Rabbis in Israel Suspend Sabbath Observance to Identify Victims of Hamas Assault

by Andrew Wright
1 comment
Grief and Identification

Uncommonly, Israeli rabbis have broken with tradition by working on the Sabbath to identify the deceased, in the wake of a devastating attack by Hamas militants. Seven days after militants bypassed Israel’s advanced security barriers, unleashing carnage on hundreds of Israeli citizens in various settings—from music festivals to private residences—the military rabbinate made a rare exception to the observance of the Sabbath.

Located at the Shura military base in central Israel, the pace of incoming bodies has overwhelmed the rabbinate’s capacity to promptly identify them. Refrigerated trucks at the base are filled with body bags containing the remains of soldiers, women, and children, all awaiting identification. Teams responsible for this grim task take short breaks seated on plastic stools, donning heavy gas masks to mitigate the pervasive odor of decay.

Rabbi Israel Weiss, who is spearheading the identification operation, stated, “Jewish law generally prohibits any form of labor on the Sabbath, even for the deceased. However, exceptions are made when the uncertainty surrounding a death places additional emotional or psychological burdens on the family, potentially endangering their well-being. In such cases, the Sabbath can be suspended to provide closure.”

Given the magnitude of the crisis, involving approximately 1,300 fatalities attributed to Hamas, the most immediate solace Israel can offer grieving families is the confirmation of their loved ones’ deaths. The task is complex and may extend over several months. Certain bodies are in such a condition that visual identification is impossible, necessitating DNA tests for confirmation. Complicating matters further is the lack of a comprehensive civilian DNA database, which has resulted in only half of the civilian bodies being identified to date.

Desperate for definitive information, families throughout Israel are congregating at medical facilities to provide DNA samples, hopeful for a match with one of the unidentified bodies. Among them is the family of Maayan Mualem, last known to have been shot by Hamas militants at a music festival. Despite a day-long search at Soroka Medical Center, they have yet to locate her body.

“The Israeli government is committed to utilizing all available resources to ensure that every fallen citizen and soldier is properly identified,” added Rabbi Weiss. “The goal is to spare any family from the agony of uncertainty regarding the fate of their loved ones.”

This marks the first time since 2005 that rabbis have worked on the Sabbath, when bodies were exhumed from a cemetery in a vacated Israeli settlement in Gaza. Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, a year after winning the Palestinian elections, and remains in power.

Teams comprised of reservists from various professions are committed to the around-the-clock operation. Captain Maayan, a 40-year-old dentist from Tel Aviv involved in the identification process, encapsulated the emotional toll, stating, “The images confronted here are ones that cannot be easily forgotten.”

The military has had more success in identifying soldiers, due to the DNA samples collected at the start of their service. Thus far, 90% of the 265 fallen soldiers have been identified. However, the inflow of bodies shows no signs of abating.

Senior Staff Sgt. Avigail, who once worked for a telephone company, emphasized the unrelenting nature of the task, adding that her team consults with mental health professionals to cope with the emotional strain. She also noted that the traditional Jewish ritual cleansing of bodies is not being performed, as the circumstances of these deaths render the deceased “already considered pure.”

Some of the bodies are being taken to Mount Herzl, the national cemetery in Jerusalem. Amid the haze of the night, the fresh graves are visible only due to the harsh floodlights, aimed to assist the military personnel guarding them. As dawn approaches, the work of digging new graves will resume, but for the moment, young soldiers maintain their solemn vigil over the graves of their fallen peers.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Identification of Victims

What prompted Israeli rabbis to work on the Sabbath in this text?

Israeli rabbis made an exception to work on the Sabbath due to the devastating attack by Hamas militants that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Israelis. The aim was to identify the deceased and provide closure to grieving families.

Why was identifying the bodies such a challenging task?

Identifying the bodies was challenging because the influx was overwhelming, with some bodies too disfigured for visual identification. DNA testing was required, further complicated by the absence of a comprehensive civilian DNA database.

What efforts were made to help families find closure?

Families across Israel provided DNA samples in the hope of matching them to the unidentified bodies. The government committed significant resources to ensure that every fallen citizen and soldier would be properly identified to spare families the agony of uncertainty.

How did the rabbis justify breaking with the Sabbath observance?

According to Rabbi Israel Weiss, an exception to the Sabbath observance is permitted in Jewish law when a family is in doubt about a death, and the uncertainty poses a significant emotional burden. In such cases, working on the Sabbath is allowed to provide answers and closure.

When was the last time Israeli rabbis worked on the Sabbath before this incident?

The last time Israeli rabbis worked on the Sabbath was in 2005 when graves were exhumed from a cemetery in an Israeli settlement in Gaza, which was evacuated as part of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal.

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1 comment

InfoJunkie007 October 16, 2023 - 7:15 pm

I remember when rabbis last worked on sabbath in 2005, it’s rare but sometimes necessary.


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