Women Taken Captive in Battle: Objects or Human Beings?

Women Taken Captive in Battle: Objects or Human Beings?

By: Meir Roth*

Objectivizing refers to treating a human being or anything that is not an object as if it were an object.  In interpersonal relations this finds expression in a person viewing another as a means to answer his needs or provide him benefit without seeing the other as a human being in his own right. 

Ostensibly, the passage on a "beautiful women" taken captive in battle provides an instance of such a relationship between captor, an Israelite warrior, and captive, a gentile woman.  As to why the Torah's commandments subsume such an immoral situation, the Sages answered:  "A beautiful woman taken captive—the Torah only provided for human passions:  it is better for Israel to eat flesh of [animals] about to die, yet [ritually] slaughtered, than flesh of dying animals which have perished" (Kiddushin 21a-22b).[1]  This explanation still leaves us wondering:  just because a soldier is incapable of controlling his lust, is he to be rewarded and permitted to have intercourse with a gentile maiden, exempting him from several explicit proscriptions of the Torah,[2] including the prohibition against intimate relations with gentile women[3] and the injunction, "you shall not intermarry with them" (Deut. 7:3), that applies to the "seven nations"?

Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz explains this exceptional provision of the Torah:

Ostensibly, they [the warriors] should have been altogether forbidden from touching the women taken captive, but given human nature and behavior in time of battle, it was not realistic to expect such a command to be obeyed; so the unbridled situation would have remained as it was.  Therefore, better to educate the unbridled instincts in man, permitting that which it would be impossible to forbid, and to make this waiver contingent on terms that would teach human beings to be more humane and moral in their interpersonal relations.[4]

Rabbi Berkowitz's explanation was prompted by the Talmudic saying, "The Torah was not given to the ministering angels."[5]  According to this Talmudic principle, the Torah acknowledges the reality that prevailed in war in antiquity, when women of the enemy were considered the personal booty of soldiers.[6]  In Berkowitz's opinion, were it not for the Torah's command, the women of the enemy who had been taken captive would surely have been treated even worse, there being no one to protect them.  In order to understand the Torah's didacticism we must closely examine the entire corpus of laws dealing with a beautiful woman taken captive, laws that are intended to uproot the moral shortcoming of objectivizing with which we began this article.

The passage on women taken captive details the obligations placed on the captor and the captive; and the Sages, in typical fashion, deduce additional laws from the verses at hand.  These rules of halakhah chart the educational process undergone by the Israelite warrior who takes a gentile woman captive on the battlefield.[7]

The halakhic status of a captive woman, as described in the Torah, deviates from the norm in the history of war regarding captive women, who were easy prey for being exploited and were not treated as persons.  The Torah required that such a woman be "taken to wife" (Deut. 21:11); as the midrash explains, "You have marriage rights [Heb. likukhin][8] over her" (Kiddushin 22a).  In other words, the captor had to marry her by Jewish law after her converting.[9]  Another restriction placed on the warrior was not to have intercourse on the battlefield more than once.[10]  Perhaps these restrictions and other additional legal details concerning such a woman would prevent some soldiers from following the light-minded approach that easily arises in this particular situation.

If, nevertheless, the person gave in to temptation, he cannot do with the woman as he pleases; rather, the Torah requires him to wait thirty days before having any further contact with her, during which time she is commanded to lead a modest life.  The halakhah instructs her to remove her adornments and the dress in which she was taken into captivity, "insofar as such garments are attractive, for the gentiles would adorn their daughters during a war so that they could entice the men."[11]  She must let her nails grow and shave her head, "so that she will not appear attractive to him.  She must be together with him at home.  Thus, when he enters, he sees her; when he leaves, he sees her; so that he becomes disgusted with her."[12]

These details of the halakhah can be seen as doing away with all the means that contributed to the man's being attracted to her in an impersonal way.  Thus these instructions deal with the residual effects of sexuality that has no personality behind it, with things that were designed solely to seduce warriors.  It is important to note that according to the halakhah, this period of keeping distance lasts three months,[13] not one month as stipulated in Scripture.  It is self-evident that the duration of this intermediate stage significantly affects the depth of change in awareness that can take place in the man during that time.  Berkowitz sums up the reason for the commandments regarding women taken captive:

The aim of the Torah was to confer humane treatment and improve the attitude of the victorious forces towards the women of the vanquished enemy…This commandment served to block unbridled licentiousness towards women captives, as we know it from the history of war up to the present day.[14]

The Sages viewed the laws about captive women as an instance where insisting on the letter of the law would in most eras have been perceived as a demand beyond human abilities in such situations.  Insisting on uncompromising moral standards would have achieved the diametrical opposite:  inhuman behavior with no supervision or restraint.

Adopting the reading suggested above, we see that the series of actions imposed on a person who takes "a beautiful woman" captive seeks to change the woman's position from being treated impersonally as a captive to being treated personally as a human being and not merely a useful object.  During this period she lives in her captor's house, not yet as his wife, and he comes to know what sort of person she is, unadorned and in a completely different context from their first encounter.  Three months are a considerable length of time for a desirous man who apparently does not know postponing satisfaction.  These terms create a setting that can reveal the captive woman's personality, character, and culture.

This is not to say that the passage on a "beautiful woman" reaches a "happy ending" as in a fairy-tale.  The tie between a man and woman, formed under problematic circumstances, is likely to encounter crises precisely after the interim period when she is in his house but still forbidden to him.  The transition from treating her as an object to treating her as a person does not erase the past and is even likely to reinforce it.  The Torah's juxtaposition of the passage on a captive woman to the passage on the inheritance of the "first-born son of the unloved wife" hints at the tragic end to which such a partnership might come, as we read in the midrash:  "Scripture refers to one of your flesh, whom you come to hate."[15] He might understand later that he had impetuously given in to his lust on the battlefield, and having come to know her, he may no longer want her.  Therefore, if she has gone through a full conversion to Judaism and he wishes to be rid of her, the Torah commands him:  "Then, should you no longer want her, you must release her outright [i.e., with a writ of divorce and ketubah, like any Jewish woman].  You must not sell her for money; since you had your will of her, you must not enslave her" (Deut. 21:14).  Notwithstanding the apparent plain sense of the text, she is not forced to convert.  Hence the question arises:  what is her legal status if she does not wish to convert?  If she refuses to join the Jewish people, she "must agree to accept the seven universal laws commanded to Noah's descendants and then, she is set free.  Her status is the same as all other resident aliens."[16]

Translated by Rachel Rowen


* Dr. Meir Roth is head of the Scientific Applications Support Unit in the Customer Support Department at Bar Ilan University.

[1] "Since his desires tantalize him on account of her beauty, the Torah permitted her to him, but with difficulty; but better that Israel eat flesh of animals about to die, but that have been ritually slaughtered, i.e., the flesh of a ritually permitted, dangerous woman, even though she be loathsome,…than the flesh of abomination" (Rashi).  Also see the article by Zvi Gilat, "The Law of the Beautiful Captive," (http://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/kiteze/gil.html).

[2] Put simply, the Torah waived substantial prohibitions here, such as intercourse with Aramean women, but Rashi and Tosefot disagree here (see Kiddushin 22a).  Rashi maintains that intercourse with her on the battlefield is forbidden, until she performs all the actions mentioned in the Torah and converts.  According to this approach, the man would not be transgressing the prohibition against taking an Aramean woman; the human weakness that the Sages saw here is manifest in his lusting for a gentile woman.  According to Rabbenu Tam (Tosefotloc. cit.), the Torah permits intercourse with her in battle, and Maimonides (Hilkhot Melakhim 8.3) concurs with him.  They deduce this from the notion that the Torah was trying to counter man's lust, e.g., while still on the battlefield; that being so, a waiver was given here, permitting something which elsewhere is considered a transgression.   

[3] Maimonides, Hilkhot Issurei Bi'ah 12.1.                        

[4] E. Berkowitz, Ha-Halakhah, Cokhah ve-Tafkideha, Rav Kook Institute, 2007, p. 47.

[5] Me`ilah 14b.

[6] This is mentioned in the Song of Deborah:  "They must be dividing the spoil they have found:  a damsel or two for each man" (Judges 5:30).  Tamar and Absalom, according to the Sages, were born to David by a beautiful woman he had taken in war.

[7] He is permitted to have intercourse with her on the battlefield, when she is still a gentile (Maimonides, Hilkhot Melakhim 8.2).

[8] The root l-k-kh in the Bible denotes marriage:  "A man takes [l-k-kh] a wife and possesses her" (Deut. 24:1).

[9] "For it is forbidden to marry a woman who has not converted" (Maimonides, Hilkhot Melakhim, 8.7).

[10] "Similarly, a soldier may engage in sexual relations with a woman while she is still a gentile if his natural inclination overcomes him.  However, he may not engage in sexual relations with her and then, go on his way.  Rather, he must bring her into his home, as Deuteronomy 21:11 states, 'If you see a beautiful woman among the prisoners,…you shall bring her into the midst of you home…'  It is forbidden for him to engage in sexual relations with her a second time until he marries her" (ibid. 8.2).


[11] According to Rashi on Deut. 21:14.

[12] Maimonides, Hilkhot Melakhim 8.5.

[13] Ibid., halakhah 6, the explanation for her having to wait being the need "to discern between sanctified seed and that which is not sanctified" (Kesef Mishnehloc. cit.).

[14] Berkowitz 2007, p. 47.

[15] Sifre Deuteronomy, par. 214.

[16] Maimonides, Hilkhot Melakhim 8.7.


For more on Parashat Ki Tetze

Last modified: 16/04/2019