Sotah 43

The soldier called back home.

As we recently saw, Deuteronomy 20:5–9 prescribes that soldiers with new houses, vineyards and wives are sent home from the front before battle. The Torah assumes that if a soldier fears he might die and another man will then take his brand new house, vineyard or wife then his courage will flag — and this faintness of heart might become contagious.

An unusually long mishnah on today’s daf offers a more detailed portrait of this soldier who is sent home, which we will examine in two excerpted parts (read the page for the full mishnah). The first part expands on what is meant by “house,” “vineyard,” or “wife”:

He is sent home even if he is one who builds a storehouse for straw, a barn for cattle, a shed for wood, or a warehouse … who plants a whole vineyard, or plants as few as five fruit trees, and even if these are from the five species … one who betroths a virgin, or one who betroths a widow…

Included in the definition of house are a storehouse, barn, or even a shed. A vineyard, meanwhile, is defined as being as few as five trees. But there are limits. The second part of the mishnah lists soldiers who do not return home from the front:

And these are the men who do not return to their homes: One who builds a gateway, or an enclosed veranda, or a balcony; or one who plants no more than four fruit trees or even five or more non-fruit bearing trees; or one who remarries his divorced wife …

A balcony does not count as a new home. And if he remarries a woman he divorced, she does not count as a new wife.

This mishnah is followed by midreshei halakhah (legal interpretations) that derive the sources of these rules from the Torah’s verses, especially the mishnah’s list of expanded exemptions from service. For instance:

From the term “a house” (Deuteronomy 20:5) I have derived only a house in which people live. From where is it derived that the exemption is understood to also include one who builds a storehouse for straw, a barn for cattle, a shed for wood, or a warehouse? The verse states: “That has built,” which includes whatever one built.

The mishnah takes great care to simultaneously expand and contract the Torah’s sparse list of those who return home from the front upon hearing the officials’ announcement. The mishnah’s apparent aim is striking: to give men anxious about the lives they might not be able to live in the future the opportunity to do so, while also preventing other men from shirking their military obligations for spurious reasons. 

War and death are ugly, but at times necessary for survival. Without a disciplined, courageous fighting force, wars can’t be won. Yet a society so dedicated to war that it provides no respite for actual living is a society on its way to certain death. Our mishnah seeks a balance between both exigencies, beyond the Torah’s explicit concern about fearful soldiers infecting their comrades with fear before battle and the need for a capable fighting force. 

Of even greater interest to me is how the mishnah achieves this balance while also avoiding the possible stigma that might attach to one legitimately leaving the front. Returning to the end of the first part of our mishnah, we learn:

Each of these men, although they are exempt, still hear the address of the priest and the regulations of war at the local camp, and thereafter they return home. However, they provide water and food (for the soldiers) and repair the roads.

The Torah never provides for what modern Israelis refer to as sherut leumi, but the mishnah does. A soldier returning from the front to conduct the business of his life still needs to contribute to the good of his society when it’s at war, even as he contributes to his own welfare and that of his household. No one is exempt, yet not everyone needs to fight to be a contributing citizen.

Read all of Sotah 43 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 11, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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