Jewish Captives, Cruelty, & Compassion

Jewish law on the proper treatment of prisoners of war


Classical Jewish law offers a decidedly ambivalent view of both war and punishment. Both of these categories are presented as necessary evils that must be approached with caution. Virtually every mention of war in the Bible and later sources is accompanied by warnings against certain types of behavior, and the laws of punishment include numerous checks against unfair or excessive punishment.

Biblically Mandated Wars

Jewish law does not specifically recognize the category of “prisoner of war” and therefore does not establish conditions governing the treatment of such prisoners. This omission may be attributed largely to the fact that, in the absence for most of history of a Jewish sovereign state, the laws of warfare–like most areas of Jewish civil law–never developed to the extent that ritual laws did. Furthermore, the wars mandated by the Bible, against specific groups of enemies at specific times, require the killing of all of the men and, in some cases, the women. While disturbing to many people today, this requirement probably reflects a fear that the Jews will be negatively influenced by the customs of the conquered.

war quiz

At least one contemporary Jewish legal scholar has argued that the biblical mandate to kill all combatants is no longer applicable. According to Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Israel from 1973-1983 and the chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces in the 1950s and 1960s:

“[Regarding] those obligatory wars that we were explicitly commanded by the Torah to wage in antiquity, in which ‘you shall not let a soul remain alive’–one must not learn from them, heaven forbid, about other wars and our own time… We are commanded by the Torah to follow in God’s ways and to have compassion for God’s creatures, as it is written: ‘God’s mercy is upon all God’s works’ (Psalms 145:9)” (Meshiv Milhama vol. 1, p. 14).prisoners of war

Treatment of Captives

Even without a specific discussion of the treatment of POWs, we can extrapolate from other statements about battlefield ethics and appropriate punishments some general principles about the treatment of opponents during a war and, in particular, about opponents judged to be criminals deserving of legal punishment.

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and the author of Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On-Guide for Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community and There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition. She will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all through Sukkot.

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