Parshat Shoftim: The Kohen Anointed for War

“When you go forth to war against your enemy and you see horses and chariots and a nation that is more numerous than yourself, do not fear them. For Hashem your G-d who brought you up from Egypt is with you.” (Devarim 20:1)

Before going to war a special Kohen is appointed to accompany the nation. This Kohen and the other officers of the nation address the people before they enter into battle. This pasuk introduces the section of the Torah that discusses the address that this Kohen and the officers deliver to the nation. This section can be summarized in three points. First, it is prohibited to be fearful of the enemy. Second, a special Kohen is appointed to accompany and address the nation before battle. Third, the Kohen and the officers instruct the nation to not be fearful but they then enumerate those individuals that are permitted to leave before the battle is joined.

The elements of this section seem disjointed and even contradictory. The section begins with an injunction against fearing the enemy. Maimonides and others maintain that this injunction is one of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah.[1] The section then provides the text of the address that the Kohen and the officers deliver to the nation. The address begins with instructions to not be fearful. Next, the people are provided with a list of individuals who are permitted to leave before the battle is joined. There are three individuals included on this list – a person who has recently planted a vineyard, betrothed a woman, or built a home. The address ends by instructing a person who is fearful to leave. This is preferable to fleeing and discouraging those around him.

We would expect the address of the Kohen and the officers to express the initial theme of the section – the prohibition against fearing the enemy. Indeed, the address begins with this theme. But the address continues with a list of individuals who are exempt from battle. How do these exemptions relate to the injunction against being fearful? The address ends with an instruction to those who are fearful. These individuals are told to leave. This seems to directly contradict the requirement to not be fearful!


“And the officers continue to speak to the nation and they say, “Who is afraid and weak-hearted? He should go and return to his home and not weaken the hearts of his brothers – as his heart is weakened.”
Devarim (20:8)

The above passage is the text of the final element of the address delivered to the people. The pasuk provides an answer to our last question. We are commanded not to be fearful. But it is inevitable that some individuals will not be capable of eliminating or suppressing their natural anxiety. These individuals are required to leave in order to not undermine the courage of others. In other words, the very requirement to not be fearful, demands that those who cannot control their anxiety leave. Rather than contradicting the initial theme, this last element of the address reflects the injunction against being fearful. However, the Torah provides no clear indication as to the reason that one who has planted a vineyard, newly betrothed a wife, or recently built a home is exempted from battle.

“And the officers should speak to the nation and say, “Who has built a new home and not initiated it? He should go and return to his home – lest he die in war and another man initiate it.” (Devarim 20:5)

Rabbaynu Avraham Ibn Ezra and many other commentaries discuss this issue. Most conclude that these individuals are most likely to flee the battle. This person is poised to enter an exciting period of his life. He has a promising future before him. He deeply desires to live to enjoy his future. These people are – as a group – the most likely individuals to flee. Of course, in fleeing they will undermine the courage of others. Therefore, they are invited to leave before the battle begins.[2]

This solves an interesting problem in the above passage. The pasuk contains a portion of the text of the address of the Kohen and the officers. This portion of the text outlines the exemption for a person who has recently built a home. The pasuk explains that this person is exempt from participating in the battle. But the pasuk includes an interesting phrase – lest he die in war and another man initiate it. This phrase reflects the reason for the exemption. He is likely to be focused on the home he has not yet enjoyed. He may not be willing to risk his future in this new home. It is preferable for this person to leave before the battle to his fleeing once the battle begins. However, the pasuk adds, “and another man initiate it.” What is the significance of this final consideration? Why is it important that if this person dies, another person will initiate his home?

Rashi provides a response to this question. He explains that this would be source of severe grief.[3] Gur Aryeh explains the meaning of Rashi’s comment. He explains that this phrase suggest another reason that for this person’s exemption. A person who has built a home and not yet lived in it has two reasons for concern. First, his premature death in battle would deprive him of the opportunity to enjoy the home he labored to build. Second, he may die in battle and some stranger will enjoy the home that he labored to build. In other words, someone other than himself will enjoy the benefit of all of his efforts. For some people, this second concern is even greater than the first. This person can accept that he may not enjoy the home he built. But he cannot accept that someone else will enjoy it in his stead![4]

Maimonides offers an additional insight into these exemptions. He begins with a problem. We are commended to not be afraid when we go into battle. How are we to avoid or suppress this fear? Maimonides explains that we must focus on two issues. First, we are to rely on Hashem to save us. Second, we must recognize that in any battle, we are fighting against a nation that opposes Bnai Yisrael and seeks to harm Hashem’s nation. In engaging in this battle we are fighting for Hashem to defeat those who seek to oppose Him. In other words, when engaged in battle, we should interpret our role as an act of service to Hashem. Maimonides implies that if a person can succeed in achieving this focus and state on consciousness, he will not be fearful. Maimonides adds that the two areas of focus are related. We hope to be saved through providence. We can only enjoy this providence if our intentions are to serve Hashem and are pure.[5]

Maimonides observes that in order to achieve the state of consciousness that he describes, one cannot be distracted by thoughts or concerns regarding his family. This observation suggests a deeper understanding of the exemptions outlined in our parasha. A person who has built a new home, recently betrothed, or planted a vineyard is easily distracted by anxiety over these new endeavors. This person faces powerful psychological impediments that may prevent achieving the state of consciousness that is required. It follows that these individuals are exempt from participating in the battle.

It is clear from this discussion that this section of the Torah is not disjointed or contradictory. The section is consistent and focuses on a single theme – we are prohibited to fear our enemy. The entire address of the Kohen and the officers is designed to assure the achievement of this goal. They begin with an admonishment against fearing the enemy. They then exempt various categories of individuals that are likely to become distracted from the objectives of the battle or be overcome with anxiety over their own safety. These people are invited to leave, rather than possibly flee and undermine the confidence of their fellow brothers.

Understanding that the entire section expresses a single theme, helps resolve a problem in halacha. There are two types of war in halacha – milchemet mitzvah and milchemet reshut. A precise delineation of the difference between these two types of wars requires an involved analysis. For the purposes of this discussion a working definition will suffice. Milchemet mitzvah is a war that is required in order to fulfill a mitzvah of the Torah. A milchemet reshut is not specifically required by a commandment in the Torah.

According to many authorities, this section of the Torah only fully applies to a milchemet reshut. These authorities explain that everyone is required to participate in a milchemet mitzvah. There are no exemptions. Therefore, prior to a milchemet mitzvah the Kohen and the officers do not enumerate those that are permitted to decline involvement. No one has such an option. Everyone must participate.[6] Kesef Mishne argues that although the exemptions would not be enumerated prior to a milchemet mitzvah, a Kohen is appointed to address the nation. He does not list exemptions but he does admonish the nation to not fear its enemy.[7]

However, it seems that Maimonides disagrees. He explains that before both types of conflicts – milchemet mitzvah and milchemet reshut – a Kohen is appointed. He describes the address that the Kohen and the officers deliver. The description includes an enumeration of the exemptions. He does not distinguish between a milchemet mitzvah and a milchemet reshut. Clearly, Maimonides is implying – if not openly stating – that the entire section applies to both a milchemet reshut and a milchemet mitzvah. He maintains that in both cases the exemptions are enumerated.[8]

However, Maimonides does agree that the exemptions do not extend to a milchemet mitzvah. Only in the instance of a milchemet reshut do these exemptions apply.[9] Of course, it seems that Maimonides’ position is self-contradictory. He maintains that the exemptions only apply to a milchemet reshut. Yet, he asserts that the Kohen and the officers review the exemptions before any battle – even a milchemet mitzvah. Why would the Kohen and the officers review the exemptions prior to a milchemet mitzvah. They do not apply?


“And when they approach the battle, the Kohen should come near and speak to the nation.”
(Devarim 20:2)

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Z”L suggests a novel solution to this problem. His solution is based on a requirement outlined in the mishne and quoted by Rashi. According to the mishne, the Kohen is required to address the nation in Lashon HaKodesh – in Hebrew.[10] This is a strange requirement. It seems that the responsibility of the Kohen and officers is to communicate a clear message to the warriors about to enter battle. They should use the language that will be most easily understood. This seems to be a strange instance in which to require use of Lashon HaKodesh.

Rav Soloveitchik suggests that the Kohen and the officers do not discharge their duty by merely addressing the nation. They are required to read this section of the Torah to the nation. In order to fulfill this obligation, they must read the section in Lashon HaKodesh. If they were to design their own presentation that thematically matched this section, they would not fulfill their obligation of reading this section to the nation. Similarly, if they used a language other than Lashon HaKodesh they would not be reading the nation this section. They would be delivering a translation to the nation.

Based on this observation, Rav Soloveitchik explains Maimonides’ position. Before every war the Kohen and the officers are required to address the nation. In the instance of a milchemet reshut all elements of the address described in our section are relevant. It is important to admonish the nation to not be fearful and to communicate the exemptions. In the instance of the milchemet mitzvah the exemptions are not relevant; everyone is required to participate. But the admonition against fearfulness is appropriate. Nonetheless, even in the instance of a milchemet mitzvah, the entire text is of the address is presented. Rav Soloveitchik explains that this is because the Kohen and the officers are not permitted to improvise their own address. They are not even permitted to translate the words of the Torah into another language. They are required to address the nation by means of reading the exact text of our section. It is true that in the instance of a milchemet mitzvah, the exemptions are not relevant. But they are a part of the section. The section can only be accurately read to the nation if it is recited accurately and in its entirety.[11]

There are two obvious problems posed by Rav Soloveitchik’s solution. First, why must the Kohen and officers address the nation through reading this section of the Torah? Why are they not permitted to use this section as a general outline and construct their own appropriate address? Second, even if we can explain the reason for this restriction against improvising, why read the whole section? It would seem to make more sense to require that only the initial, relevant passage be read!

Let us begin with this last question. According to our analysis above, this section is not composed of separate unrelated elements. The entire section revolves around a single issue. It is prohibited to fear the enemy. The exemptions also reflect this theme. Therefore, although the exemptions are not relevant to a milchemet mitzvah, they are an integral part of the message of the section. Therefore, the section can only be accurately read through reading all of the passages.

“For Hashem your G-d goes before you to do battle on your behalf with your enemies and to save you.” (Devarim 20:4)

But why are the Kohen and officers not permitted to improvise? Perhaps, the answer lies in the above passage. The Kohen and the officers do not merely tell the nation to not be fearful. They offer a reason. The nation is not relying on its own strength in this confrontation with its enemy. Hashem battles for His people. Hashem will protect and rescue Bnai Yisrael. This message can only have its full impact if it is read from the Torah. It is not adequate for the Kohen and the officers to deliver their own assurances and admonition to the nation. They are required to communicate to the nation the promise and related admonition of the Torah. They can best communicate the message of the Torah through reading it directly. Therefore, they cannot improvise. An improvised address is not a direct expression of the Torah’s promise and related admonition. They must present – in the most direct manner – the message of the Torah. This can only be accomplished through reading the section. And because the section is a single integrated set of passages, it must be read in its entirety – even in the instance of a milchemet mitzvah.

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Lo Ta’Aseh 58.

[2] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Devarim 20:5.

[3] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 20:5.

[4] Rav Yehuda Loew of Prague (Maharal), Aryeh Commentary on Sefer Devarim 20:9.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 7:14.

[6] Rabbaynu Avraham ben David of Posquieres (Ra’avad) Critique on Maimonides’ Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 7:1.

[7] Rav Yosef Karo, Kesef Mishne, Hilchot Melachim 7:1.

[8] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 7:1-4.

[9] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 7:4.

[10] Mesechet Sotah 42:a

[11] Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Kobetz Chidushai Torah.