Eishet Yefat To’ar – Woman Captured in War

January 2, 2015

4 min read


I find Deuteronomy 21:10-14 to be quite shocking. How can the Torah permit soldiers raping and capturing women in battle and keeping them against their will? It seems so inconsistent with so much else the Torah teaches us about marriage – and about waging war. It is true that the Torah requires a waiting period of 30 days in which the woman is made less attractive. But if the man still wants her after that he seems to be able to keep her whether she wants it or not. What is the explanation?

The Aish Rabbi Replies

I’ll begin by writing that it’s not clear if your astonishment is warranted. The Torah never states that a soldier is permitted to rape a woman on the battlefield – only that if he desires her he may forcibly take her home to be his wife – after she undergoes a lengthy mourning period (and converts to Judaism). This is the simple reading of the Torah – and the explanation followed by a minority of the commentators (Jerusalem Talmud Makkos 2:6, Ramban Deut. 21:13, Da’as Zekainim (21:12)).

In truth, however, the Talmud (Kiddushin 22a, Sanhedrin 21a), Midrash (Sifri, Ki Taitzai 213), most commentators, and Maimonides (Melachim 8:2) all understand the Torah as you are familiar with. And you are right that following that opinion, this section of the Torah is strikingly inconsistent with virtually the entire rest of the Torah and norms of Jewish behavior. And the explanation behind it is a fascinating one.

The Sages explain that an intriguing principle is at play here: “The Torah is addressing man’s evil inclination” (Talmud Kiddushin 21b) – meaning, the Torah permitted such behavior only because of the demands of man’s evil inclination. God recognizes that such things are bound to occur during the course of war. It would be unrealistic for the Torah to forbid the soldiers from abusing the women entirely. Thus, the Torah permitted it – at the same time vastly restricting such behavior – as well as forcing the perpetrators to live with the consequences.

The wisdom of the Torah in this is profound. First of all, by permitting the relationship, the soldiers – some of whom are bound to slip – will not feel they are vile sinners but will know they are acting within the confines of the law.

Secondly, the Torah greatly restricts such behavior – and the soldiers, who are still behaving within the framework of Torah law, will hopefully abide by it. For example, a soldier may rape only a single woman a single time, and only at the time of her capture (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 8:2-3). And even more significantly, he cannot just leave her, but must bring her into his home and take responsibility for her.

This final point contains an even more significant lesson. If a soldier wants to take advantage of another person in such a manner, he becomes responsible for her. He cannot just enjoy her and walk off. He must take her home and care for her. He is likewise expected to marry her and treat her as an equal for the rest of his life.

At the same time, the captive woman undergoes a month of transition till she becomes a full Jewess. She stays in his home and is made especially unattractive. Her hair is shaved off, she is given unappealing clothes, and her nails are let to grow (v. 13). She sits at his doorstep crying over her parents and past. If the soldier still desires her after that period, perhaps there is something deeper to his attraction. She converts (only if she is willing to) and he marries her. But in the much likelier outcome that the soldier has long lost interest in her, he must set her free, neither selling her nor making her work for him.

It is also significant to note that this section of the Torah is immediately followed by the section of the hated wife (relating to the laws of inheritance) and then by the section of the rebellious son. As the commentator Rashi (Deut. 21:11) points out, the sections are connected. One who goes so far as marrying the coveted woman will eventually hate her, and he is quite liable to father rotten kids through her.

It is thus clear that such behavior is in fact quite far from the Torah’s notions of morality. The captured woman is hardly a marriage made in heaven, and the consequences of taking her are both burdensome for the soldier and potentially devastating for his future family. God so to speak really does not want the soldiers to act in such a way. Yet the Torah is practical and realistic enough not to attempt to forbid the relationship entirely. The Torah thus permitted it – and there is that outside chance there was more to the relationship than simple physical lust. But in the course of permitting it, the Torah teaches us important lessons in taking responsibility for our actions and living with the consequences of our poor choices.

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