Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shoftim 5762/ August 10, 2002

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.
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Parashat Shoftim 5762/ August 10, 2002

Exemption from Military Service

Dr. David Elgavish
Department of Bible

1. A multiplicity of exemptions

This week's reading lists the exemptions from military service as follows (Deut. 20:5-8):

Then the officials shall address the troops as follows: "Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another harvest it. Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife, but who has not yet married her? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her." The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say, "Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his."

The Sages (Mishnah Sotah 8.2) interpreted this text broadly, ruling that "anyone who has built a new house" also included anyone who had purchased or received a house. The house itself did not have to be new; it sufficed for it to be new for the person acquiring it. Also included were storage facilities and cattle-sheds, as long as they measure at least 4 cubits by 4 cubits. A "vineyard" included any plantation of fruit trees with at least 5 trees, and the category of women whose fiancés were exempt from service included divorcees and widows.

One other exemption is mentioned in Parashat Ki-Teze: "When a man has taken a 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" (Deut. 24:5). This passage reflects both a curtailment of the exemptions in this week's reading, as well as an expansion of the exemptions. How so?

Since the exemption for one who has taken a wife is cited three times, the Mishna derives from here that he receives a full exemption - from combat service as well as service on the home front. In contrast, the exemptions mentioned earlier- he who has built a home or planted a vineyard-- apply only to combat duty; those men must still serve behind the lines, assisting the war effort (Sotah 8.2-4).

On the other hand, from the law concerning someone who has betrothed a wife and just married her we deduce that a man who has built a new house and just dedicated it, or a man who has planted a vineyard and began harvesting its fruit is equally entitled to a one-year exemption from all military service, combat and homefront (Sotah 8.4).

At this point the question arises why someone who has become engaged to marry is mentioned in our Parasha at the end of the list, after those who have built a house or planted a vineyard? The gemara explains: "The Torah was teaching us the proper way to live, that first a person should build a home, plant his vineyard, and then take a wife" (Sotah 44a). Taking a wife is mentioned last precisely to show the woman respect. The correct order is that a person first prepare a home, then acquire a vocation so that he can support his family, and only then take a wife. This is instructive insofar as the passage of blessings and curses, the Tokheha, says: "If you pay the bride-price for a wife, another man shall enjoy her. If you build a house, you shall not live in it. If you plant a vineyard, you shall not harvest it" (Deut. 28:30) - as if to say that in time of trouble the proper rules of life will not be observed, for men will marry before having acquired an abode and a vocation (Maimonides, Deot 5.11).

With regard to the inclination towards many exemptions, we note that there is tendency in classical Jewish sources to view these exemptions as obligatory, irrespective of what the person eligible for the exemption might think. For example, in Sifre Deuteronomy (par. 194) we read: "Let him go back to his home - let him go hear the words of the priest to the army, and return. Lest he die in battle - if he does not obey the priest, in the end he will die in battle." Several reasons are given why exemption is compulsory: a person who takes a wife must return to his home because he must "give happiness to the woman he has married." Those who are afraid and disheartened must go back home "lest the courage of his comrades flag like his" (Deut. 20:8). Shadal's (S.D.Luzzatto) commentary on verse 7 adds that if returning home were optional, then men eligible for an exemption would not return home because of embarrassment. Sefer Ha-Hinukh (commandment 502) says: "He should be made to return lest others perish on his account." Nevertheless, Abarbanel holds that exemption is optional, and that the priest could encourage those soldiers who might have wanted to return home to stay.

There are historical examples of such exemptions actually being given. Gideon released from his camp all those who were afraid and disheartened before going to battle against the Midianites (Judges 7:3), and Judah the Maccabee released those who were mentioned in the list: "As the law commands, he ordered back to their homes those who were building their houses or were newly wed or who were planting vineyards, or who were faint-hearted" (I Maccabees 3:56).

2) Those who are afraid or disheartened

A class unto itself in the list of exemptions is made up of those who are "afraid or disheartened" (Deut. 20:8). This category is distinguished from the other exemptions by a special introduction to the subject: "The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say." It is also different in its subject matter, insofar as the other exemptions deal with positive activity and to a certain extent are imposed by the Torah on the military authorities, whereas those who are afraid or disheartened are exempted because of a shortcoming in their personality, and exempting them is fully in line with the attitude taken by the army's commanders.

The question arises as to the difference between the two terms: yare ve-rakh halevav, afraid versus disheartened. Everyone fears war to one extent or another, so how does one verify eligibility for exemption on this count? The synonyms "afraid" and "disheartened" are sometimes distinguished as follows: afraid of being hurt, and being disheartened by the idea of harming or killing another person (see Ibn Ezra and Nahmanides). Regarding the extent of a person's fear and the difficulty of verifying it, Sifre Deuteronomy par. 192 remarks:

All had to bring proof, save for those who were afraid or disheartened, since they were themselves proof, being frightened by the sound of a shutter slamming, trembling from the sound of a horse neighing, being startled by the sound of horns thrashing, and the urine running down their legs at the sight of swords being brandished.

This formulation gave clear criteria for determining who is considered afraid and disheartened, a definition that only included the extremely fearful and not the vast majority of the population.

Here, too, on the question of who is afraid and disheartened, the Sages had an interesting point of view. Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Jose of Galilee disagreed whether the text meant a person who is afraid of battle or someone who is fearful because of his sins (Sotah 8.5). According to the latter, the exemption applied to those who were afraid they would be punished in battle for sins committed in their past. It is instructive that this view stands in opposition to the generally accepted view of other religions, where forgiveness for one's sins was promised in exchange for payment or some service rendered. The Christians sold indulgentia and the Moslems promised anyone who fought in a holy war (jihad) forgiveness for all the sins he had committed or might commit in the future. Thus religion became an instrument of corruption. The Torah, in contrast, exempted from going to war anyone who was fearful because of sins he had committed.

3) The reasons given for exemptions

The long list of exemptions raises several poignant questions:

  1. Most of the army-aged population might fall into the categories of those exempted. Soldiers tend to be young men and hence are naturally likely to be occupied building their homes, planting their vineyards and establishing their families. So who would remain to go to war?
  2. Even if we can persuade ourselves that it is important to exempt these people, we must still ask why this segment of the population was special when could other valid reasons could be given for exemption, such as illness, loss of a close family member, the birth of children, etc.
  3. The text says, "Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife, but who has not yet married her? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her" (Deut. 20:7). One could ask whether the same danger, "lest he die in battle and another marry her," does not apply just as well to a person who married a woman and already had two children.

The answers that have been offered to these questions stress that this multiplicity of exemptions is designed to benefit the individual and the society as a whole, both at the battle line and on the home front. For example, Ibn Ezra's commentary on verse 5 reads: "Because his entire heart and wishes are set on dedicating his home. With his heart set on home and not on the battle, he would flee and cause others to flee." Similar explanations of these exemptions were given by Rabbenu Bahya (on verse 9), Nahmanides (verse 5), and Sefer ha-Hinukh (commandment 502). Abarbanel is not much different in his view on the exemptions, although he approaches the question from another angle. He holds that the ability to exempt soldiers attests to the commander's self-assurance and raises the fighters' morale, a tactic that proved itself in Gideon's war (Judges 7:2-7).

Others explain the exemptions as benefiting the home front. Sifre par. 192 says: "So that the cities in Israel not become deserted." Malbim (par. 101, p. 134) explains: so that not everyone be off at war, leaving the land vulnerable to another enemy coming and destroying the land when there is no one around to defend it, as happened at Ziklag. According to the biblical narrative, David went off to fight the Philistines, and the Amalekites took advantage of his absence, attacking his city, burning and ransacking it, and taking all the people captive (I Sam. 30).

Rashi's view is especially instructive. On the words, "lest he die in battle and another dedicate it" (Deut. 20:5), he says: "It would cause personal distress." In other words, the Torah takes pity on the individual even in wartime. Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman's interpretation in his commentary to Deuteronomy is in the same spirit.

Still other explanations have been given for these exemptions. Building a house, planting a vineyard and taking a wife are basic things in the life of any young person, and deeply occupy the young person's mind; therefore we should not halt him in mid-course. Moreover, these three activities are connected with settling the land of Israel, and therefore a person who is busy fulfilling such a sublime commandment should not be interrupted in order to satisfy the needs of the draft. Lastly, we recalled above that the passage of admonishments in Deuteronomy says: "If you pay the bride-price for a wife, another man shall enjoy her. If you build a house, you shall not live in it. If you plant a vineyard, you shall not harvest it." These three items match the three exemptions given from military service. Hence there is the fear that if we draft these people for battle and some of them die at the front, their death might be interpreted as fulfillment of the curses mentioned in Deuteronomy, and this would lead to demoralization. Therefore, we release them from going to war in order to preclude interpretations that might lead to a defeatist mood.

Lastly, we present a different sort of explanation - one that is concerned with the circumstances under which exemption is given, rather than the characteristics of the people exempted. All these exemptions apply only during a voluntary war (milhemet hareshut) [Sotah 8.7], i.e., a war initiated with perhaps no substantive justification. The Torah does not flatly forbid such a war, but the negative attitude which it takes towards it is reflected by the hefty spokes which it puts in its wheels. The Torah deliberately releases many fighters in order to make it more difficult to decide to embark on an optional campaign.[1] This reveals an interesting didactic technique of the Torah. Regarding matters which in themselves are perverse but which are embedded in the ways of society, the Torah did not establish sweeping orders to eradicate such base things. Rather, it placed restrictions on them, causing them to gradually pass from the world, as happened with slavery, blood avenging, and other such practices.

[1] For further reading, see Rabbi Judah Shaviv, "Milhemet ha-Torah ba-Milhamah," in Arakhim be-Mivhan Milhamah: Musar u-Milhamah be-Re'I ha-Yahadut, Jerusalem 1988, p. 61.