If you go out to war upon your enemies, and G‑d, your G‑d, delivers them into your hand, and you seize their captives…

-- Devarim 21:10

Classic Questions

What kind of war does verse 10 refer to?

Rashi: The verse here is referring to a non-obligatory war, for in reference to the [obligatory] war of conquering the Land of Israel, the Torah would not stress, "and you seize their captives," for it has already stated [regarding the Land's inhabitants], "You may not allow any soul to live" (Devarim 20:16). The term "and you seize their captives" (v'shavisah shivyoh) thus comes to permit [the capture of] Cana'anites who are part of [a nation being fought through a non-obligatory war], even though they are from the seven nations [that inhabit the Land].

Rambam: A king may not wage other wars before obligatory wars. What constitutes an obligatory war? A war against the seven nations [occupying the Land of Cana'an], the war against Amalek, or a war fought in defense against an enemy that attacks Israel. Afterwards [when the obligatory wars have been won], he may wage a non-obligatory war, which is a war fought with other nations in order to expand the borders of Israel, and to magnify its greatness and reputation (Laws of Kings 5:1).

The Rebbe's Teachings

"If You Go Out To War"? (v. 10)

Rashi writes that verse 10, which introduces the laws of female captives of war, refers to "a non-obligatory war," i.e., a war which is not required by Jewish law, but one that was fought to expand the borders of Israel.

Rashi proves this from the fact that our verse mentions the taking of captives ("and you seize their captives"), which surely would not arise in the case of an obligatory war, in which none of the enemy may be left alive, as the Torah commands, "you may not allow any soul to live" (Devarim 20:16).

However, Rashi's assertion seems to be problematic for a number of reasons:

  1. The command not to "allow any soul to live" refers to the conquest of the Land of Israel. However, there is a type of obligatory war where it is not a mitzvah to annihilate the enemy completely, and that is a war fought in defense against an enemy that attacks Israel (Rambam). In such a war, it would be permissible to take captives, so how can Rashi prove that our verse "is referring to a non-obligatory war," merely because it mentions the taking of captives?

  2. At the literal level, our verse does not actually refer to the taking of captives from the enemy population, but rather, the seizure of those whom the enemy captured in a previous war ("and you seize their captives"). Thus, it appears that our verse could indeed be referring to a war against the seven nations that inhabited the Land of Cana'an, because even though the seven nations themselves must be obliterated in their entirety ("you may not allow any soul to live"), people from other nations who were held captive by the seven nations would not have to be killed. So how can Rashi prove that our verse is referring to a non-obligatory war from the words "and you seize their captives"?

  3. Besides the fact that Rashi appears to have no conclusive proof that our verse refers to a non-obligatory war, it appears much more likely—at the literal level—that our verse would be speaking of an obligatory war. For at the point in time when this passage was taught by Moshe, the Jewish people were about to fight the obligatory wars required to conquer the Land of Israel. So it is more logical that Moshe would be addressing a matter of immediate relevance to the Jewish people, rather than discussing the laws of a non-obligatory war which would not be possible until many years later (see Rambam).

The Explanation

Verse 10 stresses, "if you go out to war," referring to a situation where the Jewish people are settled in their homeland and "go out" of that land for the purpose of conquering other nations. It could not refer to the Jewish people's situation at that time, in the desert, which is not an inhabited land from which one "goes out" to war.

Therefore, Rashi concludes, "The verse here is referring to a non-obligatory war."

(Consequently, when Rashi continues to explain, "In reference to the [obligatory] war of conquering the Land of Israel, the Torah would not stress, 'and you seize their captives,' etc." Rashi is not bringing a proof that our verse is speaking of a non-obligatory war—for the proof is from the verse itself ("If you go out to war"). Rather, Rashi is merely indicating that the Torah chose to stress the idea of taking captives here in the case of a non-obligatory war, where it is most common. There would, however, be some instances where captives could be taken even in an obligatory war against the seven nations, as explained above.)

However, this leaves us with another problem, that the words, "and you seize their captives" now seem to be superfluous. For it is obvious from the following verse, "and you see among the captives…," that we are speaking of a case when captives are taken

(Beforehand we did not have this question, since we assumed that the words "and you seize their captives" were needed as proof that our verse speaks of a non-obligatory war. Now, however, that it has been established that the proof is from the words, "if you go out," the words, "you seize their captives," appear to be redundant.)

Therefore, Rashi continues to explain that the extra words, "and you seize their captives," come to permit the capture of Cana'anites who are themselves captives of the nation that is being conquered during this non-obligatory war, even though they are from the seven nations which we are normally obligated to obliterate.

(Based on Sichas Shabbos Parshas Ki Seitzei 5748)