Since the establishment of the state of Israel fifty-five years ago, there has been a renewal of relevance in the study of the halachic ramifications of war. Jews living in their homeland have been forced to defend themselves against their surrounding enemies, while also undertaking offensive measures at times. There is much halachic literature which is pertinent to the subject of war in contemporary times and this article will discuss some of these issues.
The halachic literature discusses many details concerning war, such as who is obligated to fight in a war and when it is mandatory. Rules of war and whether or not all wars are equally justified are other issues discussed. A common concern of war is how far a Jewish nation can go to ensure its security prior to an existing war. With the realities of war and the new technology related to the battlefield, this is an issue that needs constant scrutiny. As with almost all issues, there is a Torah view based on our holy texts and question-and-answer forums with our leading Rabbis throughout the generations.
The Torah talks about the necessity of war in Parshat Ki Teitzei . After stating that in battle one should not have fear, the Torah then proceeds to discuss who is exempt from war. Interestingly, the Torah then gives an exemption to battle to those who are scared (according to the Gemara this refers to one who is worried about their sins), as well as others (I would speculate there was a certain criteria for what would be deemed “scared” for I would imagine that the majority of soldiers have sinned at one point and are at least somewhat scared when approaching battle). Other people that are exempted from war are those who recently married, planted a vineyard, or built a new house. The Torah explains the reason as “lest they die in the war and another man will take” (i.e. their new wife, vineyard, or house). The Gemara clarifies that the exemptions to battle listed in Parshat Ki Teitzei only apply to a milchemet reshut, optional war. However, in a milchemet mitzvah, a mandatory war, even a bride and groom are obligated to “fight”. It is unclear, however, what type of battle is considered a milchemet reshut as opposed to milchemet mitzvah. The Gemara brings in one clear-cut case for each category. According to all, an example of a milchemet mitzvah is conquering the land of Israel, as was done by Yehoshua after the exodus from Egypt, while an example of a milchemet reshut is extending the borders of the land of Israel as done by Dovid Hamelech. However, there is an argument in the Gemara regarding whether an attack on an enemy nation to reduce their future threat is considered a milchemet reshut or a milchemet mitzvah. This scenario enters into a gray area between the two categories and has tremendous ramifications (as will be discussed later in the article). The Rambam in Hilchot Melachim attempts to clarify these categories. He mentions three situations that are milchemet mitzvah- a war against the seven forbidden nations (who were in Eretz Yisrael before the conquest of Am Yisrael) and the war against Amalek and saving Yisrael from enemies who came upon them”.
According to the Tzitz Eliezer , the mitzvah of saving Jews from enemies that attack them is even related to saving individual Jews (as opposed to Jews as a nation). Despite this, it can be argued that one need not endanger his life to save another Jew by the reverse logic of the famous case that one must forfeit his life before killing someone else. The reason given by Chazal is, “who said your blood is redder than his blood” . So too, it is possible to say that one does not necessarily have to risk his life to save another because who said his blood is redder than your blood. Additionally, it is not always required by Halacha to fight a battle that does not appear to a have a reasonable chance at success. This attitude is alluded to in the Gemara by Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai, who chose to surrender his forces to the Romans rather than suffer many Jewish casualties, even though it meant relinquishing parts of Eretz Yisrael.
The Rambam defines a milchemet reshut as “a war fought with other nations in order to increase the borders of Israel, as well as to increase his (i.e. the king) greatness and name”. Increasing the greatness of the kingdom is not mentioned in the Gemara and the category of attacking a nation to remove them as a threat is mentioned in the Gemara, but not in the Rambam. The Lechem Mishna explains that the Rambam would include attacking others to remove a potential threat under the category of increasing the greatness of the king and hence no need for the Rambam to specifically mention it.
Based on this Rambam and the Gemara, it would seem that a pre-emptive war like the Six-day war, where it was clear that opposing troops were ready to attack Israel, would be considered a milchemet mitzvah. This is because enemies who were ready to attack them posed an immediate danger to Jews. From the Aruch Hashulchan , it would appear that the argument in the Gemara as to the permissibility of killing others to prevent war is referring to attacking a nation without any cause to fear an attack in later years. This opinion is proposed when he states that if there is a worry that they will attack in the future it is considered a milchemet mitzvah and included under Rambam’s category of saving Yisrael from an enemy.
The Rambam adds that only a milchemet mitzvah does not require approval of a Sanhedrin prior to going to war. This (if we followed this) principle would seem to severely limit our options for war in this day and age unless a Sanhedrin was restablished. The Meiri , however, adds this caveat: the Beit Din Hagadol (A.K.A. Sanhedrin) is only required if the nation does not want to go war; however, if the nation (presumably the people of Israel) as a whole wants to go to war, the beit din (Jewish court) is not necessary to wage war. Additionally, Rav Ovadiah Yosef brings the sefer Panim Yafot that states that any war that is fought for the land of Israel is considered a milchemet mitzvah.
In another aspect relating to conflict, the Torah states that when you approach a city for battle, you must give them an opportunity to make peace with you . Yet, in Parshat Vayishlach, the Torah tells the story of Shimon and Levi killing the people of Shechem after Shechem abducts and rapes their sister Dina. The people of Shechem are clearly caught off-guard and unprepared. The Maharal asks how Shimon and Levi can attack the people of Shechem without warning – it seems to go against the principle of giving the enemy a chance at peace before attacking them. Putting aside the separate discussion of whether our forefathers were obligated in mitzvot prior to Matan Torah, the Maharal explains that the Torah only requires B’nai Yisrael to offer peace if there was no prior confrontation, but when the enemy provides the initial provocation (as was done by Shechem kidnapping and then raping Dina), no warning is necessary. Similarly, in recent years, Rav Yisraeli has stated that it is only considered a milchemet reshut when a country never previously attacked Israel, but once there is precedent in combat, every war can be considered a milchemet mitzvah.
Rashi and Ramban argue as to whether the rule obligating B’nei Yisrael to ask the enemy for peace is exclusively applicable for amilchemet reshut or whether it applies to a milchemet mitzvah. According to Rashi , the posuk requiring one to ask the enemy for peace is limited to a milchemet reshut. He supports his ruling based on a posuk nearby which states “so should you do to the cities that are very far from you”, which Rashi seems to feel insinuates an expansion of current borders and therefore amilchemet reshut. In contrast to this opinion, Ramban states that a Jewish army must give the enemy a chance to surrender even for a milchemet mitzvah. He brings as proof the fact that Moshe Rabbeinu followed this process when attacking the Amorites, one of the seven nations whose conquering is considered a milchemet mitzvah.
There are several other differences between a milchemet mitzvah and a milchemet reshut. One difference is whether or not a war can be started less than three days prior to Shabbat. Only a milchemet mitzvah is permitted to begin within three days of Shabbat or even on Shabbat, if necessary. This distinction is clearly made due to the urgency of a milchemet mitzvah. A milchemet reshutcan generally be waged at the “convenience” of the Jewish army, thus there is ample reason to try to avoid being mechalel(desecrating) Shabbat. Yet another distinction between these two categories of war is the obligation of the king to lead his men into battle, which is only necessitated by a milchemet mitzvah .
Unfortunately, one common reality of conflict is prisoners of war. In light of the prevalent American military view that Iraq killed its prisoners of war in the most recent confrontation, it is noteworthy to see the profound contrast in the Jewish view of treating those captured in battle. Towards the beginning of Melachim Bet , the king asks Elisha the prophet if he can kill the prisoners. Elisha responds “Do not strike them! Would you strike down people whom you have captured with your sword and your bow? Rather, place food and water before them”. Though we do not necessarily accept every passage in the Torah as law, it is clear that the Torah is very sensitive to these desperate people and provides a powerful lesson of how one should treat his enemy. Nevertheless, it is probable that the treatment of prisoners is not exact in every case and must correspond to the specifics of each prisoner based on his previous actions, his ability to save lives, and any future danger he could present.
The Minchat Chinuch adds another dilemma to the discussion. He initially proposes that it would not seem possible for there to be an obligation to wage war since it is known, that in general, the appearance of danger pushes away the obligation of fulfillingmitzvot (with the three known exceptions of murder, idol worship, and immoral relations). He rejects this assumption logically by suggesting that the principle of exemption from mitzvoth that require one to forfeit his life is only applicable when the mitzvah itself is not inherently life-threatening. When the nature of the mitzvah is inherently dangerous, such as a war, it is obvious that the Torah cannot apply this principle. The Heichal Yitzchak adds that even a milchemet reshut is considered a mitzvah because otherwise one would not be allowed to put himself in such grave danger.
While this is all a fascinating discussion, it would seem to be irrelevant to all of us who are still not fortunate enough to have madealiya to Israel (like some other mitzvot). To this I bring the halachic question of whether or not women are obligated to hearParshat Zachor. The Sefer Hachinuch states that women are exempt from the mitzvah of hearing Parshat Zachor since the purpose of the mitzvah is to inspire us to fight and destroy Amalek and women are not considered to be soldiers of war. The Minchat Chinuch on this mitzvah questions this logic as we learned earlier in the article that milchemet amalek is considered amilchemet mitzvah and for a milchemet mitzvah even a bride from her chupah is expected to participate in battle. Rav Ovadiah Yosef defends the Sefer Hachinuch and states that the obligation of women in a milchemet mitzvah is in providing food for the soldiers. However, the Minchat Chinuch and Maharil Diskin felt that women are obligated in war and therefore required to hearParshat Zachor. The accepted custom is for women to come to shul and hear Parshat Zachor.
In conclusion, based on the rules we learned, it is clear to me that in our current “situation” with the Palestinians, the nation is obligated to protect its citizens “from the enemy that comes upon them”. The nation has to determine the threats of neighboring countries to determine their status. Obviously, every case is different and should be determined by a competent posek and not in any means by this article (In case Ariel Sharon or any future leaders are reading). There is much more about this topic that cannot be covered in the scope of this article. May Hashem allow us to see the arrival of Mashiach and the end of all wars in the near future.