The Wars of Israel According to the Rambam

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

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 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 Israel and to enhance his greatness and prestige.

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 Israel and to enhance [the king's] greatness and prestige." It is possible to understand that this category includes two types of war: 

1) War waged to extend the borders of the land of Israel.

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 Israel and and to enhance the king's greatness and prestige. The Lechem Mishne (ad loc.) explains that the Rambam refers here to two types of war (as argued by the Meiri), and then adds that the words "to enhance [the king's] greatness and prestige" refer to a war of deterrence, that is to say, a war whose objective is to deter the enemy from attacking Israel. The Lechem Mishne wishes thereby to reconcile a well known difficulty in the words of the Rambam. 

            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[2], in order to weaken them so that they not fight against Israel and attack their land." And he rules in accordance with the Sages. The question, therefore, arises, why does he not mention this type of war in his Mishne Torah among the other optional wars. 

            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 ISRAEL? 

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 Israel, their Savior in time of trouble. He should know that he is fighting for the oneness of God, risk his life, and neither fear nor be affrighted. Nor should he think of his wife or children, but forgetting them and all else, concentrate on the war. He who permits his attention to be diverted during a battle and becomes disturbed, transgresses a negative command, as it is said: "Let not your heart faint, fear not, nor be alarmed, neither be affrighted at them (ibid. 20:3). Moreover, he is accountable for the lives of all Israel. If he does not conquer (because) he did not fight with all his heart and soul, it is as though he had shed the blood of all, as it is said: "Lest his brethren's heart melt as his heart" (ibid. 20:8). The truth is brought out with notable clearness in the injunction of the prophet: "Cursed be he that does the work of the Lord with a slack hand, and cursed be he that keeps back his sword from blood" (Yirmiya 48:10).

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 Israel and enhance [the king's] greatness and prestige." It is difficult to see a war whose objective is to extend the boundaries of Israel as a war over the unity of God. 

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 Israel from an enemy that had attacked them. As for a war against the seven nations, the Rambam saw it as a war on behalf of the Torah, for according to him, the primary objective of the seven nations who fought against Israel was to fight against the Torah. Thus writes the Rambam in his Guide for the Perplexed (III, 45), when he speaks about the site of the Temple: 

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.

             A war of self-defense, "to deliver Israel from the enemy attacking him," also relates to the oneness of God, in light of the words of the Rambam in his "Epistle to Yemen": 

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 Israel follow from a desire to fight against God. In light of this, there is room to see a war of self-defense on the part of Israel as a war on behalf of the oneness of God.

             Despite all that has been said above, it is difficult to view an optional war – whose entire objective is to extend the borders of Israel and enhance the king's greatness and prestige – as a war that is waged for the sake of the unity of God. Even if we accept the explanation that we proposed, that the Rambam is referring to a war of expansion that has another objective, i.e., deterrence, we have not escaped the difficulty. All the more so if we accept the Lechem Mishne's understanding that the Rambam refers to two types of war.

A king of Israel is permitted and authorized to wage an optional war. While it is true that for this purpose he requires the ratification of the High Court of seventy one judges,[1] the decision to go out to war depends upon the will of the king. This assertion requires explanation, how this fits in with the role of the king as defined by the Rambam himself at the end of chap. 4: 

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 Israel.

 In order to answer this question, let us examine the words of the Rambam in Hilkhot Melakhim. 

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 Israel but be subjected to them, that they be not appointed to any office that will put them in charge of Israel. The terms of the levy are that they be prepared to serve the king with their body and their money….

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 Israel, as it is stated: "An inheritance of the congregation of Ya'akov" (Devarim 33:4), and to those of other nations who are willing to be converted [to Judaism], as it is stated: "One law and one ordinance shall be both for you and for the resident alien" (Bamidbar 15:16). But no coercion to accept the Torah and mitzvot is practiced on those who are unwilling to do so. Moreover, Moshe Rabbenu was commanded by God to compel all human beings to accept the commandments enjoined upon the descendants of Noach. Anyone who does not accept them is put to death. 

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 Israel at all times. It is clear, then, that in this matter, a king is not allowed to practice any flexibility. This obligation falls upon Israel, but we do not find that the Torah permits war for this purpose, and it stands to reason that a person is forbidden to put himself into danger in order to achieve it. War is permitted only if this objective is part of a larger objective that includes a desire to extend the borders of Israel and deter the enemy from attacking. 

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 Israel, unaccompanied by the additional objective of enforcing the acceptance of the seven Noachide laws? The Chazon Ish, of blessed memory, answers this question: 

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 Israel as follows:

 The forsaking of idols is part of the general mission of Israel. Clearly, the matter was given over to the court to examine the moral state of a particular idolatry. Not all situations were the same. Owing to our many sins, these matters are not clear to us in their details because of their limited practical application since we lost our national strength, and until God, blessed be He, will restore our majestic crown speedily in our days.  (Iggerot ha-Ra'aya, I, letter 89, p. 100) 

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:

 In the last halakha in chapter 4, the Rambam writes: 

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).

 In this halakha the Rambam explains the general objective of wars: "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." This is the general objective, but one should not conclude that the king is obligated to wage war at all times. When is he actually obligated to fight for these objectives? In which situations is he granted permission to fight? The Rambam answers this question in the continuation in the first halakha in the following chapter: 

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 Israel and to enhance his greatness and prestige. 

            Thus, we see that even an optional war to extend the borders of Israel and enhance the king's greatness and prestige is only permitted in the context of the general objective of uplifting the true religion. Only when both objectives are fulfilled – the general objective to force the enemy to abandon idolatry and accept the seven Noachide laws, and the political and security objective to extend the borders of Israel and enhance the king's greatness and prestige – only then is going out to war permitted. Even in such a case, however, the king must receive permission from the High Court of seventy-one, as the Rambam writes in the following halakha (2): 

… 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 Israel or imposing the seven Noachide laws? According to the Rambam's view in the Guide for the Perplexed, "that the Torah's primary intention was to remove idolatry and wipe out its memory," the primary objective without a doubt is imposing the seven Noachide laws, the significance of which is war against idolatry and all its abominations.

             According to this we understand what the Rambam writes in his Sefer ha-Mitzvot (positive commandment 191): 

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 Israel – both mandatory wars and optional wars – is the oneness of God's name, breaking the arm of the wicked, and filling the world with justice. Without a doubt this understanding has ramifications in the realm of Jewish thought. This, however, is not the forum to discuss the issue at further length.

 

FOOTNOTES:
[1] See R. Yosef Kapach's translation ad. loc. footnote 12.

[2] See Rambam, ad loc., 5:2; see also Chiddushei ha-Ran, Sanhedrin 20b; and Rambam's commentary to the Mishna, Sanhedrin 1:5.