Caught up in the passions and anxiety that is the very stuff of war, enticed by the [enemy] maidens whose job is to distract, the victorious Jewish soldier falls for the woman and takes her home. In this yefat toar [beautiful maiden] section, the Torah does not flinch [Devarim, 21:10-13]
If you should go to war against your enemies, and Ad-noy, your G-d, puts them in your hand, and you capture prisoners from them; And you see among the prisoners a beautifully formed woman; if you desire her, you may take her as your wife. You will bring her into your house and she will shave her head and allow her nails to grow. She must discard her prisoner’s garb from upon her, and she will remain in your home and weep for her father and her mother a month of days; and afterwards [if you still desire her] you may come to her and consummate with her, and she will become your wife.
Step 1: On one level, the Torah clearly designs a procedure to push off the woman, our soldier’s object of desire. And yet, there is no escaping the shocking consent to an apparently very unholy type of union. Regarding this relationship, the Talmud uses a phrase that appears but once in its entire corpus1 [Kiddushin, 21b]
Lo dibrah Torah ela kineged yetzer hara – the Torah only spoke to the evil inclination of man
Simply put, the Torah permits the rendezvous, because the Torah is a document grounded in reality. Hashem only prohibits that which is within man’s control. Even as the Torah does not approve of the behavior, the primal yetzer hara’s power can not allow for a blanket prohibition. It is just too much to ask from every soldier to hold back.
From such a low place, our famous mussar (ethical) works turn the whole thing on its head. The Torah’s realness in our situation allows us to deduce that barring the unique circumstance, the very same Torah is equally real in demanding our absolute loyalty to the complete corpus of mitzvot. To those that protest, but Rabbi I can’t – the Torah says: You surely can!
Which leads us to a stunningly simple S’fas Emes  question: Why create the exception? Would it not have been better for the Creator of the yetzer hara to rein it in, just this one time? Why create a scenario where man has to concede to that yetzer hara – blotting possible perfection?
Step 2: Exactly what is the Torah permitting here?
It’s a long story, but the short version is (unsurprisingly) that it is a matter of dispute.
Rashi (2) goes with the simple meaning of the text. The soldier takes the woman home and only after putting her through the halachic hoops does he have license to marry and be with her. Of course, there is no likuchin, Jewish marriage until the women converts. Therefore, the Torah is allowing the soldier to marry the maiden – post conversion. After all the smoke clears, Ramban poses a simple question. If the lady is Jewish, then where’s the prohibition that the yetzer hara overrides?
Here are two answers: Ramban and Tosafot’s3 technical response: Conversion is usually a choice; here the women is forced into the conversion (giyur b’al korcha) , an almost paradoxical notion for Jewish conversion, one whose lynchpin is personal acceptance of all the mitzvot. A more basic intuitive solution: The whole thing shmecks – smells from impropriety. This is not the stuff of kiddushin, of Jewish holy marriage! Even if no technical prohibition has been violated, finding a Gentile and “kashering” her out of personal lust is essentially despicable.
Ramban and Rabbeinu Tam go for broke. They believe that the Torah permits the soldier to have relations with the maiden immediately. (4) The procedures spelled out in the text are for the soldier that wants to marry the woman even after initial relations. Post-lust and before contemplating the marital relationship, the Torah wants to knock some sense (or knock out some desire) in our Jewish soldier, requiring a thirty day procedure of stripping the maiden of her allure. According to these commentaries then, concession to the yetzer hara means permitting that which is a full blown sin in other contexts – a remarkable concept (5)
Ramban concedes that Rashi’s approach is the simple textual one for the verse only mentions taking the woman after the whole series of procedures. It is only based on the Oral tradition that we understand otherwise. We may then reasonably ask why does the Torah reverse the order? (if the soldier is permitted to have relations once before the safeguards).
The Point: A remarkable Chazal cast this whole section in a completely different light. With their insight, we will give a midrashic answer to our outstanding questions.
First note that the Torah speaks in 2nd person. It is talking to you (and me!). When you go out to battle. We Jews have not been in the war business for a while, and yet the Torah speaks with certitude?! Because, according to the Sifri, the war is within and the temptress is the yetzer hara, the one that always looks so fair. The battle of course is that of a lifetime and the Torah warns us how to deal with the ultimate battle (6) – giving us a four pronged strategic approach to ward off spiritual [based on Rabbeinu Bechaye]
- 1. gilchah es rosha – cut off the hair,
- 1. figure out away to weaken its primal strength (cf. the Shimshon story)
- 2. asetah et tziparna – let the fingernails grow
- 2. beckon the image of Adam before the sin [when he was completely protected by the nail coverings]. Before sinning, consider the greatness that human beings in the Divine image can attain.
- 3. V’heisirah et simlas shivyah – take off its fancy clothing
- 3. Sin always looks so tempting. Remove the facade and think long term implications of conceding to one’s immediate gratifications
- 4. V’yashva b’beisecha, uvachsa es aviha … bring it into the home and let it cry for 30 days
- 4. Acknowledge the struggle and be real with immenseness of the task
1. V’lakachta lecha l’isha – marry her
Marry her– Say what ?
Yes – after you have weakened the yetzer hara, reflected and struggled – bring it back home. Because the goal as we say in the Shema. [twice a day everyday] is to serve and love God with bechol levavcha, with “all our hearts” – with our good (yetzer tov) and evil (yetzer hara) inclinations (7).
Our yetzer hara, the center of passion and creativity is not inherently evil. Judaism does not preach: Serve G-d with your spiritual nature and squelch the physical; nor do we acknowledge an autonomous Satan who runs amok of G-d (8).
As we get ready for the litany of Al cheit’s, one that stands apart is the confession of sinning with the yetzer hara – for as many have suggested, all sin stems from the misuse of our God given gifts.
As we ratchet up the battle, let us not channel, not choke all of our gifts in holistic harmony and service to Hashem.
Good Shabbos, Asher Brander
1 A few other applications are found in midrashim, e.g. in the context of eating the produce of the 4th and 5th year and returning the lost animal of an enemy. The same Talmudic piece talks about eating the slaughtered meat of animals that are on the verge of dying.
4 Their major proof stems from a piece of Talmud [Kiddushin 21b] that distinguishes between the first and second act of relations (biah rishona and shnia) [The gemara contemplates whether the Kohein is permitted to the yefat toar as he is not permitted to marry a convert – so perhaps the whole permission is only for someone who can ultimately marry the woman]
5 This is working with the assumption that relations with a gentile is prohibited from the Torah. Surely, this is true in a public context. The entire scope of the prohibition is well beyond our discussion
7 A famous talmudic story in Yoma relates that post destruction of the Temple, the Sages prayed to God for the capture of the Yetzer Hara. They prayed for mercy, and he was handed over to them. God said to them: “Realize that if you kill him, the world goes down”. They imprisoned him for three days, then looked in the whole land of Israel for a fresh egg and could not find it. (for all of procreation had ceased even amongst the animals). Thereupon, the Rabbis said: “What shall we do now? Shall we kill him? The world would then go down.”
8 Thus the Torah alludes to the notion of “conceding” to the yetzer hara in the positive sense.ndeed, even Sin and Sanctity are not the creation of divided realms of existence – they emerge from the very same source. Is it not remarkable that the Hebrew word for sin, cheit, can also refer to spiritual immersion? Is it happenstance that verb form of cheit often refers to an arrow that has missed its mark? Hardly, for sin is the misuse of one’s innate G-dly passion, a spiritual arrow that has missed its mark!
Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.