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Peace, shalom, is one of Judaism’s most revered values. “Shalom” is, of course, the traditional greeting among Jews, and it is also a name used for God. And yet, Jewish tradition takes it for granted that war is an inevitable part of human existence and that peace on earth will not be achieved until the messianic era.
Toward the end of Deuteronomy, as the Israelites are about to leave the desert, Moses speaks to them about war. The guidelines he provides are of practical significance. The Israelites are slated to occupy the land of Canaan (biblical Israel) through military force.
The first rule of Jewish war is to avoid it whenever possible. Prior to attacking an enemy, a Jewish army must offer peace. If that offer is not accepted, however, the Torah mandates that every male should be killed and the women, children, and livestock should be taken as booty. And this only applies to wars with non-Canaanite nations. The seven nations of Canaan–men, women, and children–should be completely wiped out if they do not accept the terms of peace offered to them.
The rabbis of the Mishnah later expounded upon this distinction between wars with the Canaanites and those with other nations. The former they called a milhemet mitzvah, a commanded war. Wars against the Amalekites, the nation that attacked the Israelites as they left Egypt, and defensive wars were also put into this category. All other wars are referred to as milhemet reshut, permitted wars. This includes wars of territorial expansion, for example, the wars of King David.
For most of Jewish history after the biblical era, the laws of combat were merely theoretical. There were no Jewish armies and no Jewish wars. Therefore, practical ethics of war are not often discussed in Talmudic and medieval Jewish literature. Nonetheless, laws such as the prohibition against destroying fruit trees and, indeed, the unwarranted destruction of any property, do exist. A fascinating law prohibits besieging a city on all four sides. One side must be left open for people to escape.
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