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Parshas Chukas-Halachos of Warfare (Part I)

The verse in our parashah reads: “Then Israel made this vow to the Hashem: If you will deliver these people into our hands, we will dedicate their cities to Hashem” (Bamidbar 21:2).

The pasuk continues to describe how Hashem heard the prayer, and delivered the Canaanites into their hands. As Rashi (21:3) explains, the people were killed, and the property was, indeed, dedicated to Hashem.

The mention of the war against the Canaanites—later to become the chief adversaries of Israel, upon their entry into the Land of Israel—and the dedication of the spoils to Hashem, raises the halachic issue of warfare in general, and taking spoils in particular.

What are the halachic principles of warfare in a modern setting? Can spoils be taken, just as in the past? Can a campaign be undertaken on Shabbos? Can women take part in warfare? What are the laws of the Jewish war camp?

Although we will not be able to encompass all halachic issues of warfare in this short two-part series, we will try to give an overview of the subject, pointing out the central issues and outlining the halachic principles involved.

Milchemes Mitzvah: A Mitzvah War

The time of the Mashiach is described by Scripture with the following words: “He will judge among the nations, and will settle the arguments of many peoples. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift sword against nation, neither will they learn war any more” (Yeshayahu 2:4).

Until that time arrives, in a world that continues to accommodate no shortage of hatred, evil, and malice, there may be times when war is required. In such circumstances, halachah views war as a necessity (albeit undesirable), and participation therein can be a full obligation.

The classic case of a milchemes mitzvah—a war that involves a mitzvah and obligation—is a war of self defense. The Rambam (Melachim 5:1) writes that one of the three categories of a milchemes mitzvah (together with waging war against Amalek, and against the Seven Nations of the Land of Israel) is saving Israel from their enemies.

The example given by the Rambam for a non-mitzvah war—a discretionary war—is a war undertaken for the sake of expanding the borders of the state, such as the wars fought by King David.

Later authorities differ on the question of a preventative war: Is a preemptive strike included in the term “to defend Israel against an enemy that attacks them,” or does this term apply only to a situation in which Israel is attacked by her enemies?

According to the Lechem Mishnah, only a strictly defensive campaign is classified as a milchemes mitzvah, and the term does not apply to preemptive strikes. Others, however, dispute this point, and extend the scope of the term “to defend Israel against an enemy” to include a preventive war. A defensive war, which is required to save lives, is clearly obligatory (no less than saving lives outside a war setting), and for this purpose there would be no need for a special category (Sheyarei Korban, Sotah 8:10).

Going to War on Shabbos

There are a number of halachic ramifications that derive from the classification of a war as a milchemes mitzvah. One important ramification, which was discussed by Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 3:9) in the context of the State of Israel, is the question of whether it is permitted to go out to war on Shabbos.

As we know, the situation in the State of Israel often requires war, or military operations of one type or another, for the sake of defending the Jewish population from Arab foes. Some operations, such as killing terror operatives as they launch missiles at Israeli population centers, are entirely defensive; others are preemptive. Can operations be started on Shabbos?

Rabbi Waldenberg writes that not only “defense campaigns,” but even an offensive campaign to conquer the entire land of Israel and redeem it from its non-Jewish occupants, is considered a milchemes mitzvah according to the Ramban (added mitzvah 4). Moreover, according to the Ramban it is permitted to embark on such a campaign even on Shabbos.

However, wherever lives are not presently at risk, the Rambam rules that one may only embark on a campaign at least three days before Shabbos. Therefore, Rabbi Waldenberg rules that unless the campaign is strictly defensive, it may not be started on Shabbos.

Many volumes have been written on the subject of warfare on Shabbos, and the function of a Jewish army on Shabbos has provided poskim with a wealth of questions. We will not engage these complex issues in this forum.

Participation of Women in Battle

Another important ramification of the war’s classification is the identity of participants in battle. Whereas there are many exemptions from a discretionary war, nobody is exempted from participation in a mitzvah war: for a milchemes mitzvah “all go forth, even the bridegroom out of his chamber and the bride from her bridal pavilion” (Mishnah, Sotah 8:8).

The statement whereby even “the bride from her bridal pavilion” goes forth to war, one may conclude that both men and women are required to serve in an obligatory war.

However, poskim stress that this does not refer to actual combat. Some authorities rule that the participation of women at war refers to providing provisions for troops (see Rashash, Sotah 44b). Others write that only the bridegroom goes to war, whereas the bride merely cancels her wedding (Radbaz, commentary to Rambam, Melachim 7:4).

The reasons underlying these interpretations is that the verse forbidding a woman from wearing a man’s garments (Devarim 22:5) is interpreted as prohibiting a woman from carrying arms, and thus prohibiting her going to war (based on Sifri, Teitzei 16). The Ibn Ezra adds that if women will go out to war with men, they will come to licentiousness en route.

The Sanctity of the Camp in Time of War

The Torah states (Devarim 23:10): “When you go forth against your enemies and are in camp, then you shall keep yourself from every evil thing.” In the Midrash, Chazal interpreted this verse as implying a special warning in time of war to be careful regarding matters of defilement and purity, tithes, incest, idolatry, bloodshed, and slander (Sifri, Teitzei 44).

In his commentary to Devarim (23:10), the Ramban explains that human nature is such that moral restraints are loosened at time of war, and we shed the sense of shame felt in normal human society with regard to such acts as licentiousness and theft. The Torah therefore saw need for reinforcement of these matters through a special proscription.

In the ensuing verses, the Torah cautions about purity and physical cleanliness in the military camp. The section concludes with a general explanation that these commandments are required so that the Divine presence not abandon the Israelite camp: “Because Hashem, your G-d, walks in the midst of your camp, to save you and to give up your enemies before you; therefore your camp must be holy, that He may not see anything indecent among you, and turn away from you” (Devarim 23:15).

The Ramban (added mitzvah 11) adds that it is forbidden for a soldier to even think about women in the camp, for this can bring him to defilement.

Leniencies for Times of War

Although the Torah demands a high level of sanctity in the war camp, halachah does recognize that the battle environment involves no small difficulties, and Chazal mention a number of halachic leniencies that apply specifically during wartime. The Rambam (Melachim 6:13) summarizes the four leniencies:

a) Demai (food from which obligatory tithes might not have been taken) may be eaten.

b) There is no requirement to wash one’s hands before eating bread.

c) Wood may be gathered from anywhere. Even if one finds wood that has been cut down and dried, there is no objection to taking it for an army camp (there is no need to fear for the prohibition of theft).

d) There is no obligation to make an eruv chatzeiros for an army camp. Rather, one may carry from tent to tent and from booth to booth (this applies only where the camp is not in a halachic public domain).

The Rambam concludes: “Just as these leniencies apply when the army goes out to war, they apply when it returns.”

A special war leniency, which is explicit in the Torah, is the matter of the yefas to’ar—the captured woman whom a soldier can “take home” to be his wife. Chazal and later commentaries write at length on the details of this halachic leniency, and we will not expound on the in the current article.

Fear in the Camp

The Rambam (Melachim 7:4) writes that officers must be appointed over the troops, ensuring that their spirit does not fail, and that they should not weaken the hearts of their fellow soldiers. The Rambam writes that “fleeing is the start of defeat”—as soon as one soldier begins to flee, his brethren are filled with fear, and defeated is close at hand.

The Rambam adds that each soldier must strengthen his own heart. After urging the soldier to banish all thoughts other than the war from his mind, he explains:

“Anyone who begins to feel anxious and worry in the midst of battle to the point where he frightens himself violates a negative commandment, as it is written (Devarim 20:3): ‘Do not be faint-hearted. Do not be afraid. Do not panic and do not break ranks before them.’

Furthermore, he is responsible for the blood of the entire Jewish nation. If he is not valiant, if he does not wage war with all his heart and soul, it is considered as if he shed the blood of the entire people….

In contrast, anyone who fights with his entire heart, without fear, with the intention of sanctifying G-d’s name alone, can be assured that he will find no harm, nor will bad overtake him. He will be granted a proper family in Israel and gather merit for himself and his children forever. He will also merit eternal life in the world to come as the verse states (I Shmuel 25:28-29): ‘G-d will certainly make my lord a faithful house, for my lord fights the wars of G-d and evil will not be found with you… and my lord’s soul will be bound in a bond of life with G-d.'”


In this first article, we have outlined the laws pertaining to preparations for battle, and of the Jewish war camp. In the next article, we will please G-d address the questions that arise when engaging the enemy: laying siege on a city, the issues of looting and spoils, of harming innocent civilians, and more besides.

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