The Wars of Israel According to the Rambam
Based on a shiur by Harav Yehuda Amital zt"l
Translated by David Strauss
I. DEFINITION OF MANDATORY WAR AND OPTIONAL WAR
The Rambam in Hilkhot Melakhim 5:1-2 writes as follows:
The primary war which the king wages is a mandatory war. What is a mandatory war? A war against the seven [Cana'anite] nations, a war against Amalek, and a war to deliver
For a mandatory war, the king need not obtain the sanction of the court. He may at any time go forth of his own accord and compel the people to go with him. But in the case of an optional war, he may not lead forth the people save by a decision of the court of seventy-one.
The Rambam's definition of a mandatory war is clear. This category includes three types of war: 1) war against one of the seven Cana'anite nations; 2) war against Amalek; and 3) war in self-defense. However, the definition of optional war is not entirely clear and requires examination. An optional war is "a war against neighboring nations to extend the borders of
1) War waged to extend the borders of the
2) War waged to enhance the king's greatness and prestige.
This, indeed, is the Meiri's understanding in his commentary to the Mishna in Sanhedrin 20b. It is, however, possible to understand that the Rambam means to say that there is only one type of optional war, a war that has two objectives: to extend the borders of
The Mishna in Sota (44b) discusses the various exemptions granted from war, recording the following disagreement between the Sages and Rabbi Yehuda:
… To what does all the foregoing apply? To optional wars. But in mandatory wars (milkhamot mitzva) all go forth, even a bridegroom from his chamber and a bride from her canopy. Rabbi Yehuda said: To what does all the foregoing apply? To mandatory wars. But in obligatory wars (milchamot chova) all go forth, even a bridegroom from his chamber and a bride from her canopy.
The Gemara explains this dispute:
Rava said: All agree that the wars waged by Yehoshua to conquer [Canan'an] were obligatory; and all agree that the wars waged by the house of David for expansion [Rashi: which he fought against Aram Tzova in order to annex it to the Land of Israel, and against other neighboring countries to in order to levy taxes] were optional. They disagree with regard to [wars] against heathens so that they should not march against them. One calls them mandatory and the other optional, the practical difference being that one who is enaged in the performance of a commandment is exempt from the performance of another commandment.
In other words, according to the Sages, a war waged "so that heathen nations not march against them" falls into the category of optional war, whereas according to Rabbi Yehuda, it is a mandatory war. The Rambam in his commentary to the Mishna explains that this refers to "a war waged against the nations that are in a state of war with them, in order to weaken them so that they not fight against
In an attempt to answer this question, the Lechem Mishne writes that such a war is included in the Rambam's words "to enhance [the king's] greatness and prestige," that is to say, to deter the enemy from attacking Israel. The difficulty in what the Lechme Mishne is saying is striking, as has already been pointed out by various Acharonim: If this is what the Rambam means, why does he not say so explicitly? In any event, if we accept the Lechem Mishne's understanding that the Rambam refers here to a war of deterrence – even if we do not accept that he is referring to the deterrence of "nations that are in a state of war with them" (as stated in his commentary to the Mishna), but rather to deterrence in general – and if we add to this, that the Rambam refers not to two types of war, but to one type of war with a double objective – to extend the borders of Israel and to deter, then we will have succeeded to somewhat soften the Rambam's position regarding optional war, that it is not simply a war of expansion, but rather a war having an additional objective – deterring the enemy.
II. THE WARS OF GOD OR THE WARS OF
The Rambam writes in Hilkhot Melakhim 7:15 as follows:
"What man is there that is fearful and fainthearted?" (Devarim 20:8). This is to be understood literally, that is, the man who is not physically fit to join the ranks in battle. Once, however, he has joined the ranks, he should put his reliance upon Him who is the hope of
He who fights with all his heart, without fear, with the sole intention of sanctifying the Name, is assured that no harm will befall him and no evil will overtake him. He will build for himself a lasting house in Israel, acquiring it for himslef and his children forever, and will prove worthy of life in the world-to-come, as it is written: "For the Lord will certainly make my lord a sure house, because my lord fights the battles of the Lord, and evil is not found in you… Yet the soul of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life with the Lord your God" (I Shemu'el 25:28-29).
What the Rambam says about waging war with all one's heart and all one's soul, and what he says about the sanctification of God's name and the wars of God, follow from his understanding of war as a war about the oneness of God. As he states:
He should know that he is fighting for the oneness of God.
What the Rambam says here relates to an optional war as is implied by what is stated at the beginning of the halakha regarding exemption from the fighting: "'What man is there that is fearful and fainthearted?' This is to be understood literally." For this applies solely to an optional war, as is explained there in halakha 4:
What has been said regarding the discharge from the army applies only to an optional war, but in a mandatory war, all are obligated to go forth, even the bridegroom from his chamber and the bride from her canopy.
It may, however, be suggested that as a whole the Rambam's words in halakha 15 refer even to a mandatory war, even though they were stated directly in connection to an optional war.
The Rambam is not satisfied with the assertion that war is essentially a war for the sake of the oneness of God, but rather he requires that every solider know this. As he writes: "He should know that he is fighting for the oneness of God."
The Rambam's understanding that every war - even an optional war – is a war over the oneness of God, or as he puts it in his Sefer ha-Mitzvot (positive commandment 191): "In his speech, [the Priest appointed for battle]… is to add such words as will rouse the people to battle, and induce them to lay down their lives for rhe triumph of the faith of the Lord, and for the punishment of the ungodly ones who ruin the social order," requires explanation. An optional war according to the Rambam is a war waged "to extend the borders of
Surely, a mandatory war may be seen as "a war of God," for we were commanded by God to wage it. But, in my humble opinion, the Rambam's assertion that such a war is a war "for the oneness of God," is far from being self-evident.
It may perhaps be possible to understand the Rambam's position in light of what he says elsewhere. There types of war are defined as mandatory war: a war against the seven Canan'anite nations, a war against Amalek, and delivering
In my opinion there is also no doubt that the place singled out by Avraham in virtue of prophetic inspiration was known to Moshe Rabbenu and to many others. For Avraham had recommended to them that that place should be a house of worship, just as the translator [=Onkelos] sets forth when he says: "Avraham worshipped and prayed in that place and said before the Lord: Here will worship the generations, and so on" (Targum to Bereishit 22:14). The fact that this place is not stated explicitly when mentioned in the Torah and not designated, but only hinted at by means of the words, "Which the Lord shall choose, and so on" (e.g., Devarim 16:6) is due in my opinion to three considerations. The first is, lest nations should hold fast to the place and fight for it with great violence, knowing as they do that this place is the final purpose of the Law on earth. The second is, lest those who then owned the place ravage and devastate it to the limit of their power.
In other words, had the Cana'anites known the site of the Temple, they would have fought with all their strength to prevent Israel from reaching the Torah's objective, whether by destroying Mount Moriya, or by waging a fierce battle over the mountain.
If the war waged by the seven Cana'anite nations can be seen as a war against the purpose of the Torah, then the war waged by Amalek against Israel can also be seen in that manner. Thus, it follows that the war against the seven Cana'anite nations and the war against Amalek are wars for the sake of the oneness of God.
God has made us unique by His laws and precepts, and our pre-eminence is manifested in His rules and statutes, as Scripture says, in narraiting God's mercies to us: "And what great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?" (Devarim 4:8). Therefore all the nations instigated by envy and impiety rose up against us, and all the kings of the earth motivated by injustice and enmity applied themselves to persecute us. They wanted to thwart God, but He cannot be thwarted. Ever since the time of Revelation, every despot or slave that has attained to power, be he violent or ignoble, has made it his first aim and his final purpose to destroy our law, and to vitiate our religion, by means of the sword, by violence, or by brute foerce, such as Amalek, Sisera, Sancheriv, Nevuchadnetzar, Titus, Hadrian, may their bones be ground to dust, and others like them.
According to the Rambam, then, all of the nations' wars against
A king of
His sole aim and thought should be to uplift the true religion, to fill the world with righteousness, to break the arm of the wicked, and to fight the battles of the Lord. The prime reason for appointing a king was that he execute judgement and wage war, as it is written: "And that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles" (I Shemu'el 8:20).
If this is the objective of the king, how can it be reconciled with a war waged to enhance his greatness and prestige? So too we must understand how a king must conduct himself in order "to fill the world with righteousness, and break the arm of the wicked." For it does not stand to reason that when the Rambam says "to fill the world with righteousness," he is referring exclusively to the world of
III. The obligation to coerce the observance of the seven Noachide Laws
The Rambam writes in Hilkhot Melakhim 6:1-4:
No war is declared against any nation before peace offers are made to it. This obtains both in an optional war and in a mandatory war, as it is said: "When you draw near to a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it" (Devarim 20:11). If the inhabitants make peace and accept the seven commandments enjoined upon the descendants of Noach, none of them is slain, but they become tributary, as it is said: "They shall become tributary unto you, and shall serve you" (Devarim 20:11). If they agree to pay the tribute levied on them but refuse to submit to servitude, or if they yield to servitude but refuse to pay the tribute levied on them, their overtures are rejected – they must accept both terms of peace.
The servitude imposed on them is that they are given an inferior status, that they lift not up their heads in
The king may lay down as a condition of peace that he take half their money or land and leave in their possession all chattel, or that he take all their chattel and leave the land in their possession.
Once they make peace and take upon themselves the seven commandments, it is forbidden to deceive them and prove false to the covenant made with them.
If they refuse to accept the offer of peace, or if they accept the offer of peace but not the seven commandments, war is made with them; all adult males are put to death; all their money and little ones are taken as plunder, but no woman or minor is slain, as it is said: "But the women and the little ones" (Devarim 20:14); the phrase "the little ones" refers to male minors. This applies only to an optional war, that is, a war against any other nation; but in war waged against the seven nations or against Amalek, if these refuse to accept the terms of peace, none of them is spared…. Whence do we derive that the (above-cited) command refers only to those who refuse to accept terms of peace?…. We infer therefore that the offer of peace had been made, but they did not accept it.
The Kesef Mishne (ad loc.) writes:
The Ra'avad writes: "This is a mistake. It is possible, however, to say that they accepted the terms of peace and took upon themselves the [seven] commandments." He means to say that regarding the seven [Cana'anite] nations and Amalek, even if they accepted the terms of peace and agreed to pay the tribute and submit to servitude, they are [still] slain. However, it may be argued in defense of our master that included in accepting the terms of peace is taking upon themselves the seven commandments. For if they took upon themselves the seven commandments, they leave the category of the seven [Cana'anite] nations and the category of Amalek, and they are like the fit descendants of Noach.
The Rambam implies that with the acceptance of the seven Noachide laws and the acceptance of tribute and servitude, the objective of the war has been reached and fighting is no longer permitted. (As for the tribute – the king has a certain degree of flexibility, as stated in halakha 2: "The king may lay down as a condition of peace." This is not true regarding acceptance of the seven Noachide laws and servitude.) This is also implicit in his words in halakha 3:
Once they make peace and take upon themselves the seven commandments, it is forbidden to deceive them and prove false to the covenant made with them.
This may be understood in light of what the Rambam writes in Hilkhot Melakhim 8:10:
Moshe Rabbenu bequeathed the Torah and mitzvot to
We see then that coercion to accept the seven Noachide laws does not stem from the state of war. The obligation to force the observance of the seven Noachide laws is a general obligation falling upon
The question therefore arises: What is the law regarding a war waged against a nation that does not worship idols and has already accepted the seven Noachide laws? Is it permissible to fight such a nation, when the objective of the war is solely to extend the borders of
Even according to our master (= the Rambam) that the other nations must also take upon themselves the seven commandments, and it is implied that if they accepted the seven commandments, but not the tribute and servitude, we are permitted to fight against them – it seems that this applies only when they come now to accept the seven commandments. But against those who observed the seven commandments even before, we are not permitted to wage war. (Chazon Ish on the Rambam, Hilkhot Melakhim 6)
The difference is clear: Regarding those who accept the seven Noachide laws only because of war and out of coercion, the fear exists that they will return to their previous ways, and therefore they must also accept servitude, that is to say, "that they are given an inferior status, that they lift not up their heads in Israel." This is not the case regarding those who had already been observing the seven Noachide laws; there is no need for them to accept a tax and servitude. According to this, it is clear that a king may not show flexibility regarding servitude, for the acceptance of servitude comes to ensure the acceptance of the seven Noachide laws.
Why is it forbidden to go out to war against nations who are already observing the seven Noachide laws?
It seems that the prohibition to wage war against them does not stem from the law governing a ger toshav whom we are obligated to sustain (as suggested by the Chazon Ish), for he does not write "against those who have accepted upon themselves the seven commandments" (as he was careful to write several times in that same passage), but rather "against those who observed the seven commandments." This implies that the prohibition applies even if they had never accepted the seven Noachide laws upon themselves in a court, so that they should be governed by the laws of ger toshav. Rather, the reason seems to be that we do not find an allowance to wage war against nations who observe the seven Noachide laws. Only where the Torah granted permission to wage war is fighting permissible, but where there is no such allowance, fighting is forbidden. The reason is that in every war there are two concerns, that one may be killed and that one may kill (as is brought in the Midrash and in Rashi [Bereishit 32:7]: "'Ya'akov feared greatly and was distressed' – He was afraid that he be killed, and he was distressed that he might have to kill someone"). These two fears are connected to Torah prohibitions. This, however, is not the forum to discuss this matter at greater length.
The words of the Chazon Ish relate exclusively to a war waged against other nations (= optional war), and not to a mandatory war against Amalek and the seven Cana'anite nations. But the Kesef Mishne (6:4) mentioned above writes that what is stated there applies even to a war waged against Amalek or the seven Cana'anite nations (though it stands to reason that the words of the Kesef Mishne only apply if they accepted the mitzvot upon themselves in a court).
If so, the Chazon Ish understands that according to the Rambam, going out to wage an optional war in order to extend the borders of Israel and to enhance the king's greatness and prestige is only permitted if it there exists an additional objective, to coerce the nation against whom Israel is fighting to accept the seven Noachide laws.
The Chazon Ish's understanding matches that of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, of blessed memory, who writes about the wars of
That is to say, it fell upon the High Court, from whom permission had to be granted in order to go out to an optional war (as is explained in Hilkhot Melakhim 5:2), to examine the moral dangers posed by the idolatrous culture against which Israel wished to go out to war, because removing those dangers was the primary objective of the war.
According to this, the words of the Rambam at the beginning of chapter 5 should not be detached from what he had said at the end of chapter 4. The Rambam should be read as follows:
All the land he conquers belongs to him. He may give thereof to his servants and warriors as much as he wishes; he may keep thereof for himself as much as he wishes. In all these matters he is the final arbiter. But whatever he does should be done by him for the sake of heaven. His sole aim and thought should be to uplift the true religion, to fill the world with righteousness, to break the arm of the wicked, and to fight the battles of the Lord. The prime reason for appointing a king was that he execute judgement and wage war, as it is written: "And that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles" (I Shemu'el 8:20).
The primary war which the king wages is a mandatory war – namely, a war against the seven [Cana'anite] nations, a war against Amalek, and a war to deliver Israel from the enemy attacking him. Thereafter he may engage in an optional war, that is, a war against neighboring nations to extend the borders of
Thus, we see that even an optional war to extend the borders of
… But in the case of an optional war, he may not lead forth the people save by a decision of the court of seventy-one.
One question still remains: Which is the primary goal, extending the borders of
In his speech, [the kohen appointed for battle]… is to add such words as will rouse the people to battle, and induce them to lay down their lives for rhe triumph of the faith of the Lord, and for the punishment of the ungodly ones who ruin the social order.
Since the primary objective is to fight against idolatry, every soldier must know "that he is fighting for the oneness of God," and therefore he must fight with all his heart and all his soul, and his intention must be to sanctify the name of heaven. If this is the primary objective of an optional war, it corresponds to what must be the king's primary objective:
His sole aim and thought should be to uplift the true religion, to fill the world with righteousness, to break the arm of the wicked, and to fight the battles of the Lord.
The conclusion that emerges from our analysis of this issue, is that according to the Rambam, the primary objective of all the wars of
 See R. Yosef Kapach's translation ad. loc. footnote 12.
 See Rambam, ad loc., 5:2; see also Chiddushei ha-Ran, Sanhedrin 20b; and Rambam's commentary to the Mishna, Sanhedrin 1:5.