The Captured Woman


One of the reasons why Judaism altered biblical laws was that it recognized that the Bible itself wanted that the laws should be changed or disregarded, that they should be humanized. Maimonides explained this in his Guide of the Perplexed as did the Talmud before him and commentators after him. They recognized that there are many biblical laws that the Torah only “allowed” the Israelites to perform, acts that were a “concession” to human nature, acts that the Torah meant to discourage. The law of the captured woman is an example.



Maimonides explained this in his commentary of Exodus 13:17.[1] The Torah states there that instead of taking the Israelites on a direct short trip to Canaan, God led them on a round-about route so that they would not have to fight the well-armed combative Philistines who they would have needed to pass if they traveled the shorter distance. God knew that when the Israelites would be attacked by the Philistines, these erstwhile slaves would be frightened and rush back to safety as slaves to their former Egyptian masters.

Maimonides stressed that the Torah recognized that it is “impossible (for an individual or nation) to go suddenly from one extreme to another; it is…impossible for him to suddenly discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed.” Thus the Torah had to deal with the then-existing primitive mindset of the people and lead them to Canaan by means of a longer route.

The Torah, for example, allowed the offering of sacrifices. Maimonides was opposed to sacrifices. He felt that: “It is for this reason God allowed these kinds of service to continue,” not because it is proper for people to offer sacrifices or that God needs sacrifices, but the people had become so accustomed to it and saw other nations doing it, so the Torah allowed it. However, as Maimonides goes on to explain, the Torah limited sacrifices dramatically with the goal to teach the people that sacrifices are wrong. The Torah restricted where they could be brought, when, and how, and permitted only certain animals.[2]

This concept that many commands in the Torah were only instituted because of the weakness of human nature and their unsophisticated temperaments and character, and were meant to cease as people improved, applies also to the laws of slavery, witchcraft, the evil son, an eye for an eye, the captured woman, among others. Each of these laws is contrary to basic morality. But the Torah allowed the Israelites to have slaves, kill suspected witches, execute evil sons, retained the ancient retaliatory notion of an eye for an eye, permitted a soldier to have sex with a woman captured during wars, but only under the most restrictive and instructive procedures.[3] Each of these laws was discontinued, as were many others like them, for the Torah is written in a way that encourages people to act in a better manner than how it is allowed.

Let’s examine one of these laws, the law concerning a captured woman.


The biblical law concerning the captured woman

Deuteronomy 21:10-14 describes the laws of war and states: “When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands, and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and desire her, and you want to take her as your woman, you must bring her into your house, and she must shave her head, do her nails, remove her robe of captivity from off her, and she should sit in your house and bemoan her father and her mother for a full month. After that, you may go to her, have sex with her, and she shall be your woman. But if you do not desire her later, you must set her free. You may not sell her for money, nor make her your slave, because you humbled her.”

In short, the Bible allows a soldier who captured a woman during a war to have sex with her – a reprehensible act, rape. But it mitigates the act somewhat by requiring that he first do five acts: bring her to your house, shave her head, do her nails,[4] remove the robes she wore during the war, and have her sit in your house for a month and mourn the loss of her family. It ends this list by calling the soldier’s act a humbling experience. Some, if not all of the five acts may be designed to dampen his desire to have sex with his prisoner. Two of the requirements – bringing her to your house and letting her mourn the loss of her parents – may be acts of consideration for the feelings of the prisoner.[5]

This license to take the captive woman is a concession that the Torah makes because it knows that many combat fighters will be so filled with lust during and after battle that they will rape their captives. The Torah realizes that it cannot stop soldiers from having sex with captives so it allows the  relationship but only as described, although it is not the ideal, for fear that if the soldier rapes a captive on the battle field, he will not only be doing a single despicable act but will degenerate to other disgusting behaviors.


The Talmudic interpretation

The Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 21b, explains this law exactly as Maimonides did in his Guide of the Perplexed. The Talmud states that this law is not expressing an ideal, but is a concession to the human passion. Yet, it emphasizes that the law attempts to overcome or at least to control the soldier’s passion. It stresses that the law insists that the soldier may not molest her on the field of battle, but only after taking her home and only after she undergoes five procedures. He may also not take more than one woman for himself and may not take any woman for anyone else.

The Bible and Talmud commentator Rashi (1040-1105) clarifies the Talmud. Although this law gives soldiers a license to marry even Canaanite women and women who have husbands, it is attempting to moderate the soldier’s behavior:[6] “War cannot be humanized, nor primitive passions subdued. Yet the rabbis endeavored to curb them as far as possible and minimize their evil effects: the captive was to be kindly treated, given the full legal status of a wife, and unmolested in actual battle – possibly because in cool blood he would altogether recoil from his intentions.”[7]



[1] In his Guide of the Perplexed 3:32.

[2] Jews, or at least many of them, realized that sacrifices, the killing of animals for God, is wrong, around the year 70 when the temple was destroyed. Although some Jews wanted to continue the sacrifices, the rabbis used the opportunity to stop it. They said we can no longer offer sacrifice for sacrifices can only be offered in the temple, which no longer exists.

[3] Countless Orthodox Jews reject Maimonides’ and the Talmud’s understanding of the purpose of these commands, and think that every Torah command is proper, moral, and ideal.

[4] Samuel David Luzzatto states that this was a mourning practice where she bewails the loss of her parents; and we no longer know how people mourned in the past – by cutting nails or letting them grow long – thus we do not know what the Torah intends here.

[5] There are differences of opinion among the Bible commentators how to interpret these five requirements. As I stated many times, the Bible is frequently obscure, leaving it to readers to interpret what is being mandated and why the law was instituted. For example, some say that she must shave her head to make her less desirable, others that this is part of the opportunity given her to mourn the loss of her parents; some understand “do her nails” as cut them, others say this means let them grow long; some understand that the robes she wore during the war are removed because they were attractive garments, for women in ancient times were sometimes used to seduce soldiers, while others contend that this is part of the mourning process.

[6] Based on Midrash Sifrei.

[7] The quote, paraphrasing Rashi, is in a note in The Babylonian Talmud, Seder Nashim, Kiddushin, The Soncino Press, 1936, page 104. Rashi adds (based on Midrash Tanchuma) that we can be sure that the soldier will soon hate the woman. He also explains that the woman is taken to his house so that during the thirty days he will see her without adornments and lose his desire for her.