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Parashat Ki Thetze

The Exemption of Newly- Wed Husbands from Military Service

Prof. Eric Zimmer

The Department of Jewish History

"When a man has taken a new bride he shall not go out with the army, or be assigned to it for any purpose; he shall be exempt one year for the sake of his household to give happiness to the woman he has married" (Deuteronomy 24:5).

The verse lays down the conditions to strengthen the bond between newlywed couples. These conditions were examined by the commentators and one of them received major focus: is the exemption of a husband during the first year of his marriage an absolute obligation, worded here as both a positive and negative commandment ("He shall not...he shall be") , or does the Torah leave the question of his exemption to his own decision?

A. At first glance it would seem that the Torah gives the new husband a total exemption from military service. Our verse must be linked to similar verses in Parashat Shoftim (20:5-7), known as the chapter of "those who return from the battlefront". A man who has built a new home but has not yet dedicated it, or planted a vineyard but did not yet harvest it, or betrothed a wife but has not yet married her, is exempted from combat duty. These somewhat marginal soldiers join the army and march with it to the front, where they listen to the words of the priest-chaplain anointed for the war and those of the officers (Deut. 20:2-8) and then are sent back from the battlefield. However, they are not allowed to return to their homes but remain conscripted in order to supply food and water to the combat soldiers and to maintain the roads.

According to our verse, the husband who has already taken his bride is exempt not only from actual combat duty and fighting during his first year of marriage; he is not even called upon for ordnance or other peripheral army duties. He is not required to go out to the front to hear the words of the war-priest. Further, according to the Halacha, one who has built a house and already dedicated it or planted a vineyard and eaten from it is also exempt from any military duties during the first year, as we find in the Mishnah in Sotah 8, 4:

"And these are the ones who do not move from their homes: he who built a house and dedicated it, planted a vineyard and harvested it, or one who has married his betrothed ... for the verse says, "He shall be exempt one year for the sake of his household"... therefore they do not supply water and food or repair the roads".

"When does all this apply ? To voluntary wars - but in the wars commanded by the Torah all go out, even a bridegroom from his chamber and a bride from her canopy".

B. Despite the above impression of a total exemption, there is an interpretation of our verse which allows for the induction of the newlywed husband into the army, but this depends on the exact meaning of the words. For the commentators ponder over the meaning of the negative command "nor shall he be assigned to it for any purpose" (literally: - "and it shall not pass over him -- velo ya'avor alav-- for any purpose"). What is the subject of the predicate "shall not pass over"? Who does the Torah designate with the word alav, "him"? What is included in the expression "for any purpose"?

Rashi explains: "Neither shall pass upon him"--any army matter, "for any purpose"-- that is, any requirement of the army: not to supply water and food, nor to repair the roads; but those who are sent back from the front by the priest, such as he that built a house but did not yet dedicate it... they are bound to supply water and food and to fix the roads" (based on Sotah 44a).

In other words, "any army matter" is the subject of the predicate "shall not pass over," and "him" refers to the antecedent ish at the beginning of the verse, the new husband. Moses Mendelssohn's (1729-1786) Biur offers a similar, though more vivid, interpretation: "The army official who passes among the houses of the individuals to conscript them or inform them as to the affairs of state shall not go over to him (alav) for he is to be free from any obligation... for one year".

Nachmanides, after quoting Rashi's commentary, concludes by saying: "Rashi's commentary is based on the Talmud, and if so, then "alav--him" refers to the army, meaning that this man will not pass over to the army "for any purpose," neither to be a conscript nor an officer nor even as a commoner (am ha'aretz) supplying their needs such as drinking water. He need not pay attention to them but only to his own happiness, and that is the correct meaning".

He seems to have understood Rashi in a different manner. The subject of the phrase "it/he shall not pass over it/him" is the husband, and the word "him" or "it" (alav) refers to the army. This man shall not pass over to the army regime "for any purpose," whether combat duty or civilian service to the army on the homefront.

The Re'em (Mizrachi supercommentary on Rashi) takes issue with the explanation of Nachmanides. The Talmud (in Sotah 49a), which is the source for Rashi's comments, quotes the Sifre: "Could it be that I must include (in the release from any sort of army service) even he who has built a house but has not dedicated it, planted a vineyard but not yet eaten of it, or he who has betrothed a woman but not taken her? [These people were exempted in the previous parasha from active duty on the front, but not from supplying the army or repairing the roads.] Since the Torah used the word "over him" (alav), over him [you must pass] but not over the others".

The implication is that "over him" comes to eliminate certain people from this category, therefore alav-"him" must refer to a person, an individual. If so, says the Re'em, we must ask ourselves: How did Nachmanides interpret this word to refer to the army or the obligations of military service? As the Re'em himself asks: "Could it mean the army and also eliminate [in the Sifre] other individuals?" Further, if the word "over him"already refers to the army, why does Rashi interpret " 'For any purpose' - that is, for any need of the army"? In the Re'em's own incisive language: "Since "he shall not pass over to it" refers to the army, obviously then "for any purpose" must mean for the needs of the army!" His concludes, therefore, that the original first understanding of Rashi is correct: the word "alav- him" refers to "a man who has recently married".

It would seem that Ibn Ezra also believes that the subject of "it shall not pass" is the army, since he explains that the letter lamed in the phrase "for any purpose"--lekol dabar is superfluous, and it is as if the verse said, "it shall not pass over him any purpose (or matter)". It would therefore mean: no army purpose or matter shall pass over him (the newlywed husband). His interpretation then is like that of the first understanding in Rashi and like the Re'em.

These two conflicting interpretations of Rashi and Ramban, based as they are on differing syntactical understandings of the verse, have practical implications. If one maintains, as does Nachmanides, that the subject of "he shall not pass over" is the husband, then the prohibition applies to him, and we may conclude that he may under no condition ignore it by serving in the army. On the other hand, in the understanding of Rashi and the Re'em, the subject of the negative commandment is, in fact, the army, and the term "over him" refers to the husband: the army is commanded to skip over the new husband at conscription time, but possibly the husband may disregard his own military exemption to volunteer to supply water and food or work at road maintenance.

C. A priori, we have here not only a negative commandment which affects the new husband, but also a positive commandment which binds him. Most commentators and halachic decisors (poskim) agree that the end of the verse "to give happiness to the wife whom he has married" is a positive commandment. Among these are Maimonides in Sefer Hamitzvot (positive commandment 214) and following his lead, the Sefer Hachinuch.

At first glance the obligation of the husband to remain at home seems to refer to the beginning of the verse which talks about military service. However, in the Tosefta we find that "being free for his house for one year" is greatly broadened: "They do not go at all, and they do not pay the city taxes and they do not supply water and food to the army..." Based on the Tosefta Maimonides adds that those who are totally exempted from all military duties "do not stand guard on the walls" (Hilchot Melachim, chap. 7,11). They are freed from all communal activities which are civil obligations.

Moreover, Maimonides in Sefer Hamitzvot goes on to limit even personal or private activities by dint of this commandment: "And know that the husband himself is warned not to leave his home for any kind of journey during the year". ( Y. Kapach edition, Jerusalem, 1971). In the version in the R. Chaim Heller edition this issue is explained more fully: "and know that the husband ... is warned against leaving his home, that is to travel for business purposes, during that entire year...". However when the Ridbaz was asked [Responsa of the Ridbaz, part 1, 238] "Whether or not it was permitted to travel for business to another country, since there are some who strictly observe this, must we take their opinion into consideration?", he answered that the text of Maimonides was corrupt and that the word "for business" was a copyist's error.

The author of the Sefer Hachinuch also tended towards including the husband's personal activities within the framework of the positive commandment: "... And anyone who transgresses this and leaves her (his wife) during that year to be alone for a long time... ignores a positive commandment. In any case one who wishes to travel in order to observe some commandment or to enjoy the company of his friends, on the condition that he will return happily after a few days, it would seem that this would not be a violation of the commandment" (Par. 582). Rabbi Eliezer of Metz in his Sefer Hayera'im (Vilna, 1922, Par. 228) commented: "And this commandment is to be observed both in the Land of Israel and in the Diaspora, therefore one should be careful to observe it today".

The Netziv in his Torah commentary Ha'amek Davar disagrees with all these explanations.

"There is no positive commandment obliging a man to make his wife happy the entire first year of marriage, not even so according to Rabbinic law, which obligates the groom to make her happy for one week [Sheva Brachot]". He interprets the end of the Biblical verse as the reason why he need not serve in the army:

"But the truth is that 'and he shall cause his wife to be happy' is nothing more than permission to stay at home and make his wife happy even though all of Israel are engaged in the hardships of war... the reason for this is that since they have only recently married and they have not yet strengthened the bond between them, if he goes off on a long trip and she is out of mind, the connection between them may break entirely. There is no prohibition on him to leave her the house, but he should not leave if he is uncertain that he will continue to love her".

From all of the above it is clear that the commentators dealt with the conditions necessary to reinforce the love of a husband for his wife and to make certain that the new family unit, less than one year old, would be built on sturdy foundations and survive as a strong household in Israel, an everlasting structure. The commentators only differed as to the degree of exemption which the husband has from public affairs in order to build the circle of his private life.

One approach commits the husband to remaining at home in every case and not to go to war, even adding the proscription to remain at home the entire year, not leaving home even for business. Another approach allows the husband, if he so desires, to go to war, limiting the positive commandment to make his wife happy only one week. The commandment to make his wife happy is a voluntary matter, which he should do by remaining home if there is reason for concern that if he goes to war "the marriaage connection may break entirely".

This dispute between the commentators is based on just how much protection is necessary for a new marriage. Must they be totally separated from communal involvement in order to establish the relationship between them or is there a possibility of merging communal and personal lives? Most commentators and legalists believe that a negative commandment exists and also a positive commandment incumbent on the husband to devote one full year to making his wife happy. Others are of the opinion that the final decision rests with the husband and it is not necessary to force him to remain at home for an entire year.

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