Once the Israelites have taken over most of Canaan and established their own country, Moses says in last week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“Judges”), a king will have more important duties than wars of conquest, and some men will have more important duties than being soldiers. Battles are inevitable in the Torah, and advantageous to the winners; winning king expands his kingdom, and his soldiers get shares of the booty. But the portion Shoftim opens a door to an attitude that values peace.
In last week’s post, Shoftim: More Important Than War, Part 1, I covered the four rules a good king must follow, all of which would make a war of conquest more difficult—unless God intervened. Later the portion Shoftim says:
If you go out to battle against your enemies and you see horse and chariot, more troops than you have, you must not be afraid of them, because God, your God who brought you up from the land of Egypt, is with you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 20:1)
Individual men must still be prepared to die, but they should know that God is on the side of their country and their comrades.
If the war is defensive, protecting the kingdom from attack, then all able-bodied men who are age 20 and older must serve in the military.1 But if the war is offensive, designed to expand Israel’s border or its prestige, then four kinds of circumstances excuse men altogether from going to battle.2
1) Then the officials will speak to the troops, saying: “Who is the man that has built a new house and not chanako? He must leave and return to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man yachnekhenu.” (Deuteronomy 20:5)
chanakho (חֲנָכוֹ) = dedicated it, inaugurated it. yachnekhenu (יַחְנְכֶנּוּ) = he will dedicate it, inaugurate it. (From the same root as chanukah, חֲנֻכָּה = dedication; the name of the winter solstice holiday.)
According to Talmud Bavli (Sotah 43b) this exemption applies to any man who has not dedicated a new house, whether he built it, bought it, inherited it, or received it as a gift. What does it mean to dedicate a new house? According to Targum Yonatan, it means putting a mezuzah on the doorpost.3 But this takes only a few minutes, not long enough to stop a man from going to battle. Rashi wrote that dedicating a house means living in it.4
If the new owner died in battle, he would never know that another man was living there. But the Torah does not want to deprive the owner of the satisfaction of moving into the new house. In the Torah, a man who lives in his own house is the head of a household, no longer a dependent on an older family member. He should not be denied the joy of his new status.
2) “And who is the man that has planted a vineyard and not chilelo? He must leave and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man yechalilenu.” (Deuteronomy 20:6)
chilelo (חִלְּלוֹ) = made profane use of it; made personal use of it. yechalilenu (יְחַלְּלֶנּוּ) = he will make profane/personal use of it.
The Talmud defines a vineyard as at least five grape vines, and extends the exemption to include those who had planted at least five fruit trees.5 No fruit may be harvested from a grape vine or a fruit tree for the first three years after it is planted. In the fourth year, all of its fruit must be donated to God—either brought to the priests at the temple, or exchanged for silver which is brought to the temple. Only in the fifth year can the owner eat the fruit himself, or sell it for profit.6
The book of Leviticus/Vayikra, in which these rules are laid out, is primarily concerned with the holy rather than the profane. But here in Deuteronomy, Moses emphasizes the importance of feeding yourself and your own household. After waiting four years for his vines or trees to mature, farmer should not be denied the joy of making a living from them.
3) “And who is the man that has paid the bride-price for a wife and not lekachah? He must leave and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man yikachenah.” (Deuteronomy 20:7)
lekachah (לְקָחָהּ) = taken her, had sexual intercourse with her, married her. yikachenah (יִקָּחֶנָּה) = he will take her, have sex with her, marry her.
Is the fiancé exempt from battle so that he is not deprived of intercourse with his bride, or so that he can beget children with her? This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, says:
When a man takes a new wife, he must not go out with the army for any purpose; he shall be exempt for his household for one year, and make his wife glad. (Deuteronomy 24:5)
This implies that a new wife must not be deprived of the joy of intercourse with her husband.
The Talmud, Sotah 43b, says that the bridegroom is sent home whether he paid the bride-price for a virgin or a widow, or he is doing his duty for his deceased brother’s widow. Under Israelite and Canaanite law, a childless woman whose husband died was is entitled to get a son through her husband’s brother. “And even if there are five brothers, and one of them dies in the war, they all return for the widow.”7 Perhaps giving the widow a son is so important that if one brother fails, another must be available. This Talmud passage implies that the purpose of the exemption is to get a new wife pregnant.
Whether the goal is to make the wife glad, or to have a child, a husband should not be denied the joy of living with his new wife.
4) “And the officials will continue to speak to the people, and they will say: “Who is the man who is yarei and rakh of heart? He must leave and return to his house, and not melt the heart of his brother [soldier] like his heart.” (Deuteronomy 20:8)
yarei (יָרֵא) = afraid, fearful.
verakh (רַךְ) = sensitive, tender, weak, delicate.
The Talmud (Sotah 44a) offers two reasons why a man might be fearful: Rabbi Akiva said the man would be terrified by the sight of a drawn sword; Rabbi Yosei HaGelili said the man would be afraid because of his sins (implying a view of the afterlife that was invented after the Hebrew Bible was written).8 Both of these reasons address fear, but not sensitivity. Perhaps the rabbis of the Talmud interpreted the sentence as describing the man as “fearful and weak-hearted”, making weak-hearted a synonym for fearful.
Talmud tractate Sotah 44b says the reason for this fourth exemption is that fear spreads, making formerly brave and hard-hearted soldiers feel qualms about going to battle.
But the officials could also be asking “Who is the man who is afraid and tender-hearted?” Since the adjective rakh applies to a mental attitude as well as physical condition, this man would feel tenderness toward all human beings, and be afraid of killing them rather than of being killed.
A tender-hearted man’s reluctance to kill could also spread to other soldiers if he were allowed to march with the troops.
According to the Talmud (Sotah 44a), all four exemptions are announced at once to spare a fearful man from embarrassment; for all the other men know, he is leaving the ranks and going home because of a house or vineyard or wife.
But what if the exemption for a fearful or tender-hearted man is parallel to the other three exemptions? Then perhaps he must also leave and return home for his own good. Maybe a peaceful, gentle man must not be denied the joy of living in peace.
What is more important than going to war?
Family, whatever form it may take.
- Numbers 1:2-3.
- The Talmud distinguishes between optional wars of conquest, and obligatory wars to defend the kingdom of Israel or Judah from invasion. (Sotah 43b-44b)
- Targum Yonasan (a.k.a.Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, between 4th and 13th centuries C.E.) as cited by Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Devarim, trans. by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, Brooklyn, NY, 1995, p. 205.
- Rashi is the acronym for 11th-century C.E. Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
- Talmud Bavli, Sotah 43b.
- Leviticus 19:23-25.
- Talmud Bavli, Sotah 44a, William Davidson translation, www.sefaria.com.
- See Talmud Bavli, Eiruvin 19a. Jews did not adopt the idea that souls survive death until the second century B.C.E. The idea of souls burning in an underground fire came from Greek and Persian sources, which Jews developed into the myth of Gehinnom (later called Gehenna) and Christians developed into the myths of Hell and Purgatory. The Talmud was written during the third through fifth centuries C.E.