> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > M'oray Ha'Aish

Going to War

Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19 )


When you go forth to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God has delivered them into your hands, and you have taken them captive, and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and desire her, that you would have her as your wife, then you shall bring her home to your house. And she shall shave her head and pare her nails. And she shall take off the garment of her captivity, and shall remain in your house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month. And after that you shall go in to her, and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. And it shall be, if you have no delight in her, then you shall let her go where she will, but you shall not sell her at all for money, you shall not treat her as a slave, because you have humbled her. (Deut. 21:10-14)

The law is both surprising and perplexing; how can the Torah allow this type of behavior? All the more so, when, a few verses later, we read a number of cases which give us a glimpse at the higher moral standard which the Torah expects of man:

You shall not watch your brother's ox or his sheep go astray, and hide yourself from them; you shall in any case bring them again to your brother. And if your brother is not near you, or if you know him not, then you shall bring it to your own house, and it shall be with you until your brother seeks after it, and you shall restore it to him. In like manner shall you do with his ass; and so shall you do with his garment; and with every lost thing of your brother's, which he has lost, and you have found, shall you do likewise; you may not hide yourself. You shall not watch your brother's ass or his ox fall down by the way, and hide yourself from them; you shall surely help him to lift them up again. (Deut. 22:1-4)

If a bird's nest chances to be before you in the way in any tree, or on the ground, whether they are young ones, or eggs, and the mother sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. But you shall let the mother go, and take the young to you; that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days. (Deut. 22:6,7)

How can the same system, which is apparently concerned with the feelings of the mother bird, which attempts to sensitize man to this exalted station, be insensitive to the feelings of the captive woman, taken from her people in war?


In a sense, the question is compounded when we consult a passage in the Talmud which attempts to explain the propriety of this behavior:

Our Rabbis taught: "The Torah only provided a concession to the evil inclination." (Talmud, Kiddushin 22a)

We see that the Talmud frowns upon this type of behavior – the taking of such a war captive is considered wrong, and the Torah law represents a concession to human nature. The warrior, on the battle field, is swept up in primordial, base feelings which he has never felt before.

The warrior is swept up in primordial, base feelings which he has never felt before.

The terrible ordeal involved in the taking of another human life leaves the soldier with so much ambivalence about the value of love, dignity and even life itself, that he feels that he must vanquish this captured woman here and now. The Torah nowhere condones the behavior; in fact, based on the context, the rabbis felt that a negative message was being communicated by the text of this law:

Ben Azzai said: "Precept draws precept in its train, and transgression another transgression." (Midrash Rabbah 6:4)

By framing this behavior as a "concession," the Torah is agreeing that fundamentally it is wrong, and while the Torah certainly does not encourage this behavior, neither does it legislate against it.

But so much of Torah and its laws and mores are an attempt to bring man to a higher spiritual plane. Why in this specific instance, do we find a concession to the evil inclination? Why not allow porkchops once a month as a "concession"? Furthermore, if this woman is an incidental victim of this concession, how can we ignore her plight?

One could theorize that despite the allowance in the Torah, this is merely a ploy to calm the person in the heat of passion. Psychologically, the strategy is wonderful. A warrior wants this woman and he wants her now. The Torah says, "No problem, but there is one condition – she becomes your wife with all due privileges of that status." Perhaps this will help defeat the momentary passion, which is indeed a moral lapse.

We may posit that this is merely a psychological ploy to manipulate the raging passion within.

On a deeper psychological level, we may posit that this "allowance" is merely a psychological ploy employed in the hope of manipulating the raging passion within. We find this idea expressed in the Talmud's discussion regarding the priest who would bring the scapegoat on Yom Kippur to the desert. The priest on this divine mission was permitted to eat, and was offered food at various intervals:

At every booth they would say to him: here is food and here is water. A Tanna taught: "Never did any one [who carried the goat away] find it necessary to use it, but [the reason of this provision is because] you cannot compare one who has bread in his basket with one who has no bread in his basket. (Yoma 67a)

The conclusion of the Talmud is that the very allowance of the food is what gives the kohen the strength to reject it. A certain moral fortitude emerges from the concession. Perhaps this is the meaning of the words kineged yetzer hara which translates literally as "against the evil inclination," and not "a concession to the evil inclination."

While this explanation certainly gives insight into the psychological dynamic, the question posed earlier about the plight of the captured woman remains.

Moreover, deeper understanding of the entire scenario will present yet more difficulties: The section of the captive woman applies only to non-obligatory or optional battles, but in cases of milchemet mitzva, "commanded war," no such laws exist.


In reference to optional battles we are told that not all eligible males are expected to participate. In last week's Torah portion we saw an entire list of those who receive dispensations, among them the individual who is afraid.

What man is there who has built a new house, and has not dedicated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man dedicates it. And what man is he who has planted a vineyard, and has not yet eaten of it? Let him also go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man eats of it. And what man is there who has betrothed a wife, and has not taken her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man takes her. And the officers shall speak further to the people, and they shall say, "What man is there who is fearful and fainthearted?" Let him go and return to his house, lest his brothers' heart faint as well as his heart. (Deut. 20:5-8)

The Mishna presents various opinions regarding the source of this person's fear:

Rabbi Akiva says: "Fearful and fainthearted is to be understood literally – he is unable to stand in the battle-ranks and see a drawn sword." Rabbi Yossi Hagalili says: "[This] alludes to one who is afraid because of the transgressions he had committed." Rabbi Yossi says: "A high priest who married a widow, an ordinary priest who married a divorcee, a lay Israelite who married an illegitimate woman, and the daughter of an Israelite who married an illegitimate or a nation." (Mishna Sota 44a)

The Talmud goes on to explain that Rabbi Yossi Hagalili was referring to rabbinical ordinances that a person might have committed. The transgression listed – speaking between putting on parts of the tefilin – seems quite minor. This means that if even individuals who committed such minor transgressions did not participate in battle, those who remained in the ranks and actually went to battle were on a very high spiritual level. And yet these exalted warriors are the very ones for whom we fear, lest his evil inclination dominate them!

The Talmud's statement which sets such high moral standards for soldiers deserves a closer look. The point of the passage was to illustrate a violation of rabbinic law, but why was this particular example chosen above all others? In fact, why was any illustration of the point necessary?

Two things should be unified – the arm, symbolizing physical strength, and the head, the intellect.

The individual who speaks between donning the tefilin on the arm and the tefilin for the head essentially creates a separation between two things which should be unified – the arm, symbolizing physical strength, and the head, the intellect. To knowingly engage in battle required personal merit, but, more importantly, a unified world-view. A person who separates the two aspects of human nature, and sees his strength and mind working toward independent goals, could not be a soldier in this army.


What Rabbi Yossi Hagalili was looking for were soldiers possessed of a very specific moral/philosophical character. If this is the case, then we should be more than a little surprised that any concession to the evil inclination was necessary on such a person's behalf; additionally, our question regarding the plight of the captive woman remains unanswered.

A third question comes up. When the rabbis warned that "transgression draws transgression" they predicted that a result of this captor/captive – husband/wife relationship would be a rebellious son. If such a cause and effect is foreseeable, why would the Torah condone the union?

The association with the rebellious son may be the key to a deeper understanding of the teaching regarding the captive woman. We are told that a rebellious son is to be executed, not for what he has done but for what he will do.

A stubborn and rebellious son is tried on account of his ultimate destiny: let him die innocent and let him not die guilty. (Sanhedrin 71b)

[The thief] who burrows his way in is judged on account of its probable outcome. (Sanhedrin 72a)

The following must be saved [from sinning] even at the cost of their lives: he who pursues after his neighbor to slay him. (Sanhedrin 73a)

These three laws, of which the rebellious son is the archetype, all have a common moral argument: We are to consider the outcome, and take action with an eye toward the future.

If this is so, our quandary is resolved. We are told that taking a captive woman could lead to having a rebellious son. This idea is logical – taking a woman with alien values into one's home would certainly have an adverse effect. The child of such a woman will be a child raised by a mother who adheres to a radically different belief system. The child's rebelliousness against Judaism is understandable, predictable. This child was reared with intellectual dissonance, by virtue of being taught different ideas from his mother and father. It easy to see how such an upbringing would produce a confused child who suffers from spiritual angst.


There is, of course, a second possibility. What if this woman actually comes to reject her pagan past, and accepts the tenets of Judaism? The Torah commands that she be given 30 days in order to separate herself from her father and mother, as is explained in the Talmud:

Rabbi Akiva said: "Her father and her mother means idolatry." (Yevamot 48b)

This woman receives a "crash course" in Judaism. During the prescribed 30 days she is to separate from her idolatrous past. Again, this "experiment" could possibly meet with success, and the Torah makes allowances for that possibility.

Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, in his "Kovetz Maamarim" (p. 11), asks how can the Torah expect a 12-year-old girl or a 13-year-old boy to be capable of belief in, or knowledge of God when some of the greatest philosophers in the world, who possess keen, trained minds, have stumbled terribly in pursuit of intellectual truth.

He answers quite simply – that knowledge of God is not as difficult as we might think. Were it not for the evil inclination, all mankind would be able to clearly see and understand truth. It is not the belief in God per se which people find difficult. Rather, the implications of this belief are what makes it difficult. If the ramifications of belief were removed or disconnected from belief itself, belief would indeed be attainable by all those who seek truth, even the 12-year-old.

The captive woman may be open to learn about the Jewish idea of God and become a great believer.

The captive woman was raised in the pagan world, a world filled with fear and superstition, a world which worshipped power. When this woman sees that the soldiers of her people were vanquished and her gods therefore proven impotent, a startling discovery may occur to her – the pagan worldview is false. She will then be open to learn about the Jewish idea of God. If this happens, this woman may become a great believer.

We may now view this law's creation as an antidote to the evil inclination in a new light: It is structured to weed out the evil inclination in both the conqueror and the conquered, the "husband" and the "wife"! If the captive woman undergoes this metamorphosis, we may say that the logic is the same as in the case of the rebellious son. We are expected to look to the future, anticipating the results before setting the chain of events into action.

Arguably, the strongest supporter of such a policy would be the changed woman herself, no longer a victim, rather a newly-enlightened person who has emerged from the dark pagan world. In the event that a rebellious son results, we know that the experiment failed and we need not wait any longer to take action.

This idea may be implied in the Zohar:

A beautiful woman – a beautiful soul. (Zohar Chadash Ki Tezeh)

The woman who successfully makes the transition possesses a beautiful soul, but needs some help in order to liberate herself from the psychological chains of paganism. Now we may understand why the only individual with an integrated world view, one who does not create artificial barriers between the physical and the spiritual, may go to battle. When he sees this beautiful woman, he sees a beautiful soul.

The question must be asked: Is it his evil inclination or his good inclination which has deemed her beautiful? The integrated person sees her outward beauty, but knows that it is the soul which is really important. However, he may be led astray by his own tendency not to distinguish between the physical and spiritual; he may actually be guilty of self-deception, hence the possibility of a rebellious son.

The Or HaChaim Hakadosh explains the idea of the captive woman.

The foundation of the idea, and its mystical secret, is as follows: Our Sages have taught us, that by virtue of the sin of Adam, some precious souls were captured by the "other side" and these are the souls of converts. Go and see how many great people have come from other nations: Ruth ... Sh'maya and Avtalyon, Onkolus and many others. (Or HaChaim 21:11)

In a sense, there is poetic justice in his words: These souls were captured by the other side as a result of the apostasy of Adam. Now, in battle, we are given permission to bring these souls back, in defiance of the "other side," in defiance of the evil inclination. Such a battle is not simple. Success or failure will have severe ramifications. A family life – which will be either elevated or destroyed – rides in the balance. Therefore, only brave, holy soldiers, those spiritually integrated, spiritually elevated, may take part in this battle. Only they stand a chance to win it.


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