The wars of the Jews

How and when to go to war in this week's parsha.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism IDF Merkava 3 tanks
IDF Merkava 3 tanks

Among the 41 mitzvot (14 positive and 27 negative) which Parashat Shoftim contains, four govern our conduct in war:

  • to anoint a Kohen (Priest) who leads the nation into war, inspiring them to fight for the right (Deuteronomy 20:2-4);
  • not to fear any enemies when going forth to war and not to flee from before them (20:3);
  • to offer the inhabitants the opportunity to make peace before attacking their cities (20:10-11);
  • in the event that any of the seven Canaanite nations refuse the opportunity to make peace and insist upon fighting, not to leave any of them alive (20:16).

This last one in particular seems unreasonably harsh and unforgiving, and it is this that we will examine in greatest detail subsequently.

Our national purpose in inheriting the Land of Israel and settling it is not simply to establish yet one more nation-state with its own distinctive flag, national anthem, culture, cuisine, and language. Rather, our purpose is to build a holy society predicated upon Torah, guided by Torah, which will serve as a Kiddush Hashem (Sanctification of the Name of G-d) by demonstrating to the whole of humanity how a society predicated on Torah achieves perfection.

As God said in our last few days at Mount Sinai, as we were preparing to leave the Mount and continue our journey towards the Land of Israel, “I am Hashem your G-d Who brought you out from the land of Egypt to give you the Land of Canaan, to be your G-d” (Leviticus 25:38).

And on this, the Talmud expounds: “A person should always live in the Land of Israel, even in a city in which the majority are idolaters, and should not live outside of the Land of Israel, even in a city in which the majority are Jews, because one who dwells in the Land of Israel is akin to one who has a G-d, and anyone who dwells outside of the Land of Israel is akin to one who has no G-d, as it says ‘ give you the Land of Canaan, to be your G-d’” (Ketuvot 110b, cited by the Rambam as halachah in practice in Laws of Kings 5:12).

And Rashi, in his commentary to Leviticus 25:38, abstracts this Talmudic dictum: “‘To be your G-d’ – because I am the G-d of anyone who dwells in the Land of Israel, and anyone who emigrates away from it is akin to an idol-worshipper”.

Hence our purpose in living in the Land of Israel, our purpose in establishing a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, is to make G-d’s majesty manifest in this world. When we go to war to conquer the Land that G-d has given us, that is our purpose.

The Midrash expounds on the laws of warfare in Parashat Shoftim:

“Who fulfilled this section? – Joshua, son of Nun. Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman said: What did Joshua do? – He would spread the proclamation in every place that he was about to conquer, writing in it: Whoever wants to leave – leave. And whoever wants to make peace – make peace. And whoever wants to make war – make war. What did the Girgashites do? – They turned away from before them and left of their own volition, which is why G-d gave them a beautiful country as their own, this is the land of Afriki [Phrygia, in Anatolia]. With the Gibeonites, who made peace , Joshua made peace. But the 31 Canaanite kings [see Joshua 12] who came to make war against him – G-d cast them down into his hand” (Devarim Rabbah 5:14).

Elsewhere, the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 17:6) and the Talmud (Yerushalmi Shevi’it 6:1) record that Joshua sent the Canaanites these three messages before entering the Land of Israel.

The Rambam adduces this as practical halachah: “We are never to make war against anyone without first offering peace – whether a voluntary war or an obligatory war – as it says, ‘When you approach a city to fight against it, you will call out to it a call for peace’ (Deuteronomy 20:10)” (Laws of Kings and their Wars 6:1).

The Rambam previously defined the terms “voluntary war” and “obligatory war”: “An obligatory war is a war against the seven [Canaanite] nations, and a war against Amalek, and one fought to help Israel from any oppressor who comes against them....and a voluntary war is a war fought against the other nations in order to expand the border of Israel, or to increase its greatness and renown” (Laws of Kings and their Wars 5:1).

So taking these together, the offer of peace applies to all enemies and potential enemies of Israel, including the seven Canaanite nations.

The only exceptions are Amalek, Ammon, and Moab. Amalek has a unique status: “Obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the Heavens – do not forget” (Deuteronomy 25:19), which the Rambam cites as practical halachah (Laws of Kings and their Wars 1:1, 5:5 et al.).

As for Ammon and Moab, “We are not to send an offer of peace to Ammon and Moab, as it says ‘Do not seek out their peace and their prosperity, all your days, forever’ (Deuteronomy 23:7)” (Laws of Kings and their Wars 6:6).

Nevertheless, as the Rambam concludes, “Even though we do not initiate an offer of peace with them, if they initiate peace on their own initiative we accept them” (ibid.).

To summarize the general rules of warfare: If enemies or potential enemies choose to leave Israel to avoid war, we guarantee them safe passage to the border; after leaving the Land of Israel, we have no further claim against them.

If they make war, then we respond with war. The seven Canaanite nations, once having begun war, have no more opportunity to surrender; rather their adult men are all to be killed, while all woman and children are spared.

Nevertheless, any adult man of the Canaanite nations who manages to reach the border alive and cross it to leave Israel, even when war is already happening, is safe. We have no more claim against him once he is out of our country.

Other nations who choose to fight against us still have the opportunity to surrender when they realise that they are going to lose the war.

The Rambam defines the conditions under which the nations who live in Israel make peace and live alongside us:

“If they make peace and accept the seven Mitzvot given to the Sons of Noah, then we do not kill a single one of them, and they thereby have to pay tribute, as it says ‘If they answer you with peace...then they shall become tributary to you and shall serve you’ (Deuteronomy 20:11). If they accept to pay tribute but not the servitude, or if they accept the servitude but not to pay tribute, we do not listen to them until they accept both. And the servitude that they accept is to be lowly and subjugated...and can never be appointed to any position of authority over a Jew...” (Laws of Kings 6:1).

And the Rambam continues:

“If they did not make peace, or if they made peace but did not accept the Seven Mitzvot, we wage war against them” (ibid. 6:4).

The purpose of war begins to come into focus. It is not simply victory for our national pride, we are not fighting for the vainglory of vapid jingoistic patriotism and nationalism. These laws which govern our relationship with non-Jews in the Land of Israel have a clear purpose: to force both the Jews and the non-Jewish nations in Israel to recognise that the Nation of Israel is sovereign in the Land of Israel solely by decree of Hashem, the G-d of Israel.

This is the reason that when Israel goes out to war, they are led by the Kohen, who addresses the army: “שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל – Hear O Israel, you are approaching war against your enemies today. Do not be faint-hearted, do not be afraid, and do not panic and do not be intimidated by them; because it is Hashem your G-d Who goes with you, fighting for you against your enemies to save you” (Deuteronomy 20:3-4).

The opening words of the Kohen’s speech of inspiration – שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל, Hear O Israel – obviously resonate deeply with every Jew. And it is no coincidence that the Torah instructs the Kohen to open his speech to the army with these words:

“What is the inference of ‘שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל, Hear O Israel’? – Said Rabbi Yochanan, quoting Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: G-d said to Israel: Even if the sole [mitzvah] you have kept is to recite the Shema morning and evening – you will not fall into their hands” (Sotah 42a).

I suggest that it is highly significant that it was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai who initiated this exposition. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was one of Rabbi Akiva’s foremost disciples (Ketuvot 62b), studying under him in Bnei Brak for 13 years (Vayikra Rabbah 21:8). And it was Rabbi Akiva who supported Shimon Bar Kochba in his desperate attempt to liberate Israel in his insurrection against the Roman Empire.

Rabbi Akiva and Shimon Bar Kochba failed – a tragic, magnificent failure – a failure that included an unprecedented victory against the Roman Empire, a military victory that no other nation in the world would ever match, a victory that would restore Jewish sovereignty to Israel for three years, before the Romans returned with a vengeance and obliterated Jewish sovereignty with hideous cruelty.

And when they eventually caught up with Rabbi Akiva they tortured him to death, raking his skin off his body with iron combs.

“When they executed Rabbi Akiva it was time to recite the Shema...and he proclaimed G-d’s sovereignty [by reciting the Shema aloud]. Said his disciples: Our Master – thus far?! He said to them: My entire life I was concerned with this verse – ‘you shall love Hashem your G-d... בְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ, with all your soul’ (Deuteronomy 6:5) – even though He takes your soul from you. I said: Will I ever have the opportunity to fulfil this? He stretched out the word אֶחָד, ‘one’, until his soul departed with the word אֶחָד, ‘one’. A voice resounded from Heaven, saying: Fortunate are you, Rabbi Akiva, that your soul departed with the word אֶחָד, ‘one’” (Berachot 61b).

By the time Rabbi Akiva was murdered, Israel had long since been defeated, the Holy Temple burned to the ground, the great city of Beitar destroyed. By that time, faithfully reciting “שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל – Hear O Israel, Hashem our G-d is the unique indivisible Hashem” (Deuteronomy 6:4) every morning and every evening no longer guaranteed that the individual Jew would not fall into enemy hands.

The nation of Israel wages wars as a nation solely in order to sanctify the Name of G-d. And that means conquering our own homeland, given to us as ours by G-d.

The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain and Israel, 1195-c.1270) gives practical halachic (Jewish-legal) expression to this.

“You will inherit the Land and dwell in it, because I have given you the Land to inherit it”, says the Torah (Leviticus 33:53), on which the Ramban expounds: “In my opinion this is a positive commandment – G-d hereby commands them to dwell in the Land and to inherit it because He has given it to them, and they are forbidden to reject Hashem’s portion. And anyone who considers going to conquer Shinar [around the Persian Gulf, in the border region between Iraq and Iran] or Assyria [the region straddling the border between Iraq and Turkey] or any other countries and to dwell there violates Hashem’s commandments”.

There are two separate and independent commandments here: one is for individual Jews to dwell in the Land of Israel, the other is for the Jewish nation as a whole to conquer the Land of Israel and to govern it.

For close on 2,000 years we were prevented, both individually and nationally, from fulfilling both these mitzvot. It is only in these last few generations that individual Jews have had the opportunity to return home, and even more recently that the Jewish nation has had the opportunity to conquer its ancestral homeland and to begin ruling it.

It is, therefore, supremely relevant that all the Haftarot (Prophetic readings) from the Shabbat after the Three Weeks until the end of the year, the Seven Haftarot of Consolation which comfort us after the Three Weeks of mourning, all from the Prophet Isaiah, depict Israel returning to its Land and restoring its sovereignty therein.