The Yom Kippur War and Yeshivat Har Etzion: Letters from a Talmid

Our father, David Landes a”h, in his dorm room in Yeshivat Har Etzion, ca. 1973-74
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David J. Landes z”l
Edited and Introduced by Yitz Landes


Our father, David Landes a”h, arrived in Yeshivat Har Etzion in February of 1973, just a few days after his seventeenth birthday. Having left his high school in Chicago a semester before graduation, he was for a time both one the youngest of the talmidim in the yeshiva and one of the only Americans. He immediately set to work adjusting to what was for him a foreign culture, a new language, and an extremely high level of Talmud study. He stayed in the yeshiva until the summer of 1974 and returned several years later for another year of study. Until his untimely death in 2019, our father remained an active alumnus of the yeshiva, serving as Chairman of the Etzion Foundation during a period that saw the retirement of his beloved teachers, Rabbis Yehuda Amital and Aharon Lichtenstein z”l.

Over the course of his first year and a half in yeshiva, from February 1973 until July 1974, our father sent an aerogramme to his parents, siblings, and grandfather almost every week. Upon our discovery of most of these letters, which we found in a box in our home shortly after our father passed away, we immediately recognized their importance for those interested in the history of the yeshiva. In these letters, our father describes several important aspects of life in the yeshiva—then still a rather small institution, numbering around 120 students—in its formative years. The letters include many details concerning the daily and weekly schedules in the yeshiva, the experience of Shabbat and holidays in yeshiva, the “learning” itself, and more. Some of the experiences our father recorded in the letters clearly had a lasting impact on him, to the point that he often recounted them to us over the years and chose to mention them in pieces that he wrote decades after his time in yeshiva.[1]

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, there has been significant interest in the impact of the war on Yeshivat Har Etzion. As is well known, the yeshiva suffered terrible losses in the war, and its students and roshei yeshiva were forever impacted. This has been documented in a recent film produced by the yeshiva, in which our father’s letters are excerpted extensively. The letters, written from the perspective of an American talmid trying to update family members with strong ties to Israel, document many of these tragedies and shifts as they were happening. We thus saw it fitting to publish here selections from his letters that were sent during the period of the war and in its immediate aftermath.

* * *

Writing a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah of 1973, in one of his last letters before the outbreak of the war, our father describes his plans for the time off following Yom Kippur:

The זמן is rapidly coming to a close. The 3 weeks of חופש that I have off will be spent on טיולים and the like. I’ll have to spend time with my friends who are leaving in a couple of weeks. I’ll also be seeing relatives and those people that I know whom are coming in for the next year.[2]

A bit over a month later, these plans sound as if they came from another universe. In what follows, I reproduce five of his letters in their entirety or with some brief omissions:

Dear Parents & Zaide,                                                                                    Tue. 9,  ’73 בס״ד

Today ended the third & ½ day of מלחמת יום כיפור. Overnight the nation has turned into a country very much in the midst of a serious war. The streets are barren of all men of army age, at night there is a strictly enforced blackout and cars travel with their headlights blackened. There still hasn’t [sic] been any encouraging reports from the Sinai but the situation in Syria seems to be getting under control.

In the middle of the Haftorah during minchah an army vehicle drove into Alon Shvut. Orders were that a truck would come for the 3rd year guys in a[n] hour and that they should be ready. The T’fillot continued, most of the yeshivah still didn’t know what had happened and would not know until after מעריב. After מעריב the news was announced and everyone got their orders to report to their posts. In no time the yeshiva was empty. There were already boys directly on the Suez Canal and in the Golan holding Yom Kippur services for the חיילים stationed there from before the war broke out. Reb Aron [sic] gave a very emotional talk to the Americans, telling us to continue our learning at a maximum level. A בית מדרש was set up in ירושלים for the next day. Monday afternoon we received a special course in stretcher-bearing and in the handling of wounded from the Civilian Defense authorities. In case there is a need we will be called on to help. In the meantime, we have been doing volunteer works, putting up סוכות for families who have fathers & sons in the army, making deliveries, working in factories.

There has been absolutely no word as to casualties or deaths. It is apparent that we are paying a heavy price. It is terribly frightening when so many good friends, boys I have learned with and have been in daily contact with, are all there on the front with their lives in constant danger, fighting for all of K’llal Yisrael. The realization becomes increasingly clear that our future rests only here in Israel. Our personal plans for Israel cannot be pushed off for a couple of years now or several later. We are all needed here now, Israel cannot absorb all these terrible losses.

Meanwhile, it seems that the war will continue for longer than any expected it to. Every day that it continues means more lives. One thing we have to be thankful for is that we didn’t return any of the territories conquered in ’67. Consequently, the war is far away. The fear now is that if Egypt keeps up the pressure, Jordan will enter the war. Already reports are coming in of the tremendous bravery that was displayed on the front, this is obviously a preparation for the tragedies that will have to be reported soon. Tomorrow is ערב סוכות. I will be at Fivel’s [his great uncle—Y.L.] for the חג.



Dear Parents & Zaide,                                                                                            Sunday 25 בס״ד

I’m very sorry that I haven’t written until now. Everything has just seemed to be happening so fast that I lost all track of time. Everyone was sent reeling from this war. The calamity was so great, that it is still hard to think coherently about it. Today I came back to the yeshiva. The Americans and the few Israelis that weren’t drafted have started learning today, but the rest of the yeshiva is still out there and who knows when they’ll be able to come back. Coming back to the yeshiva wasn’t easy. There are two boys who are known to have fallen in battle, there are wounded and there are also those who have been taken prisoner. The yeshiva won’t be the same for a long time. Those two boys who were killed, were on the Suez on Yom Kippur holding davening’s at the outposts there. What is there to say? They were outstanding boys dedicated to Torah & our country, who died defending all of K’llal Yisrael. Their loss is unbearable. Everything changes as soon as you know even one soldier personally. I remember the Six-Day war from back in the States, we heard about the losses, the exact number, but being used to hearing daily the Vietnam deaths made us somewhat callous. As soon as you know even one boy out there fighting, the whole picture is different. You are able to mourn and feel the loss of every boy that was killed. The exact numbers have not as yet been released but it seems that it will be over a thousand killed. Our bitterest nightmares have come true.

The first days of יום טוב I was at Fivel’s, the last days at Esther’s [his great aunt—Y.L.], and this past שבת at Yuda’s [his great uncle—Y.L.]. Understandably they weren’t much of holidays, they were actually more of a burden than anything else. Simchas Torah was very tough, it was just impossible to think about “Simcha” when friends are celebrating the holiday in a tank somewhere in Sinai. The next night I went to Shaare Zedek to visit a boy from the yeshiva who was wounded. Some yeshiva guys were holding second הקפות for the wounded there. It was an unbelievable experience. Those wounded who could walk were holding sifrei Torah and dancing. Simple songs like עם ישראל חי, לשנה הבאה בירושלים הבנויה suddenly took on a new meaning. It was such a זכות to be there.

As I wrote earlier our only future is here. There is not one country in the world who is somewhat understanding to our cause. This war has clearly shown that anti-Semitism [sic] is a global illness. Our only hope is to strengthen Israel with numbers, to make it into as much as an independent country as possible. I expect a visit from you in the near future.


Dear Parents, & Zaide,                                                                                                  Nov.  7 בס״ד

Yesterday I spent the whole day traveling. A bunch of us went on a גמילת חסד trip to Haifa, Hadera & Netanya. In Haifa we visited a boy from the yeshiva in a hospital there. He was badly burned in a tank and has many shrapnel wounds. He still is not in great shape but he has greatly improved since his first day in the hospital. In Hadera we visited the family of a boy from the yeshiva who fell in battle. In Netanya we also were מנחם אבל, again the family of a guy from the yeshiva. Yesterday we heard some shocking news about another on from the yeshiva who has been killed. He was married two months ago. The government just announced the official count of those who were killed in the war, 1,834. It is so impossible to comprehend the tremendous loss. Whole worlds were destroyed in this war. Today the temporary army graveyards are being opened to the families of those who were killed. It won’t be easy to recover from the blow…

…Reb Aron and Rav Amital were out in “Africa” [the Western side of the Suez Canal—Y.L.] visiting the troops. Reb Aron said that the platoon leader of the yeshiva guys told him an interesting story. After the 3rd day of the battle, when the situation was very dangerous, the platoon leader called the guys together to tell them what was happening. He explained to them that the problems were great and that a retreat might be necessary. One of our guys answered, “Yes, we know all that. But we have a real problem. We need a lulav and esrog.”


Dear Parents,                                                                                                            Wed 21st בס״ד

…There was another wedding this week. The first real simchah since the war. The חתן got a three-day leave from the front to get married. The prisoners are coming back, but the two boys from the yeshiva who were missing and whose only hope was that <they> were taken prisoner, were not on the list given over by the Egyptians.

Rav Amital spoke to the yeshiva the other day. He said that we have to look at the war in Messianic terms. What he said was based on three points. First of all, the war was fought by מלכות ישראל, a Jewish state. Second of all, it was a war that affected and continues to affect the whole world in an incomprehensible manner. And third of all the miracles that occurred, were far surpassed those of the other wars. The Torah’s vision of ten defeating an army of a thousand was realized. There was no battle in this war that the enemy didn’t out-number us two or three to one. We experienced ישועה (salvation) of immense proportions. That the Arabs with their numbers and arms didn’t overrun us the first day is clearly a miracle. Rav Amital went on to say that although our suffering is great, it does not negate our responsibility to rejoice and to give our thanks to G-d. He also mentioned in the talk that once the redemption (גאולה) has started, there are no defeats, only gains. What the immediate purpose of this war we do not know, but that we are on the road of גאולה is certain.[3]

I’m expecting a visit soon [i.e., from his parents—Y.L.]. One could tell that things are happening here. It’s important to be in Israel at this time.

As of yet, the guys have not come back from the front. It might take months.


Dear Parents & Zaide,                                                                                            בס״ד כ׳ מרחשון

The other night I went to a wedding of a boy in the yeshiva. It was strange having a wedding in the middle of a period of war. We tried our best to make it “leibedick,” all though practically the whole yeshiva wasn’t there. In the middle of the wedding a few of us left to attend an אזכרה for another boy in the yeshiva who was killed in the war. On one hand we were celebrating the biggest Simcha we know of, and on the other hand we were mourning the biggest loss we could have. This is the miracle of Israel (״מלך ממית ומחיה״).

Today will be the first day of the prisoner exchange. We are praying that a couple of boys from the yeshiva who are missing will be among them. They are starting to give one- or two-day leaves and we are getting a chance to see some of the guys again. Above all one thing they do not want is another war.

The following is a story Rav Amital told on the radio motzei Shabbos. It was told to him by a commander of troops from the yeshiva: “The ‘chevrah’ returned from the first battle they’ve ever experienced, a cruel and hard battle in which some of their friends were hit. They were all in a state of shock, it could be no other way. As I was trying to find the words to pull them out of their shock and bring them back to reality, I heard the cry of one soldier, ‘Ma’ariv!’ Suddenly they are all gathering and are praying ‘ברכו את ה׳ המבורך,’ and they are davening with intense fervor and meaning.”

Rav Amital also described the meetings he had with the troops: “We met the boys at the different strong points spread out in the sands of the desert. While we were traveling by jeep accompanied by a reserve officer, we met them in the midst of special training. We had some emotional meetings when we surprised our students with our presence. And when we were recognized by them, they jumped from their tanks straight to our arms, unable to express themselves verbally. The place—60 kilometers from Cairo. The scenery—sand dunes and abandoned missile sites. In the immediate vicinity—Israel tanks, and in the middle of it all—a meeting of brothers, the Rav and his talmidim embracing.”


The following are brief snippets from other letters that our father sent, providing additional details, particularly as the yeshiva began to recover from the war:

11.30.73: “Everything has settled down to a more or less regular routine. The four Israelis that are here who were not drafted for physical reasons are being drafted now to become medics. There will only be two or three Israelis and all us Americans in the yeshiva until the middle of February at the earliest. It gets quite depressing at times, especially on שבת, but the learning isn’t yet suffering…Rav Amital was here שבת and he invited us all into his apartment. He told stories of his trips to the Golan and the Sinai. He told of one man he knows who lost his family in Europe during the Holocaust and came to Israel and remarried and now lost his son during the war. The man said that at least his son was buried like a Jew, we are making some progress…”

1.2.74: “…The guys are still on the front. No sign of them returning any earlier than פסח, at the best. But the learning is continuing on. It seems that Reb Aron might got the U.S. for a month. It seems that the Ministry of Absorption wants to send him to promote aliyah, and it also seems that the yeshivah needs money. His absence would sort of ruin things here in the yeshiva…”

1.15.74: “Last week two boys from the yeshiva who were considered missing in action, were declared as dead. Everyone knew that there was very little chance of them being found alive, but there was always that hope. Now, three months after the war, there are still families who are sitting “shiva.” The wound is still fresh and the nightmare won’t be forgotten for a long time. Daily, there are soldiers of ours who are killed and wounded. It is still felt, especially by those at the front, that the war might suddenly be renewed at any time. In talking to one soldier who gave us a lift, we heard some shocking news. This soldier himself was pretty well despaired by the whole situation. He feels that it it’s crazy to put one’s own life on the line at the front now, since most of it will be given back anyway. He said that the police in Jerusalem recently jailed 13 A.W.O.L.’s. They seem to feel that the choice is either sitting on the Syrian border for a year, or sitting in jail for a year and by sitting in jail at least you won’t get killed. This is clearly not the general feeling, but everyone would agree that it is realistic. Just the idea that parts of Judah & the Shomron (including the Gush) might be given back, makes one sick to his stomach. We haven’t sacrificed so many lives so that this would be the result. The Vilna Gaon said that once the “G’ulah’ has started, there is no falling back. Only if we believe that all this is leading up to something, are we to continue living with a purpose. If this is not actually the time of the “G’ulah,” then that means that the Arabs could wipe us off the map tomorrow…Meanwhile, it has gotten very cold out here. The learning is continuing very well.”

1.20.74: “…It still seems very bleak as to when our guys will return. The boys in “Hesder” will most likely be the last ones to be let out. Reb Aron is going to America for three weeks in early February. I don’t see how the yeshiva will get on without him. But meanwhile the learning is continuing strong…”

1.30.73: “…Reb Aron will be leaving for the States on Feb. 12 for 3 weeks. The Foreign Ministry is sending him to promote aliyah and he’ll also be doing work for the yeshiva… The weather is still cold but currently dry. The yeshiva has run out of fuel so there is no heat or hot-water in the dorms. But it is not as yet all that bad…”

2.26.74: “…Some of the guys are starting to come back. There should be quite a few back for Purim. I remember last Purim when I first came to Israel. The tremendous simchah really sold me on the yeshiva. This year no one knows how it is going to be like. On one hand there is reason for an even greater simchah but on the other hand it is impossible to think of dancing and singing in the yeshiva anymore…”

4.24.73: “…The yeshiva now is getting pretty full and some sense of normalcy is returning. Today is Yom Hazikaron (יום הזכרון) Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers. Last night there was an אזכרה at the yeshiva for the eight from our yeshiva who were killed in the war. The place was packed. Rav Amital & Rav Lichtenstein both spoke very well. Tomorrow is Yom Haatzmaut, no wild celebrations this year…”

6.21.73: “…Yesterday was Yom Yerushalayim. We had a חגיגה at night like last year. But this year the yeshiva as a group didn’t go to the כותל in the morning to daven there, because it was felt that after the tragedies that the nation has recently suffered it wouldn’t be right to daven in the streets of Yerushalayim…”

[1] See David J. Landes z”l, Our Roshei Yeshiva: Reflections on the Lives, Thought, and Leadership of Rabbi Yehuda Amital zt”l and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l, ed. Yitz Landes (Cambridge, MA: Shikey Press, 2022).

[2] Letter dated August 30, 1973.

[3] Our father is referencing here Rav Amital’s talk later published as Li-Mashmautah shel Milhemet Yom ha-Kippurim in his Ma’alot mi-Ma’amakim; see also our father’s reflections on this talk in Our Roshei Yeshiva, 25-28. For an English translation of the talk, see now Tradition 55:3 (2023).

David J. Landes passed away in September 2019. He was a private investor and independent academic based in New York City and Teaneck, New Jersey. Yitz Landes is Assistant Professor of Rabbinic Literatures and Cultures at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.