Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shofetim 5765/ September 10, 2005

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,




Military Exemptions in Torah Law


 Prof. Jacob Klein


Department of Hebrew Language and Department of Bible


In this week’s parasha we find three laws concerning war (20:1-9; 10-18; 19-20). Below we shall investigate the first of the set, which deals with four categories of people who are exempt from going to battle and are allowed to return to their homes (verses 1-9). We shall be paying especial attention to the case of the bride-groom who has been engaged to a woman (according to NJPS translation: paid the bride-price for a wife) but has not yet married her. [1]  

The law is comprised of four parts:   an introduction (1), the priest’s words to the people (2-4), the officials’ words to the people (5-8), [2] and the concluding verse (9). The introductory verse, as well as the priest’s words, contain a cautionary word not to fear the military might of the enemy, who comes with superior armaments (“horses and chariots”) and a large number of soldiers (“forces larger than yours”). [3]   The trust that the Lord will be with the Israelite army and fight for them, as he fought for them in Egypt in the past, promises victory over the enemy. [4]   Therefore one should not be apprehensive that too many soldiers are being released home and exempt from battle, for it is not numerical advantage that assures victory, rather, trust in the Lord and His deliverance. [5]

After the priest, who represents religious authority, [6] speaks, comes the turn of the officials (shoterim), who represent the civilian regime, to address the people. They cite four categories of people who may be released from their obligation to wage war.


Three and Four

Their words are arranged in a pattern of “three and four,” in which the fourth category represents the climax and main point (5-8): [7]

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? [ve-lo hilelo]

Let him go back to his home

lest he die in battle

and another harvest it.

Is there anyone

who has betrothed a wife

but has not yet married her? [ve-lo lekahah]

Let him go back to his home

lest he die in battle

and another marry her.

Is there anyone

afraid and disheartened

Let him go back to his home

lest the courage of his comrades flag like his.


The first three cases concern a person who has initiated an important personal project but has not yet managed to complete it; that is, he has not yet performed the rite that enables him to benefit from his work.   In the first, a person has built a new home but has not yet dedicated it.  Scripture provides examples of public buildings being dedicated, [8] although descriptions of ceremonies or customs of dedicating a private home have not been found. [9]   On the other hand, we may suppose that the second case deals with a vineyard whose fruit in the first three years is considered orlah and is forbidden to be eaten.   In the fourth year the fruit is considered “consecrated for jubilation before the Lord,” and must be eaten in Jerusalem. [10]   Hence, ve-lo hillelo [loosely rendered in New JPS translation as “has not yet harvested it”] refers to not yet having eaten the fruit of the fourth year, which turns it into hullin, fruit no longer consecrated. [11]   The third case involves a man who has betrothed a wife but has not yet married her [ve-lo lekahah, lit. “has not yet taken her”].  According to ancient custom, a groom would buy himself a wife by paying a bride-price (mohar) to her father.  With payment of this bride-price the bride was set aside for him and considered his wife in every respect (cf. Ex. 22:15-16; Deut. 22:23-29; I Sam. 18:25).   After a period of time (see the Mishnah, Ketubbot 5.2), the groom takes the bride to his home (hence the Hebrew lo leqahah, “has not yet taken her”) and consummates the marriage. 

After the officials release those eligible for exemption due to personal status, [12] they call on all those who are “afraid and disheartened” [13] to return to their homes (verse 8), in order not to demoralize the army.   After all those eligible for exemption and those who are likely to disrupt the military effort are sent back home, the army prepares to go to battle (verse 9). [14]

Why Are they Released?

Commentators differ as to the reason the first three categories are released from military service.   Some say the reason for their release is that their minds are otherwise occupied. They are not in a mindset for war and will not help those who are fighting, rather they will hinder them. [15]   Others say that the objective of releasing these three groups is precisely in order to assure that the civilian life of the people be carried on, despite the war. [16]   Yet others point to the fact that these three categories also appear in the curses in Deuteronomy:   “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).   The pain in this curse is not only that the person will not enjoy the fruit of his labors, but that another person—his enemy-- will benefit from his labors. [17]   According to this interpretation, citizens are exempt from going to war in those circumstances in order to prevent them from suffering a fate similar to that which is considered a curse.

Presumably this law was intended first and foremost for the ordinary young men who were about to establish a family for the first time in their lives.  Indeed, the order of the cases mentioned matches the natural process of establishing a family:   usually a person first builds himself a house to live in, then he plants a vineyard to provide himself a livelihood, and only afterwards does he take a wife.  The prophet Jeremiah also mentions these three actions in the same order when he advises the exiles in Babylonia to establish a normal life for themselves there:   “Thus said the Lord of Hosts ... to the whole community which I exiled ...  Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit.   Take wives and beget sons and daughters,” etc. (Jer. 29:4-6).  Further,   “The rabbis taught: ‘Who has built, who has planted, who has paid the bride-price’ – in this the Torah teaches us proper behavior: a person should build himself a house and plant a vineyard, and only afterwards take a wife.” (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 44a). Therefore, it seems to me that the main objective of the law of exemption from military service is to enable every man in Israel to build a house, take a wife, and establish a family. We should point out that these instructions deal primarily with wars that are not obligatory, i.e., a preventive war or a war to extend the boundaries of the kingdom. [18]  

The exemption from military service that is given to a newlywed is also mentioned elsewhere in Deuteronomy, immediately after the laws that forbid remarrying a woman you have divorced (Deut. 24:1-4): [19]   “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).  Whereas the law in our Parasha on sending a man back from the army appears to be concerned with the interests of the groom, [20] the law for a newlywed man is concerned with the interests of the wife; the reason given in this law is “to give happiness to the woman he has married.” [21]

According to this law, also a person who has already married and brought his bride to his house is exempt from going to battle for the entire first year of his marriage. [22]   This law might appear to contradict the law in this week’s reading, stipulating that a man who has betrothed a wife may return home and not go to battle.  One might assume that a man who is engaged to marry is exempt from battle, whereas a married man is obliged to serve in the army.

“Let him go back to his home”

The Sages related to the differences between the two laws and assumed that the law concerning the man who has paid the bride-price and is sent back from war is not like the law concerning the newlywed.   The one who has paid the bride-price but not yet married is indeed released from combat duty but must serve on the home front in non-combat roles, such as supplying food to the army and keeping the roads in good repair, [23] whereas the newlywed is exempt from all military service, in the front lines and on the home front, and is not mobilized at all. [24]   The three-fold repetition of the words, “Let him go back to his home,” in this week’s reading indicates that according to the plain sense of the text, the exemption from military duty is absolute, and those who are exempted return to their homes to complete the undertaking they have begun.


A Year’s Exemption

Thus it stands to reason that complete exemption from military service for a year pertains only to those who are newly wed (Deut. 24:5) and not to the other cases (i.e., to someone who has already dedicated his house or has already enjoyed the fruit of his vineyard). It is preferable to view this law as an extension of the law pertaining to a man who has betrothed a wife:  not only he who has betrothed a wife but not yet married her, but even he who has already married his wife and brought her to his house, is exempt from any service to the state (combat and non-combat) for the first year of his marriage.   During this time he is to bring happiness to his wife whom he has just married and thus strengthen the marital bond upon which the Jewish family, and ultimately the Jewish People is founded. [25]

[1] This law is discussed at length by the Sages in Mishnah Sotah, ch. 8; in the Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 42a-44b; in the Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah, ch. 8 (22-23).   For interpretations of this passage that are based on the plain sense of the text, see inter alia Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman on Deuteronomy, Vol. 2, pp. 394-400; the introduction by Moshe Tzippor to ch. 20 of Olam ha-Tanakh, Deuteronomy, 1994, p. 155; and the commentaries of Ch. Wright, Deuteronomy, 1996, pp. 227ff., D. L. Christensen, Deuteronomy 1:1-21:9, pp. 433ff., and J. H. Tigay, Deuteronomy, 1996, pp. 186ff., 222f.

[2] In terms of content and literary structure, the two pronouncements by the officials (5-7, 8) should be viewed as a single legal clause.

[3] In conquering the land, the Israelite army, composed of infantry, had to fight Canaanite forces armed with horses and chariots, the armored corps of those days (see Josh. 11:4; Judges 4:3 ff.).

[4] For more on this principle of faith see Deut. 7:17-21; Judges 4:15; II Sam. 22:8 ff.; Is. 30:16, 31:1; Hosea 14:3; cf. especially Ps. 20:8:  “They on chariots, they on horses, but we call on the name of the Lord our G-d.”  See also Mishnah Sotah 8.1:  “They come with the victory of human beings, but you come with the victory of the Omnipresent.”

[5] The classical historical illustration of this principle is the war fought by Gideon against the Midianites (Judges 7:1-8).

[6] From the definite article, the priest, the Sages concluded that Scripture was referring to a priest who had been specifically designated and anointed to perform this function, and he is called in literature an “anointed priest of war” (Mishnah Sotah 8.1).

[7] For further examples of this widespread literary pattern, see Amos 1:3 ff. and Prov. 30:18 ff.

[8] Cf. the dedication of the First Temple by Solomon (I Kings 8:63), and the dedication of the Second Temple by the exiles who returned to Zion (Ezra 6:16-18).   Also cf. Psalms 30:1.

[9] This was apparently the reason for Rashi’s comment on the words, “lest another dedicate it” – “this is a source of heartache.”  In the next two cases Rashi did not need to resort to this explanation since they involved explicit commandments that the person would not be able to perform if he were to be killed in battle.  It should be noted that according to the Jerusalem Targum dedication of a house is noted by affixing a mezuzah.

[10] SeeLev. 19:23-25, interpreted in the light of Deut. 14:22-23 (cf. Mishnah Ma’aser Sheni 5.1-2).   Also cf. Is. 62:8-9.

[11] Or to eat it in the fifth year, when the fruit is no longer consecrated (as interpreted by Shadal, Tigay and most modern commentators).  The expression appears again in Deuteronomy 28:30 and Jeremiah 31:5:   “Again you shall plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; men shall plant and live to enjoy them [ve-hillelu].”   According to the Sages, however, (Ma’aser Sheni, loc. sit.), ve-lo hillelo means they did not redeem them in the fourth year; for the fruit must be eaten in Jerusalem, or exchanged for their monetary value and that money spent on fruits eaten in Jerusalem.  Nahmanides and others interpret ve-lo hillelo from the root mahol, dancing, and halilim, flutes, which accompanied the festivities of the grape harvest (cf. Judges 21:21).

[12] According to the Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 5.9, those who wished to be released on account of one of the above reasons had to bring proof of their eligibility:   “It is taught:   all of them must present proof of their words, save for those who attest to their condition in themselves” (i.e., those who are afraid and disheartened and this can be seen in their person).

[13] Rabbi Akiva holds that this expression is to be taken at face value:  those who “are not capable of withstanding battle and seeing a drawn sword,” that is, psychological weakness.  In the opinion of Rabbi Jose ha-Galili, the reference is to a person who “is fearful because of the transgressions he has committed,” i.e., lack of confidence stemming from a moral defect weighing on the conscience of the soldier.  In his opinion, the other three categories of people who are returned home from war are nothing but a cover for this group; they are released only so that people will ascribe the return of the sinners to these other reasons so that the sinners not be ashamed to return home (Mishnah Sotah 8.5).

[14] The Sages interpreted the words, “army commanders shall assume command of the troops,” as referring to armed guards at either end of the camp, whose function was to prevent soldiers from deserting the battlefield (Mishnah Sotah 8.6).

[15] “The reason is that his entire heart’s desire is to dedicate his house, so his mind is on his house and not on war, therefore he will flee and cause others to flee” (Ibn Ezra on hanaho).   This interpretation had been given earlier by Josephus (Antiquities 4.8.41), and a similar idea is presented by Rashbam (Rosin ed., p. 218).

[16] As in the situation today, when we attempt, and to a large extent succeed, to continue the routine of daily life in the face of frequent skirmishes and terrorist attacks.

[17] For other similar curses, see also Amos 5:11; Micah 6:15; Zephaniah 1:13; Job 31:8.

[18] This can be concluded from the restrictive comment of the Torah, “Thus you shall deal with all towns that lie very far from you, towns that do not belong to nations hereabout” (Deut. 20:15).   This opinion is shared by the Sages, who note with respect to the first law:  “To what does this pertain?  To an optional war, but to a war that is commanded (called an “obligatory war” by Rabbi Judah), all must go, even a bridegroom from his chamber and a bride from under the bridal canopy” (Mishnah Sotah 8.7).

[19] Perhaps the reason for juxtaposing these passages is that the law concerning a new wife serves to strengthen the marital bond and prevent situations of divorce.

[20] So that he not be caused misery or not find himself longing for his betrothed, or so that he not fear lest he be killed childless, or the like.

[21] Commentators have noted the humanitarian aspects of this law and the sensitivity it shows towards a married woman.  This is in line with the general bias in Deuteronomy to protect the rights of women and to equate them under law to men (cf. Deut. 15:12-18; 21:15-17; 22:13-29).

[22] Scriptures emphasizes that this only applies to someone who has taken a new wife, and not someone remarrying a woman he has divorced (Mishnah Sotah 8.3), so that a person cannot divorce his wife in order to remarry her and thereby avoid the draft (Tigay, Christensen).

[23] This, presumably, is deduced from the reason given, “lest he die in battle.”   There is little fear that someone serving on the home front will be killed, and after the war he could return to his home and marry the woman he had betrothed; likewise for the first two cases.

[24] The same applies, according to the Sages, to the first two cases – someone who has built a house or planted a vineyard (cf. Mishnah Sotah 8.2-4).

[25] The exemption from the army is for one year, apparently in order to enable the young couple to have a child before the husband goes off to war; cf. Gen. 18:14 (Christensen).