Jewish Captives, Cruelty, & Compassion

Jewish law on the proper treatment of prisoners of war

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While taking civilian women captive during war may be inconsistent with our contemporary sense of morality, the biblical injunction presumably attempts to counter the wanton rape of women common during times of war. Furthermore, by granting the captured women time to mourn for their families, forcing men to marry female captives before having sexual relations with them, and forbidding these women then to be sold into slavery, the Bible attempts to protect the women's dignity, even within an inherently degrading situation.

Guarding Against Evil

A more general biblical commandment warns, "When you go out as a troop against your enemies, be on your guard against any evil thing" (Deuteronomy 23:10). Commenting on this verse, the medieval sage Nahmanides says, "The verse acts as a caution during a time when sin is widespread. It is well known from the customs of troops that go out to war that… the most naturally upright person becomes cruel and wrathful when the troop goes out against the enemy. Accordingly, Scripture warns him, 'be on your guard against anything evil."

Another biblical statement--"When you approach a city to make war on it" (Deuteronomy 20:10)--is understood by one early midrash to prohibit the unnecessarily harsh treatment of a besieged city. According to this text, the specification that one approaches the city "to make war on it," rather than for any other reason, precludes "starving it, depriving it of water, or killing by means of a deadly disease" (Midrash Tanaim to Deuteronomy, 20:10).

Expanding the prohibition against excessive cruelty during wartime, Maimonides, in his Sefer haMitzvot (Book of Commandments), counts as a positive commandment the requirement, during the siege of a city, to leave one side of the city open so that civilians who wish to escape may do so (Mitzvot Aseh 5). In his discussion of this passage, Nahmanides comments, "From this, we learn to act compassionately with our enemies, even during a time of war" (Hasagot haRamban L'SeferHaMitzvot, Mitzvot Aseh 5).

Maimonides' requirement that civilians have a means of escape is, according to Nahmanides, only one example of a greater principle demanding compassion on enemies, even in the midst of combat.

Punishing the Guilty

Other commandments, though not specific to wartime, prohibit excessive punishment of those found guilty of a crime. In defining the punishment for a civil offence, the Bible stipulates, "He may be given up to 40 lashes, but not more, lest being flogged further, to excess, your brother be degraded before your eyes" (Deuteronomy 25:3). The term "your brother," according to several citations in the Talmud and elsewhere, serves as a reminder that even a person deserving of serious punishment does not cease to be one's brother--a person akin to oneself (m. Makkot 3:15, etc.).

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.