"Love" and War - The Fate of the Female Captive

  • Rav Zvi Shimon






By Rav Zvi Shimon


'Love' and War

The Fate of the Female Captive



            "All is fair in love and war."  Does Judaism agree with this popular adage?  This week's Torah reading provides guidelines for both 'love' and war, and more specifically, for the interface between the two:


"When you take the field against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and would take her as a wife, you shall bring her into your house, and she shall shave her head, do her nails, and discard her captive's garb.  She shall spend a month in your house, lamenting her father and mother; after that you may come to her and possess her, and she shall be your wife.  If, however, you should no longer want her, you must release her outright.  You may not sell her for money: since you had your will of her, you may not enslave her." (Deuteronomy 21:10-14)


            The Torah delineates an intricate set of procedures for the handling of a woman captive that an Israelite desires for himself.  He must bring her into his house and she then:

1) shaves her head

2) does her nails

3) discards her captive's garb

4) is allowed to mourn a month for her father and mother


            What is the purpose of this odd procedure?  The commentators offer different and diverse explanations.  We will begin with a dispute between the two sages, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva (Israel, end of the 1st, beginning of the 2nd century):


"Our Rabbis taught: 'And she shall shave her head, and do her nails,' (Deut. 21:12) R. Eliezer said, 'She shall cut them.'  R. Akiva said, 'She shall let them grow.'  R. Eliezer said: An act was mentioned in respect of the head, and an act was mentioned in respect of the nails; as the former signifies removal, so does the latter also signify removal.  R. Akiva said: An act was mentioned in respect of the head and an act was mentioned in respect of the nails; as disfigurement is the purpose of the former so is disfigurement the purpose of the latter...."  (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot, 48a)


            The two sages disagree regarding the nature of the act relating to the nails of the desired female captive.  Rabbi Eliezer interprets the word "ve-asta" (translated - do [her nails]) as to cut her nails.  Just as the first requirement, which pertains to her hair, involves cutting; so too the second requirement, pertaining to her nails, involves cutting.  In contrast, Rabbi Akiva interprets the word "ve-asta" as to grow her nails.  He makes a different comparison between the requirements regarding the hair and nails of the woman captive: Just as the requirement regarding the hair makes the woman less attractive; so too the requirement relating to her nails is geared towards making her less attractive.  It is uncomely for a woman to shave her hair and it is unattractive for her to have her nails grow long and untended.  In one case, cutting results in unseemly appearance while in another, growth becomes unsightly.  Although opposite actions, they achieve identical results - the repulsiveness of the woman in her captor's eyes.


            Rabbi Akiva is of the opinion that the different actions prescribed by the Torah for the woman captive are geared towards making her unattractive to her captor. [ This approach is adopted by Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105) in explaining all four requirements pertaining to the woman captive:


"Scripture is speaking (makes this concession) only in view of man's evil inclination (his carnal desires).   For if the Holy one, blessed be He, would not permit her to him as a wife, he would nevertheless marry her although she would then be forbidden to him..."


"And she shall do her nails - the reason is that she may become repulsive to her captor."


"And she shall discard her captive's garb - the reason is because these are fine clothes, for the women of the heathen peoples adorned themselves in time of war in order to lure others (the enemy) to sin with them."


"And she shall dwell in your house - not in the women's apartment, but in the house which he constantly uses.       When             he goes in he meets her, when he leaves he meets her (i.e., he cannot avoid meeting her constantly and the novelty of her beauty wears off). He sees her endless crying, sees her neglected appearance - and all this in order that she should become repulsive to him."


"And she shall weep for her father [and her mother a full month] - Why all this? In order to make a contrast - that whilst the Jewish woman (the captor's Jewish wife) is happy, she should be downhearted, whilst the Jewish woman adorns herself, she should bear a neglected appearance."


            The Torah is clearly opposed to the Israelite's marriage to the woman captive. Why then does it allow him to marry her? Rashi, citing our Sages, answers that the Torah is making concessions only in view of man's weaknesses and lustful inclinations.


            This idea, when analyzed closely, is quite surprising, if not revolutionary. How can the Torah permit that which it considers to be inherently negative! How is this to be understood?


            To answer this question, we must remember that the Torah was not given to angels. It was given to man and takes into consideration his inherent weaknesses. The Torah considered it futile to prohibit marriage to woman captives of war. In the tumult and turmoil of war, where passions run so high, the Torah considered it too much to forbid outright the taking of woman captors. Such a dictate would not be adhered to by the people. Instead of creating a situation in which the people would surely transgress the commandment of God, the Torah offers a different remedy. This approach is illustrated in the following homiletical interpretation of our sages:


"To what may this be compared? To a son of royalty who craved a certain food which he could not have, and his father would mollify him and tell him that were he to eat [this food] it would harm him. However, once the father saw that [the son] did not heed [his warnings, but ate the prohibited food], he told him that he should take certain precautions so that he not suffer [from the food]."  (Midrash Ha-gadol, 14th century Yemenite collection of homiletical interpretations of our sages compiled by Rabbi David HaEdni)


            According to Rashi, all four acts prescribed by the Torah with regard to the female captive are geared towards the same end. Their purpose is to lessen the allure of the woman so that the Israelite no longer desire her as his wife. A woman emanating from an idolatrous culture is unable to raise a committed Jewish household, and to the contrary, will undoubtedly have a very negative impact. The Torah therefore prescribes a method for helping the Israelite overcome his obsession with this woman. The woman captive shaves her hair, grows her nails to an unseemly length, divests herself of her elegant clothing and sits in the Israelite's home depressed and bemoaning her predicament. It is the Torah's hope that following this month long interim period that the Israelite no longer desire this woman captive and realize that it is preferable that he marry a woman from his own people and faith.


            Rashi's interpretation is according to the approach of the sage, Rabbi Akiva, who interprets that the woman's nails are left to grow untended in order to make her repulsive. However, as stated above, in contrast to Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Eliezer interprets that the woman must cut her nails. The question which requires elaboration is whether this is simply a technical difference from the approach of Rabbi Akiva, cutting instead of growing the nails, or is it indicative of a fundamental difference in understanding of the entire section? Does Rabbi Eliezer reject the conception that the Torah's requirements regarding the woman captive are geared towards diminishing her beauty? Although they don't all attribute their interpretations to Rabbi Eliezer, many of the medieval commentators reject the conception that the purpose of the four acts prescribed by the Torah are to make the woman captive less attractive. These commentators offer interpretations very different from that of Rabbi Akiva and Rashi.


            After citing Rashi's interpretation, the Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Ezra, Spain, 1092-1167) cites an alternative interpretation and combines different explanations for the requirements regarding the woman captive. He offers the following reasoning for the requirement of shaving her head:


"She shall shave her head because she is impure, as is the case regarding the [purification of a] leper." (See Leviticus 14:8,9.)


            The shaving of the woman's head is not in order to make her ugly but is rather part of a process of purification. This woman originates from an idolatrous nation and has thus defiled herself with their vanities. As in the case of the leper, she must shave her hair before entering the Israelite camp.


            The Bechor Shor (Rabbi Yoseph Ben Yitzchak Bechor Shor, France, 12 century) and the Chizkuni (Rabbi Chizkiya ben Manoach, France, mid-thirteenth century) develop this line of interpretation with regard to all the physical requirements relating to the woman captive:


"...and she shall discard her captive's garb since she worshipped in these clothes idols as is the case in [the   verse in which Jacob tells his family, "get rid of the idolatrous artifacts that you have, purify yourselves] and CHANGE YOUR CLOTHES" (Genesis 35:2). And whatever she can rid herself of from that which was upon her in the period when she was a gentile, like her hair and her      nails, she must do away with." (Chizkuni 21:13)


            The acts prescribed by the Torah in relation to the woman captive comprise a process of detachment from her idolatrous past and an initiation into the Jewish people. They are not an attempt at preventing her entrance into the Israelite nation but rather the procedure through which this is accomplished.


            The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) offers an alternative approach to that of Rashi and the Chizkuni:


"I say that these are all regulations of mourning, all connected with the expression, and she shall bewail her father and mother.  Thus he commanded that she shall shave her head, similar to what is written of Job [when he heard of the death of his children], and "he shaved his head" [Job 1:20], and so also, "cut off thy hair, [and cast it away, and take up a lamentation]" [Jeremiah 7:29].  So, too, the cutting of nails is a form of mourning like the shaving of the head. It states, "and she shall discard her captive's garb," that is to say, she shall don the garments of mourning and she shall remain in thy house like a widow and not go outside at all, and she shall bewail her father and her mother, doing all this a full month, for such is the custom of mourners. ...

And the reason for this section [i.e., of all these regulations] is that she is converted against her will, and no one asks her whether she is willing to abandon her religion and become Jewish as is [customarily] done with proselytes. ...

This is the reason for the verse, and she shall bewail her father and her mother a full month, because she abandons her people and her gods. ...

In my opinion this respite is not primarily intended to show compassion for her, but to eliminate the names of idols from her mouth and her heart. The wandering away and separation from her father and her mother and her people will further 'quench the coal,' for it is improper to cohabit with a woman who is coerced and in mourning..., who cries out in her heart to her gods to save her and bring her back unto her people and unto her gods.  Thus when they inform her that we will force her to give up her people and her native land, and convert to Judaism, we must tell her, 'Be comforted for thy father and thy mother, and the land of your nativity whom you shall not see any more, but, instead, be your master's wife, in accordance with the law of Moses and Jewish custom.'  Then we are to give her a time for weeping and mourning as is the way of mourners in order to assuage her sorrow and her longing, for in all sorrow there is profit and consolation afterwards.  Now, during that time she has pondered in her mind about the conversion, and     has partly eradicated from her heart her idols, people, and native land, she has consoled herself for them and has attached herself to this man to whom she knows she will become [a wife] and has become accustomed to him.  Therefore Scripture states, 'and she shall remain in thy house" (21:17) meaning that all this time she is to stay in the house which he uses, perhaps she will desire and consent to [marry] him.  And in general, all these regulations are on account of the compulsion, but if she voluntarily expresses a desire to be legally converted by the court, she is immediately permitted to him, or even to his father or his brother."


            The Torah's instructions regarding the woman captive are not an attempt to make her appear unattractive, nor are they a process of physical purification. Rather, they are all regulations of mourning. The Ramban connects the first three acts prescribed by the Torah with the last one, "she shall spend a month's time in your house lamenting her father and mother" (21:13). The whole procedure is an act of mourning over her separation from her parents, people and culture. It is only after the woman has come to terms with her new situation, has realized that she is joining a new people and a new monotheistic faith, that she is permitted to the Israelite. The Israelite should not marry this woman while she is still under the influence of her people of origin and still praying to her idols to save her. Only after she has despaired and separated herself from her past, may the Israelite take her for a wife. Thus, her mourning is a period of separation from her previous culture. This idea was first articulated in a homiletical interpretation of the sage, Rabbi Akiva:


"Our Rabbis taught: 'And bewail her father and her mother;' (Deut. 21:13) R. Eliezer said: 'Her father' means her actual father; 'Her mother,' her actual mother.  R. Akiva said: 'Her father and her mother' refer to idolatry; for so Scripture says, "Who say to wood; 'Thou art my father.'" (Jer. 2:27)" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot 48b)


            According to Rabbi Akiva, her mourning is not so much for her parents as it is for her gods. The Ramban explains that only after she no longer awaits for salvation from her idols, can the Israelite marry her.


            Although novel, the Ramban's interpretation suffers from several difficulties. (Take a few minutes and try to identify them yourselves!) First, the Ramban does not substantiate how cutting nails is an act of mourning. Even more problematic is his explanation of the requirement that the woman discard her captive's garb. According to the Ramban she must discard it in order that she don garments of mourning. However, according to this interpretation, the essence of the requirement does not appear in the text. Were the Ramban's interpretation correct, Scripture should have stated that she should wear clothes of mourning and not just state that she should discard her previous dress. The text emphasizes the discarding of her old clothes, not the donning of new clothes of mourning!


            So far, we have seen three explanations of the requirements relating to the woman captive. Rashi explains that they aim at making the woman repulsive to her captor. The Chizkuni opines that they comprise a process of purification and initiation into the Jewish people. Finally, the Ramban suggests that they are all mourning practices. I would like to conclude with one more interpretation which is hinted by the commentators and which we will develop more fully.


            In the alternative interpretation brought down by the Ibn Ezra, he explains the requirement regarding the woman's nails as an act of embellishment and improvement of their appearance. This fixing of the nails is accomplished by trimming them. He then explains that the woman must discard her captive's garments because they are dirty. The Abrabanel (Don Isaac Abrabanel, Spain, 1437-1508) explains that once it was clear to the vanquished people that they would be taken captive they put on rough and ugly sackcloth - called captive's garments. The Torah instructs that instead of these dirty captive's garments the woman must wear nice clean clothing. Both these interpretations are diametrically opposed to Rashi. The Torah's requirements do not aim at making the woman captive repulsive but, to the contrary, aim at improving her appearance! She must fix her nails and don new and more presentable clothes.


            If we wish to continue this line of interpretation, how are we to explain the requirement that the woman shave her head? Shaved heads are not usually considered esthetic! HaKetav VeHakabala (Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, Central Europe, 1785-1865) offers the following novel interpretation:


"The word 'giluach' (translated shave [her head]) does not necessarily have to mean shaving in a repulsive manner in which the scalp is left with no hair at all, for, in truth, we find the word 'giluach' also in the context of beautifying, namely when one cuts the hairs that grow wild and unruly so that they appear orderly and even. This is the case with Joseph where it is stated "He got a haircut ('Vayegalach') and changed clothes" (Genesis 41:14). It is incontrovertible that the word 'giluach' is used there in the sense of beautifying in honor of the king [Pharaoh] as is the case with regard to the Joseph's changing of his clothes. This is also the case with regard to the 'giluach' of Absalom (see Samuel II 14:26)... for he didn't really shave but only cut his hair so that it wouldn't be too heavy...In all these cases the word 'giluach' is used in the sense of beautifying, not making repulsive. Therefore, it is possible that just as Rabbi Eliezer does not consider the requirement regarding the nails as a repulsive act, so to with regard to the requirement regarding her hair."


            So far, we have seen that the first three requirements regarding the woman, the cutting of her hair, trimming of her nails and donning of different clothing can all be explained as improvements in the woman captive's appearance. How are we to understand, according to this approach, the fourth provision which allows the woman one month to mourn for her father and mother? The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Egypt, 1138-1204) in his 'Guide to the Perplexed' offers the following explanation:


"She must not be prevented from mourning and crying, in accordance with the words, 'and she shall weep for her father and for her mother' (ibid.); for mourners find comfort in crying and in excitement till the body has not sufficient strength to bear the inner emotions; in the same manner as happy persons find rest in various kinds of play. Thus the Lord is merciful to her and gives her permission to continue her mourning and weeping till she is worn out. You know certainly that he married her as a heathen and that during the thirty days she openly keeps            her religion and even continues her idolatrous practices; no interference with her faith is allowed during this time; and after all that she cannot be sold, nor treated as a handmaid, if she could not be induced to accept the statutes of the Law...."


            The purpose of the mourning period is not, as Rashi says, to make her less appealing to the Israelite, nor is it intended, as the Ramban suggests, to "eliminate the names of idols from her mouth and her heart". Rather, it stems from mercy and compassion for the woman due to the fear and sorrow which she is experiencing. The Torah wishes to give her time to adapt to her new circumstances and therefore forbids her to the Israelite till the termination of her mourning period.


            It is this concern for the plight of the vanquished, and in this specific case, for the helpless woman captive, which also motivates the Torah in all the provisions regarding the desired captive. If the woman is to be taken as a wife, she is to be treated like all Israelite woman. She is not to be taken as a maidservant or anything of the like. She must be treated in a humane manner. If an Israelite desires her he must bring her into his home. She must not be seen in her unkempt and disheveled state. She must fix her hair and her nails and wear dignified clothing. This change of appearance emphasizes the Torah's expectation regarding her treatment. She is no longer an enemy prisoner. She is to enter the household as an equal and her appearance declares this. As an equal, the Torah demands that she be given a period of mourning as is the case with any Jew in mourning. This concern for the treatment and status of the woman captive is particularly evident in the last verse of the section. "Then, should you no longer want her, you must release her outright.  You must not sell her for money: since you had your will of her, you must not enslave her." The woman captive may only be taken as a wife. If the Israelite does not desire her she must be released and she may not be treated as a slave.


            To summarize, we have seen four completely different explanations of the procedure prescribed by the Torah for the treatment of a woman captive desired by an Israelite. Differences in understanding are already noticeable amongst our sages. It is plausible that the sharp differences between some of the commentators are manifestations of the disagreement between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer in their interpretation of the clause relating to the nails of the woman captive. Rashi adopts the interpretation of Rabbi Akiva and explains the whole procedure as an attempt at convincing the Israelite not to marry the woman captive. The Chizkuni suggests that it is a process of purification and initiation into the Jewish people. The Ramban interprets that all the prescribed acts are regulations of mourning. We concluded with a new explanation which has its roots in the interpretations of the Ibn Ezra, the Rambam and HaKetav Vehakabala. The major concern of the Torah is the proper treatment of the woman captive. The wide scale rape of woman of conquered nations is well known and documented. It takes place in almost all wars including such recent conflicts as the Serbian / Bosnian war. There are those who maintain that this is an unavoidable part of war. They might declare that "all is fair in love and war." Most of the civilized world disagrees. It asserts that there are moral norms that must be upheld even in the savage world of war. The Geneva Conventions for the protection of war victims were signed in 1949. More than three thousand years prior to the signing of the Geneva Conventions, the Torah set down the first laws governing the treatment of war victims, the law of the woman captive.


(Thanks to my teacher, R. Mordekhai Sabato, for inspiring many of the ideas in this lecture.)