Rabbinic Limitations on War

Deuteronomy 20 permits wars of aggression, but the talmudic rabbis made it difficult to declare one.


In Mishnah Sotah 8:7, Rabbi Yehudah designates an expansionary war of aggression a milhemet chovah, an obligatory war. The majority rabbinic opinion, however, calls these types of wars milhemet reshut, discretionary wars. Whereas Rabbi Yehudah’s designation recognizes these wars as expressions of God’s will, the rabbis’ designation divests it of religious significance. The following article describes how this and other rabbinic laws sought to limit the validity and practicality of violent conflict. Excerpted and reprinted with permission from S’VARA 2:1 (1991).

Discretionary Wars Do Not Exempt You From Mitzvot

When a war is obligatory, it has a priority status within the legal religious system, and one who engages in this war is exempt from fulfilling other commandments that claim one’s time and attention. A nonobligatory act [i.e., a discretionary act], however, has no such standing and does not provide such an exemption. Thus, discretionary wars must stand in line behind a lengthy and detailed list of mitzvot [commandments] that make daily if not hourly demands on every Jew.


For example, Talmud Torah [studying Torah], which one is obligated to do day and night, Shabbat, prayer, to name but a few, all take precedence over discretionary acts. Wars of aggression could thus become a permissible but rarely invoked policy. One opinion in the Gemara [Talmud] goes even further and attributes this position to Rabbi Yehudah as well, thus making wars of aggression milhemet reshut [discretionary wars] according to all opinions in the Mishnah. Though we cannot prove that the reclassification of aggressive war as milhemet reshut expresses a rabbinic critique of the biblical approach to war, the rabbis were fully aware of the implications of their legal innovation:

“One calls them commanded and the other voluntary, the practical issue being that one who is engaged in the performance of a commandment is exempt from the performance of another commandment.” (Sotah 44b)

If Sinners Cannot Fight, Then No One Can Fight

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Rabbi Donniel Hartman is co-director of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He holds a master's in political philosophy from New York University and a master's in religion from Temple University, and is currently completing his doctorate in Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University (Jerusalem).

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