urim Publications, 2006) by Shalom Freedman, and “With Might and Strength: An Autobiography” (Maggid Books, 2016), by Rabbi Shlomo Goren, edited by Avi Rath and translated by Miryam Blum.

Right after the declaration of the state of Israel’s independence, Israeli army intelligence was informed that at 11 am on Shabbat, the Arab Legion was planning a tank invasion of the western sector of Jerusalem, where the new state’s capital was situated.

How to block this planned tank invasion of civilian targets on a Shabbat required not just military planning but civilian assistance in the digging — on Friday night — of a large anti-tank network along the northwest corridor bordering the very center of the city. It was to be this very timing that brought into play the involvement of Rabbi Shlomo Goren and others to determine the legitimate nature of the threat that would warrant an apparent desecration of Shabbat to save both lives and property.

Here is Shalom Freedman’s relatively brief take on this largely forgotten saga:

“There is a remarkable incident from the War of Independence reported in the ‘Army Encyclopedia.’ It relates to the siege of Jerusalem. According to the encyclopedia, on May 14 the commander of the Jerusalem forces came to Rabbi Goren and told him that the Jordanians were about to invade. He said that there was no available manpower to dig trenches that could protect the city in the north from where the invaders were to come. He asked Rabbi Goren to mobilize the yeshiva students, the only available population capable of doing the work.

“Rabbi Goren resisted, as this would involve causing a massive violation of the Sabbath. He said that he could not do this on his own authority, and went to Chief Rabbi Herzog who gave his heter. But this was not enough. He had to go as well to Rav [Yosef Tzvi] Dushinsky of the Eida HaHareidit, and ask his permission. Rav Dushinsky was sympathetic, but said he himself could not give permission.

“Rabbi Goren realized that the fate of the city was in his hands. So he went himself from yeshiva to yeshiva, mobilizing students for the work. Rabbi Goren, by his great conviction, was able to convince yeshiva students that the piku’ach nefesh involved in saving the city required doing this work on Shabbat, making it not a sin at all, but indeed a requirement. The students were persuaded by Rabbi Goren, and worked all night digging trenches in the northern part of the city.

“On the morning of the next day, the Jordanian tanks approached the city and the first tank that entered fell into one of the anti-tank trenches that had been built. When a second started to go in, the rest of the tanks turned around and went back.

“The city was saved from the Jordanian forces in great part due to the initiative and determination of Rabbi Goren.”

A far more detailed description of this saga is related in Rabbi Goren’s auto-biography, based on his diary from that time. With these two accounts, you will realize a greater appreciation of the risks taken by those over 1,000 yeshiva students, their leaders, and by Rabbi Goren himself.

The areas immediately affected by this effort are familiar to us today: Rachavia, Geula, Me’ah She’arim, Beit Yisrael and Batei Ungarin. Many of these communities now constitute the very center of western Jerusalem and are the religious and cultural heart of the city.

Digging these ditches served to save a city and, by extension, the nation itself. For had Jerusalem been overtaken and destroyed, it would not have taken long for the rest of the newly created Jewish state to have been decimated.

We have much to learn in this chapter in the history of the Holy City, lessons dealing in true religious leadership, bravery in both word and action — urgent action that resulted in the very saving of lives, lives so precious to our people especially coming on the cusp of the Holocaust.

As we approach Yom Yerushalayim, the saga related above of a history from 69 years ago should allow us all to better appreciate the final unification of Jerusalem 50 years ago.

This appreciation will best be commemorated in our liturgy and prayers on that day themed to the recitation of Hallel, of Tehillim, of praise and thanksgiving as befits our religious traditions.