Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ki-Tetze 5768/ September 20, 2008

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



The Law of a Beautiful Woman

According to the Plain Sense of Scripture


Dr. Michael Avioz


Department of Bible


Among the laws concerning wartime presented in Deuteronomy, the law concerning a beautiful woman who has been taken captive (Deut. 21:10-14) raises several difficulties:  why does the woman “do” her nails and trim her hair?   What is the meaning of removing "her captive’s garb”?  Is it the garment that she was wearing when taken captive, or something she is required to wear when in captivity?  Why must the captor wait a month before marrying the captive woman? [1]

These questions are related to another matter of principle which is discussed in the Midrash on Deuteronomy:   should this law be viewed as an appeal to the humanistic side of the warriors (the approach taken by Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus), or does it seek to keep Israel at a distance from the other nations (the approach of Rabbi Akiva). [2]   As we shall see, the details of this law these were elucidated according to these general approaches. [3]

She shall … do her nails

What is meant by the expression to “do one’s nails” [a literal translation of the Hebrew, la-asot, rendered in the New JPS translation as “pare her nails”]?  Why does the woman “do” her nails?  Onkelos translates this as to grow her nails.  Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Nahmanides are of the opinion (based on Sifre Deuteronomy 212) that it means to “grow them [her fingernails] to make her ungainly.”  By this they accept Rabbi Akiva’s approach that the Torah does not look kindly on an Israelite male marrying a woman taken captive in war.  This interpretation cannot be considered the plain sense of Scripture for two reasons.

1)      It was said of Mephibosheth that “he had not done his toenails and had not done his mustache” (Heb. verb ‘a – s – h; II Sam. 19:25).   From this we see that the verb means to pare ones nails, which would be the opposite of being made ungainly.   This view is supported by the fact that doing one’s nails is mentioned along with trimming one’s hair, so that both instances deal with cutting.  See the argument on this between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva (Babyl. Yevamot 48b) as well as Nahmanides on this verse.  Hence the English translation is to “cut/pare her nails.”  The Septuagint, the Vulgate, the Neophyte Targum, Targum Jonathan and the writings of Philon render the verse similarly.

2)      The verse in no way hints at a disparaging view of such marriages.   We shall yet see that this interpretation is founded in the negative attitude of certain Sages towards the gentiles. [4]

Some people explain that hair and fingernails represent one’s personality. [5]   Removing them symbolizes relinquishing the identity of the past and replacing it with a new identity. [6]   According to this interpretation, the law of a beautiful woman shows concern for the woman and her honor. [7]

She shall trim her hair

Others believe that cutting one’s hair has to do with customs of mourning. [8]   An association between clothing and mourning is known from several sources (Gen. 38:14; II Sam. 14:2), and likewise an association between nails and mourning (Mephibosheth’s behavior when David was exiled from Jerusalem during Absalom’s rebellion [above], according to some views; also in the Hindu religion, for example).  According to another view, cutting one’s hair has to do with rites of purification.

The difficulty, however, is that trimming one’s hair is not connected with either of the last two explanations.   Mourners actually refrain from cutting their hair, rather than shaving their heads.  Therefore, in my opinion the explanation about severing oneself from the past and taking on a new identity seems more likely.   Certain commentators [9] hold that the actions a captive woman is commanded to perform symbolize both mourning and the transition from belonging to a foreign nation to belonging to the Israelites.

And discard her captive’s garb

Commentators and scholars are divided regarding “her captive’s garb.”  Some hold these to be special garments worn by the captive, like prison stripes, to distinguish her from freemen, [10] while others [11] hold that this refers to the clothing she was wearing when taken captive in order to entice her captors by these clothes to become idolaters like herself.   Rashi (cf. also Abarbanel) interpreted:   “Because they are good-looking, for the gentiles’ maidens would bedeck themselves in wartime so that they could sway others to follow their faith” (based on Sifre Deuteronomy, 212).  This interpretation apparently follows Rabbi Akiva’s approach, namely that the intention of Scripture was to underscore the differences between the Israelites and the other nations.   The gentile woman was not a victim here, rather she was seen as behaving in the manner of the evil woman of whom Proverbs warns us to beware (7:5-12).  In support of the first view several scriptural sources can be cited in which changing the garment worn by prisoners attests to a change in their status: [12]   (1)  Joseph changed his garments when he was brought to Pharaoh’s palace (Gen. 41:14), and after solving the Pharaoh’s dreams he was appointed viceroy to Pharaoh; (2)  King Jehoiachin of Judah was released from prison in Babylon, after thirty-seven years of incarceration, and the Babylonians changed his garments (II Kings 25:27-30).

A month’s time

An interesting interpretation of the law obliging the captor to wait one month before marrying the woman he had taken captive is that the waiting period was for verifying that the captive woman had not conceived by someone else. [13]   Others [14] maintain (based on Num. 20:29 and Deut. 34:8) that the period of one month is the length of the time of mourning. Since the woman would never see her parents again, she behaved as she would have if they had died.   Nevertheless, one should note that not every period of mourning in Scriptures lasts thirty days; it could be one day, a week, or “a long time” (see Gen. 37:34, 50:10, II Sam. 1:12, 3:35, 13:37, 14:2).

In conclusion, it appears that the main thrust of the law regarding a beautiful woman who is taken captive is not to keep the Israelites away from the other nations.  Rather, one should view this law as part of the Israelite soldier’s wartime education.   The Torah teaches restraint and virtue, and tries to prevent the soldier from acting on his primal instinct to treat the enemy brutally.  This law fits in well with other laws of warfare having a similar objective, [15] such as the laws on laying siege to a city and the laws governing behavior in the camp (Deut. 23:10-15).


[1] For a discussion of other aspects of this law, see:  Carolyn Pressler, “The View of Women Found in the Deuteronomic Family Laws” BZAW (216), Berlin 1993;  S. M. Olyan, Rites and Rank:  Hierarchy in Biblical Representations of Cult, Princeton, N. J. 2000.

[2] Sifre Deuteronomy, 213-213, and parallel texts.

[3] For a comprehensive study see D. Stern, “The Captive Woman:   Hellenization, Greco-Roman Erotic Narrative and Rabbinic Literature,” Poetics Today 19 (1998), pp 91-127.

[4] For further discussion, see Stern (loc. sit.).   On the motivation behind Jewish attitudes towards gentiles, as revealed in literature from the Second Temple period, see Christine Hayes, “Intermarriage and Impurity in Ancient Jewish Sources,” HTR 92 (1999), pp. 3-36.  The Sages (Tanhuma, Ki Tetze 1) viewed this as related to the passages which follow.

[5] See CAD, Vol. 16, s.v. “Supru,” and the references in J. H. Tigay, Deuteronomy (JPS Torah Commentary), Philadelphia 1996.

[6] Thus in Rabbi Joseph Bekhor-Shor’s second interpretation, in Hizkuni, and in Olyan (note 1, above), p. 97.

[7] Also cf. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 4.8.23, par. 258:   “Propriety dictates that he respect her wishes.”

[8] C. Carmichael, The Spirit of Biblical Law, Athens, GA 1996, p. 135.

[9] P. C. Craigie, Deuteronomy (NICOT), Grand Rapids 1976, p. 281.

[10] Thus in Luzzato (Commentary on the Pentateuch, Tel Aviv, Dvir, 1966); Olyan (note 1, above), p. 167, note 141, and the literature mentioned there.

[11] Craigie (note 9, above), p. 281; A. D. H. Mays, Deuteronomy (NCB), Grand Rapids and London 1979, p. 103.

[12] See the discussion and literature mentioned in V. H. Matthews, “The Anthropology of Clothing in the Joseph Narrative,” JSOT, 65 (1995), pp. 25-36.

[13] H. C. Washington, “‘Lest He Die in the Battle and Another Man Take Her,’: Violence and Construction of Gender in the Laws of Deuteronomy 20-22,” in V. H. Matthews et al. (eds.), Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, Sheffield 1998, pp. 185-213.  There is dispute among conmmentators as to whether the captive woman was married or single when taken captive.  On the view that she was unwed, see Tigay (note 6, above), p. 194.  On the view that it was permissible to marry captive women who already had a husband, see Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 4, par. 257; Sifre Deuteronomy, 210; Rabbi H. D. Rabinowitz, Da’at Soferim, Jerusalem 1986.

[14] Tigay (note 5, above), p. 195.

[15] See M. Weinfeld, “The Origin of Humanism in Deuteronomy,” JBL 80 (1961), pp. 241-247.