When you go out to battle against your enemies, and God, your god, gives [one of them] into your hand, and you capture captives from him; and you see among the captives a woman who is yefat to-ar, and you desire her, then you may take her for a wife. (Deuteronomy 21:10-11)
yefat to-ar = beautiful of form, shapely, attractive.
yefat (יְפַת) = beautiful of.
to-ar (תֺּא) = form, shape.
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“When you go out”), opens with a standard situation in war: the men on the winning side of a battle take all the losers’ possessions, including their women. In other Torah portions, the enemy’s women are merely listed as part of the booty; their fate is not addressed until the portion Ki Teitzei.
The implication in the passage above is that the Israelite soldiers will restrain themselves from raping most captive women, but a woman who has a beautiful shape is a special case.
The Hebrew bible describes three people besides the captive woman as yefat to-ar (feminine) or yefeh to-ar (masculine): Rachel, Jacob, and Esther. Rachel’s beauty in the book of Genesis/Bereishit makes Jacob fall in love at first sight and labor for 14 years in order to marry her. When her son Joseph is serving as Potifar’s steward in Egypt, his beauty makes his master’s wife lust after him so much that she grabs his clothing to pull him down. Esther’s beauty in the book of Esther makes the king of Persia fall for her and crown her as his queen.
Clearly if you are yefat to-ar, your body is bound to inspire someone with extreme desire. Perhaps that is why this week’s Torah portion does not ask Israelite soldiers to refrain altogether from sex with the enemy’s women. But it does raise the bar for a man who desires a shapely captive. Instead of (or according to some commentators, in addition to) raping her in the field, he must bring her home.
You shall bring her into the midst of your household, and she shall shave her head, and she shall do her nails. And she shall remove the cloak of her captivity from herself, and she shall sit in your house, and she shall weep for her father and her mother for a month of days. After this, you may come into her and become her husband, and she will be your wife. But it happens that you do not want her [any more], then you shall send her out as her own nefesh. You shall certainly not sell her for silver, nor shall you take advantage of her, inasmuch as you violated her. (Deuteronomy 21:12-14)
nefesh = soul, person, individual; appetite. (In post-Biblical Jewish writings, the nefesh is the level of soul that animates the body.)
By bringing the captive woman into his household, and exchanging her captive’s cloak for ordinary clothes, the man publicly changes her status from war booty to prospective wife. Next, she gets a full month to mourn for her old home and family, by shaving her head (a common mourning practice in the Hebrew bible), trimming her nails, and weeping. During this month, the man is forbidden to molest her. The month of mourning grants the woman a measure of human dignity.
At the end of the month, the man chooses whether to espouse her or to send her away free. Being a woman, the former captive does not have the right to negotiate her own marriage. Nevertheless, she now has as much status as an Israelite woman with no father; she is either married or free, not a slave.
On a literal level, the law of the captive woman teaches men to restrain their sexual desires and reserve sex for responsible and committed relationships. It also teaches men to choose their partners after a period of consideration, rather than in the first heat of physical passion.
But the Chassidic rabbis of the 17th-19th centuries found other levels of meaning in the passage about the captive woman. The one that speaks to me this year comes from 18th-century Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi (with some interpretation by Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Sholomi). Schnuer Zalman saw the Israelite soldier as the conscious ego, and the captive woman as the nefesh, the level of soul that animates our bodies. He called this the “animal soul” because it is the seat of physical desires.
The nefesh is held captive not by the body itself, but by the limited perspective of our physical desires and aversions, and by the compulsions of our bad habits. The nefesh is a “woman of beautiful form” because, despite its captivity, it expresses some of the beauty of the neshamah, the divine level of soul that transcends the physical world.
When your conscious self longs to connect with the beauty of the divine, you have to free your nefesh from its captivity, so it can become a clear vessel for your divine neshamah. According to Schnuer Zalman, the way to do this is to shave its head and cut its nails—that is, to renounce physical desires for the sake of spiritual desires.
This year, my rational mind knows my body would benefit from a weight-loss diet. Another part of me craves comfort food. Now I wonder if my craving for comfort food is a bad habit that grew because of the limited perspective of my “animal soul”. My nefesh is short-sighted enough to prefer feeling better right now over restraining myself for the sake of a distant future benefit. Now the bad habit holds my nefesh captive. According to Rabbi Schneur Zalman, I should renounce my physical desires in order to elevate my nefesh.
But I do not want to renounce ALL of my physical desires. After all, some of them are good for my body, nefesh, and neshamah. For example, sometimes I feel the urge to stretch, take a walk, kiss my husband, or eat green beans and mint from my garden. These are good desires, since acting on them results in joy and gratitude for the gifts of the universe.
Can I renounce only one physical desire: the craving for comfort food?
I have never been able to stick to a diet I undertake for the sake of my body. But what if I dieted for the sake of my soul?
My heartfelt impulse is to give the captive woman in this week’s Torah portion a safe home and a position of dignity, respect, and freedom. Maybe I can see my own nefesh as a captive who is being enslaved by my bad habit. If I intervene, will God give me the strength to rescue my soul and give it a good home?