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Jewish Warfare

Written by Roy W. Patterson on . Posted in Israel

 Jewish Warfare in the Light of History and Halakhah

War is a messy business.  War negatively impacts the lives of both victor and vanquished.  A cursory reading of Tanach as well as the Talmudic literature reveals little significant pacifist tradition and a long history of war.  It was the Bar-Kokhba Rebellion (132– 135 C.E.) that forced the Jewish people from their homeland and created the diaspora.  Since the loss of the Jewish homeland and diaspora, “Jewish tradition provides little direct evidence regarding the grounds on which one should morally evaluate a war.”1   

That all changed when the State of Israel was birthed in the war of Independence in 1948 with the determination “Never Again.”  The Israeli attitude on their right to exist in their native homeland is summed up in a letter from Menachem Begin to President Ronald Reagan.  Prime Minister Begin says, “My generation, dear Ron, swore on the Altar of God that whoever proclaims the intent of destroying the Jewish state or the Jewish people, or both, seals his fate.” 2   This steadfast determination has guided Israel through to victory in five major conflicts with its Arab neighbors.  It’s ongoing war with terrorists continues to challenge them, but Israel has no other option but to fight until its neighbors seek peace.  Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir elucidates this point in her statement, “We have always said that in our war with the Arabs we had a secret weapon — no alternative.” 3 

Even though the Jewish people will go to war, they are not warlike, and have a tradition of respecting their enemies and seeking peace.  Rabbi Yose HaGalili says, “How meritorious is peace?  Even in time of war Jewish law requires that one initiate discussions of peace.” (Leviticus Rabbah, Tzav 9).4   The Jewish respect for its enemies is outlined in a Midrash about the Egyptian Army drowning in the Red Sea.  According to this legend, when the angels in heaven started singing God’s praises for saving Israel, God turned on them in anger: “My creatures are drowning, and you’re singing songs!”  This widely known midrash is probably the basis for the Jewish tradition that one should not overly rejoice at an enemy’s downfall and suffering (Proverbs 24: 17). 5    In hope that the wars and conflict with Israel’s Arab neighbors would end Golda Meir says, “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.” 6 

The History

In Judaism there are two types of wars.  The first is called milkhemet mitzvah or “war by commandment” and the second named, milkhemet reshut “discretionary war” (Sotah 8:7) 7 .  The milkhemet mitzvah was during Biblical times when a king went to war in order to fulfill a commandment (mitzvah).  Maimonides explains, “A king should not wage other wars before a milchemet mitzvah.  What is considered as milchemet mitzvah?  The war against the seven nations who occupied Eretz Yisrael, the war against Amalek, and a war fought to assist Israel from an enemy which attacks them” (Mishneh Torah 5:1). 8   This type of warfare did not require prior authorization from the Sanhedrin (Mishneh Torah 5:2).  Essentially this was considered defensive, even preemptive, in nature to prevent the extermination of the Jewish people.  Therefore everyone would go to battle “even a bridegroom from his chamber, and a bride from her marriage canopy” (Sotah 8:7g).  Scholars and skeptics have criticized ancient Israel for the genocidal nature of this type of warfare, but in rabbinical thought it is seen as necessary for the survival of the Jewish people.

An example of a milkhemet mitzvah is the commandment to exterminate the Amalek.  The prophet Samuel instructs King Saul saying, “Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey”  (1 Samuel 15:3)  The medieval French Rabbinical commentator Rashi elaborates on this commandment: “From man unto woman, from infant unto suckling, from ox unto sheep, so that the name of Amalek not be mentioned even with reference to an animal by [someone] saying: This animal belonged to the Amalekites.” 9    The LORD ordered this genocidal warfare due to the Amalekites attacks on the Israelites, even their women and children, during the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 17:8-10).  Maimonides, explains the commandment to exterminate all the Amalekites, was based upon the collectives responsibility for the behavior of the Amalek nation.  He outlines the reason for this action by saying, “… in order that other families shall hear it and be afraid, and not accustom themselves to practice mischief.” 10   Maimonides saw an opportunity for peace with the Amalekites if they converted.  Maimonides states, “All non-Jews when they convert and accept all the commandments ... are like Jews for all matters ... except the four nations exclusively (who cannot convert) and they are Amon, Moab, Egypt, and Edom.  These nations, when they convert, are Jews for all matters with the exception of joining the community in marriage. (Issuri Biah 12:17)” 11 Maimonides, believed the commandment to destroy the Amalekites was not based on hatred, but removing “Amalek-like” behavior from the world.  For him, the commandment is not necessarily fulfilled through killing; it can be fulfilled through moral influence and education. 12   Though Maimonides was operating on a higher ethical plain, the reality is Israel suffered many genocidal actions because of their failure to exterminate the Amalekites.  For example, Haman was an Amalek that attempted to exterminate the Jewish people as outlined in the Book of Esther.  

Pre-emptive violence is acceptable against such enemies as based upon the command in 1 Samuel 15:2 if an existential threat exist for the Jewish people.  As an example, this principle was applied during the Six-day war in June 1967.  Many of Israel’s Arab neighbors amassed their armies on its boarders with the intent to attack.  The Israeli Air Force preemptively attacked Egyptian airfields destroying much of its air force on the ground, denying them air superiority, thus eliminating the existential threat.  

In contrast, a milkhemet reshut “discretionary war”, tended to be for economic reasons and had exemption clauses outlined Deuteronomy 20:5-8 and the king could not force the nation to go to war (Mishneh Torah 5:2).  Maimonides elucidates the purpose of this type of warfare saying, “…he [The king] may wage a milkhemet reshut, i.e. a war fought with other nations in order to expand the borders of Israel or magnify its greatness and reputation” (Mishneh Torah 5:1).  For a milkhemet reshut, the king must seek authorization from the Sanhedrin with unanimous approval (Mishneh Torah 5:2).

Examples of a milkhemet reshut were wars fought by King David to expand the territory of Israel.  Many of the wars David fought had a two-fold purpose: first to extend the borders of the land of Israel, second to enhance the king's greatness and prestige (Hilkhot Melakhim 5:1-2). 13   Before waging a war, an offer of peace was given (Deuteronomy 20:10, 11).  If the nation accepted the offer of peace, they were required to be in subjugation and pay tribute, otherwise their peace offering was considered refused by the nation.  Israel would then  prosecute a war against that nation (Mishneh Torah 6:1).

There are two economic aspects of milkhemet reshut after the nation accepts the offer of peace.  The first part to “extend the borders of the land of Israel” includes the conquered people who are now in subjugation.  According to Maimonides, “The subjugation they must accept consists of being on a lower level, scorned and humbled.  They must never raise their heads against Israel, but must remain subjugated under their rule.  They may never be appointed over a Jew in any matter whatsoever.” (Mishneh Torah 6:1).  This requirement ensured a slow cultural assimilation of the conquered people and their lands, thus expanding the boarders of Israel.  From a military standpoint, fewer troops should be required to maintain good order and discipline among the conquered people, thus reducing the army’s operational costs of occupation.  

The second economic aspect involved “enhance the king's greatness and prestige” through the giving of tribute.  Maimonides explains, “The tribute they must accept consists of being prepared to support the king's service with their money and with their persons; for example, the building of walls, strengthening the fortresses, building the king's palace…” (Mishneh Torah 6:1).  Solomon’s used of labor from captured people for his building programs is a good example of enhancing the king’s greatness and prestige.  Interestingly Israel’s history shows a careful limiting of the honor it grants for military success.  For example, David could not build the Temple because his hands had shed blood, “and swords used in the most justified of wars cannot be used to build the Temple.” 14   


The establishment of the Jewish state of Israel has revealed a need for halakhic decisions responding to the moral questions of war.  There is an acknowledgment among rabbis that there is little evidence of post-biblical legal tradition to morally evaluate a war as well as how a person behaves in war.  The mandate of halakha limits the scope of human activity; no area of activity is free from direction, ethical, legal or both.  Unlike many secular legal systems, Jewish law and ethics does not, however, set its boundaries at merely determining what is legal or illegal; Jewish law also regulates that which is ethical. 15   Without specific halakhic regulation a soldier is left to act on the basis of the values of general halakhah and can operate in a fog of understanding.  Halakhic authorities continue to develop military halakhah in accordance with the highest Jewish values and ethics.    

The Jewish ethical question about war begins with a question -- What can justify the killing of other human beings?  There are two schools of thought which attempts to offer solutions to this question.  The first opinion says war is a zone of human action where ethical obligations against one’s opponents are suspended on the interpersonal level. 16   The second opinion states, “Killing in war must be justified ethically on the same grounds used to justify killing at any other time, in other words as punishment, as atonement, or as necessary to protect a more innocent life.” 17     

The first viewpoint believes that that halakhah contains provisions for its own suspension as ordered by spiritual or political authorities.  This suspension can be without any categorical prohibitions when warranted making war is no different than any other situation in life.  The problem with this position is it allows a nation to engage in military activity which may have no moral purpose other than military victory or conquest.  This viewpoint undercuts the victor’s values, unless their values are complete annihilation of an enemy.  

The second viewpoint is outlined by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein a noted Orthodox rabbi and rosh yeshiva says, “It is most important that a person going out to war understand that he is not passing from a world possessed of one hierarchy of values to a world with a different hierarchy of values.  One person, one nation, cannot split into two.” 18   For Rabbi Lichtenstein, there is no compelling practical, legal, or textual evidence that ethics and halakha should be suspended during wartime.  Wartime behavior should not be exempt from standard halakhic and philosophic application and review.  Indeed it must be the very embodiment of Jewish commitment to both life and law.  Rabbinic tradition stresses that “peace is necessary even in time of war.” 19    

The halakhic goal is not to allow war to erode or destroy Jewish values and ethical priorities of its soldiers and the nation.  There is a need to protect the soldiers ethically as well as physically from the horrors of war.  While it may be necessary, killing in war does not give license to permit evil such as rape, wanton destruction and torture.  For example, the Torah’s commandment of the destruction of enemy trees (Deuteronomy 20:19, 20) and the treatment of female captives (Deuteronomy 21:10-14) serves the same purpose.  It keeps the nation as well as its soldiers from operating with unrestrained the “Yetzer HaRa” (Evil Inclination).  Therefore, in war Judaism shows concern for non-human targets.  This law is called Bal Tashkhit” or do not destroy.  In the military context, bal tashkhit forbids destroying anything indispensable to the renewal of civilian life. 20   In view of Bal tashkhit Jewish military planners must decide whether the bombing of civilian targets aimed at crippling the economy, health, housing, electrical, and water infrastructure of an enemy is consistent with Jewish tradition.

Another consideration in wartime halakha is the test of proportionality.  Proportionality is a military doctrine that requires the minimum use of force necessary to achieve a military objective is permissible.  This has been a mainstay of American military planning guidelines.  Although some strands of Jewish thought seem interwoven in the military planning guide, “the Jewish tradition is less concerned about proportion than it is with deciding which categories of targets are subject to attack and which are not.” 21    Therefore, Judaism sets no limitation on force for appropriate targets.  So by contrast, saturation bombings of military targets that may be considered by non-Jewish military planners as disproportionately excessive might well be permitted by Jewish planners using halakhah. 22 

To deal with these issues, the halakhic authorities in Israel have developed a principle called Tohar Hanesheq or “Purity of Arms”.  This foundational principle in the training of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers and officers—states that “a soldier shall use his weapons and force to the degree needed to subdue the enemy, but will exercise restraint to avoid unnecessary injury to a person’s life, his person, honor, or property.23   The application of “purity of arms” can be a challenge operationally for the IDF when dealing with terrorists.  For example, IDF soldiers surrounded a Palestinian house with terrorists and a woman carrying a baby appeared at the door of the apartment.  The terrorists opened fire from behind the woman’s back, and several Israeli soldiers were injured.  The IDF unit’s commanding officer using “purity of arms” gave an order that exposed the soldiers to risk in order to avoid injury to a civilian population that provided cover to terrorists.  

The nature of warfare has changed from conventional warfare into terrorist conflicts that operate by a different set of rules than the State of Israel.  The halakhic authorities as well as military planners must ask the question is there a distinction between the moral rules applicable to conventional warfare and those to fighting terror?  Typically, terror groups operate in an unrestrained manner and without moral limitations to inflict the maximum lost to civilian targets.  The Biblical mandate and Jewish tradition emphasizes the sanctity of all life, including that of their enemies.  The sanctity of life should dictate reservations about conducting any war, but the question must be answered is there a war time situation where the “purity of arm” will kill civilians to protect Jewish lives? 

Does a non-combatant enemy civilian forfeit their protection under the “purity of arms” if they become involved in terrorist activities such as providing humans shields and aiding the enemy?  The halakhic authorities in Israel say yes based upon the guidelines of “rodef” (a pursue).  Rodef refers broadly to the right of self-defense against a person coming at one to kill or injure (Sanhedrin 8:7). 24   Under the law of rodef, the person may act knowingly or unknowingly to jeopardize the life of a soldier.  Their level of understanding of the threat they impose does not reduce their culpability as a rodef.  According to Rabbi Benjamin Ish-Shalom Professor of Jewish Thought at Bar Ilan University, “A civilian population that endangers the lives of our military forces and civilians can be considered to be a rodef against whom one has a right of self-defense.” 25   As a practical matter, soldiers faced with civilian population assisting terrorist, are given order to exhaust all measures for neutralizing the danger before actually attacking the person as a rodef.  Ultimately, the individual soldier facing dangers involving life and death, must follow his or her command guidance as well as their conscience when making a decision if an enemy civilian is rodef.  Rabbi Ish-Shalom elucidates this point, “Even if the soldier may not incur criminal liability for an act or omission in the face of mortal danger, he or she may still be held morally accountable.” 26   The foregoing discussion demonstrates the complexity of the issue and the development of halakha to deal with the moral issues in time of war.  

As stated in the beginning, war is a messy business.  Israel’s history bleeds with untold numbers of people who have died from warfare.  Israel is here to stay and part of its ability to do so is due to its military strength.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says, “The truth is that if Israel were to put down its arms there would be no more Israel. If the Arabs were to put down their arms there would be no more war.27    Israel has not run away from this painful reality and is developing new and creative halakhic response.  

Unfortunately, warfare will not be abandoned until Messiah returns and ushers in worldwide peace.  It is said of this time, Messiah will “judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples.  They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)  



1.  Klapper, Aryeh.  Warfare, Ethics and Jewish Law, Meorot - A Forum of Modern Orthodox Discourse, http://www.yctorah.org/content/view/211/64/, (January 2007)  

2.  Begin, Menachem.  Interview Quote, Observer Newspaper, London, (2 January 1983)

3.  Stolley, Richard.  An Interview with Premier Golda Meir, LIFE Magazine (October 3, 1969), 26

4. The Rabbinical Assembly.  Resolution on Responding to the Ongoing War in Iraq, http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/resolution-responding-ongoing-war-iraq?tp=265, (March 2006)5.  Telushkin, Joseph.  Jewish Literacy, (Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition, 2010), 35

6.  Meir, Golda and Syrkin, Marie.  A Land of Our Own: An Oral Autobiography, (Putnam; Edition Unstated edition 1973), 242

7.  Neusner, Jacob.  The Mishnah: A new translation, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 462

8. Maimonides, Moses.  Mishneh Torah: Translated by Eliyahu Touger,  www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1188349/jewish/Chapter-5.htm, (January 1, 2008)

9.  Harris, Michael J.  Divine command ethics: Jewish and Christian perspectives, (Routledge, July 23, 2003), 137

10.  Maimonides, Moses.  A Guide for the Perplexed, translated from the original Arabic text by M. Friedlaender, 4th revised ed. (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1904),  http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/1256, 470

11.  Kahn, Ari.  A Question of Race?,  http://www.aish.com/tp/i/moha/48939037.html

12.  Yanklowitz, Shmuly.  Genocide in the Torah - The existential threat of Amalek, www.myjewishlearning.com/beliefs/Issues/War_and_Peace/Combat_and_Conflict/Types_of_War/Genocide.shtml

13.  Amital, Yehuda.  The wars of Israel according to the Rambam.  http://vbm-torah.org/archive/halak66/29halak.htm

14.  Klapper, Aryeh.  Warfare, Ethics and Jewish Law, Meorot - A Forum of Modern Orthodox Discourse, http://www.yctorah.org/content/view/211/64/, (January 2007)  

15.  Broyde, Michael J.  Fighting the War and the Peace: Battlefield Ethics, Peace Talks, Treaties, and Pacifism in the Jewish Tradition. http://www.jlaw.com/Articles/war1.html 

16.  Broyde, Michael. The Bounds of Wartime Military Conduct in Jewish Law: An Expansive Conception. (Center for Jewish Studies, Queens College Queens College, 2006), 42

17.  Klapper, Aryeh.  Warfare, Ethics and Jewish Law, Meorot - A Forum of Modern Orthodox Discourse, http://www.yctorah.org/content/view/211/64/, (January 2007)  

18.  Klapper, Aryeh.  Warfare, Ethics and Jewish Law, Meorot - A Forum of Modern Orthodox Discourse, http://www.yctorah.org/content/view/211/64/, (January 2007)  

19.  Klapper, Aryeh.  Warfare, Ethics and Jewish Law, Meorot - A Forum of Modern Orthodox Discourse, http://www.yctorah.org/content/view/211/64/, (January 2007)  

20.  Wolff, K. A.  Bal Tashchit: The Jewish Prohibition Against Needless Destruction,  https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/bitstream/handle/1887/14448/Chapter%201%20Introduction.pdf?sequence=10 2009, (2009), 2

21.  Cohen, Jonathan.  Thinking About War,  http://www.mishkantorah.org/rabbi-jonathan-cohen/thinking-about-war-1

22.  Ish-Shalom, Benjamin.  Purity of Arms and Purity of Ethical Judgment, Meorot, Forum of Modern Orthodox Discourse, (Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, 2006)  

23.  Ish-Shalom, Benjamin.  Purity of Arms and Purity of Ethical Judgment, Meorot, Forum of Modern Orthodox Discourse, (Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, 2006)  

24.  Neusner, Jacob.  The Mishnah: A new translation, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 462

25.  Ish-Shalom, Benjamin.  Purity of Arms and Purity of Ethical Judgment, Meorot, Forum of Modern Orthodox Discourse, (Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, 2006)  

26.  Ish-Shalom, Benjamin.  Purity of Arms and Purity of Ethical Judgment, Meorot, Forum of Modern Orthodox Discourse, (Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, 2006)  

27.  Netanyahu, Benjamin.  Speech at the Knesset at the end of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict. (August 14 2006)



Broyde, Michael. “The Bounds of Wartime Military Conduct in Jewish Law: An Expansive Conception”.  Center for Jewish Studies, Queens College Queens College, 2006.

Harris, Michael J.  “Divine command ethics: Jewish and Christian perspectives”, Routledge, July 23, 2003.

Meir, Golda and Syrkin, Marie.  “A Land of Our Own: An Oral Autobiography.” Putnam; Edition Unstated edition, 1973.

Neusner, Jacob. “The Mishnah: A new translation”.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988.

Telushkin, Joseph. “Jewish Literacy”. Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition, 2010.


Ish-Shalom, Benjamin. “Purity of Arms and Purity of Ethical Judgment”, Meorot, Forum of Modern Orthodox Discourse, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, 2006.  

Stolley, Richard. “An Interview with Premier Golda Meir”. LIFE Magazine, October 3, 1969.


Amital, Yehuda. “The wars of Israel according to the Rambam”. http://vbm-torah.org/archive/halak66/29halak.htm.

Begin, Menachem. “Quote from interview”. Observer Newspaper, London, 2 January 1983.

Broyde, Michael. “Fighting the War and the Peace: Battlefield Ethics, Peace Talks, Treaties, and Pacifism in the Jewish Tradition.”  http://www.jlaw.com/Articles/war1.html .

Cohen, Jonathan. “Thinking About War”. http://www.mishkantorah.org/rabbi-jonathan-cohen/thinking-about-war-1.

Kahn, Ari. “A Question of Race?”. http://www.aish.com/tp/i/moha/48939037.html.

Klapper, Aryeh. “Warfare, Ethics and Jewish Law”. Meorot - A Forum of Modern Orthodox Discourse. http://www.yctorah.org/content/view/211/64/,  January 2007.

Maimonides, Moses. “Mishneh Torah: Translated by Eliyahu Touger”.  www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1188349/jewish/Chapter-5.htm, January 1, 2008.

Maimonides, Moses. “A Guide for the Perplexed, translated from the original Arabic text by M. Friedlaender”. 4th revised ed.. New York: E.P. Dutton. http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/1256, 1904.  

The Rabbinical Assembly, “Resolution on Responding to the Ongoing War in Iraq”, http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/resolution-responding-ongoing-war-iraq?tp=265, March 2006.

Wolff, K. A. “Bal Tashchit: The Jewish Prohibition Against Needless Destruction”. https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/bitstream/handle/1887/14448/Chapter%201%20Introduction.pdf?sequence=10 2009, 2009.

Yanklowitz, Shmuly.  “Genocide in the Torah - The existential threat of Amalek”. www.myjewishlearning.com/beliefs/Issues/War_and_Peace/Combat_and_Conflict/Types_of_War/Genocide.shtml.


Netanyahu, Benjamin.  “Speech at the Knesset at the end of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict”, August 14, 2006