By CH (COL) Ari Soussan, USA
European Jews suffered persecution, expulsion and innumerable pogroms from the times of the Crusades until the French Revolution. Prior to 1789 Jews were only allowed to live in ghettos (areas of a city specifically designated for Jewish habitation, surrounded by a wall and locked at night). They were severely limited in pursuing a profession of their choice and were prohibited from attending universities. Political discourse on the “emancipation” of Jews to become equal citizens often hinged on the question of their perceived ability to perform military service for the countries in which they lived.
As some Jews followed the call to arms to prove their loyalty to their “host nation,” their spiritual welfare was of concern to contemporary rabbis. One of the rabbinical authorities to respond to this novel situation was Rabbi Yehezkel Landau (the Noda B’Yehudah), who on April 12, 1789, made a memorable speech to 25 young Jewish soldiers entering military service and their commanding officers in Prague. The rabbi handed each recruit a prayer book, a packet of tzitzit, and a pair of tefillin. He then delivered this speech in High German, rather than Yiddish, most likely because of the presence of the imperial authorities:
Verily you have been my brothers, are so now and always will be, so long as you act with piety and rectitude! G-d and our all-merciful emperor wish that you should be taken for military service. Go forth to your fate, follow it without protest, obey your superiors, be loyal out of duty and patient out of obedience. Yet forget not your religion, do not be ashamed to be Jews among so many Christians. Pray to G-d daily as soon as you awake, for prayer to G-d comes before all. The emperor himself and all his servants, those who are present and those who are not, pray daily to their creator. Do not be ashamed of this sign of the Jewish faith.
When you have time, perform all the prayers that each Jew, as you already know, is obligated to pray. If you however do not have sufficient time, so pray at least the Shema. You may keep the Sabbath, because you, so I hear, will mostly [be able to] rest on this day. Grease the carriages on Fridays always before evening, do everything that you may do ahead of time. Live in harmony with your Christian comrades; see to it that you become friends with them, then they will carry out your Sabbath labor and you will work for them on Sunday, for they, too, as pious men and Christians are obligated to observe Sunday [Sabbath] as much as possible.
Keep away from all prohibited foods as long as possible. The emperor was gracious to say that you will never be compelled to eat meat. You may thereby sustain yourselves on eggs, butter, cheese and other permitted foods until you come to be with [civilian] Jews… Should one of you fall ill, so let him strive as long as possible to sustain himself through tea, until need requires that you must consume meat broth.
Moreover, always be true to G-d in your heart; do not waver from the faith of your fathers and serve our all-merciful ruler with good will and unceasing activity. Earn for yourselves and our entire nation gratitude and honor so that one may see that our nation as well loves its ruler and state authority, and in case of need is prepared to offer up its life. What is more, I hope that through you, if you act with honesty and loyalty, as is incumbent upon any subordinate, also those prejudices that still somewhat oppress us will be set aside. And what glory and what love will you not then thereby gain among all virtuous men, as well as by your brethren.
And herewith I wish to share with you my own blessing, welling up from the depths of my heart; I will apply to you those pesukim [verses] in Tehillim [the book of Psalms], which are relevant to your current situation: [Psalms 91:10] “no evil shall befall thee, nor shall any plague come near your dwelling. May the Lord turn his face to you and give you peace.”
At the end of the speech, both the Jewish soldiers and Rabbi Landau himself began to sob. Family members and friends gave them money and provisions and tearfully made their farewells.
Originally Published in the Shavuos 5782 Jewish-American Warrior