Peace (and War) in Jewish Sources

Prepared by Peta Jones Pellach

Biblical sources on Peace

Vayikra (Leviticus)

26:6 And I will give peace in the land, and ye shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid; and I will cause evil beasts to cease out of the land, neither shall the sword go through your land.

Psalms

122:6-8

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; may they prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces. For my brethren and companions’ sakes, I will now say: ‘Peace be within thee.’

Zechariah

8:16 These are the things that ye shall do: Speak ye every man the truth with his neighbour; execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates;

Isaiah

2:4 And He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

43:17 Who bringeth forth the chariot and horse, the army and the power–they lie down together, they shall not rise, they are extinct, they are quenched as a wick:

52:7 How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger of good tidings, that announceth peace, the harbinger of good tidings, that announceth salvation; that saith unto Zion: ‘Thy God reigneth!’

Rabbinic Sources on Peace

Talmud Yerushalmi Ta’anit 4:2

[Compilation of teachings of 3-5th century scholars in Eretz Yisrael; redaction completed in 5th century]

We have learned [Avot 1:18]:

Rabban Shimon, son of Gamliel, says: The world stands upon three things – upon justice, upon truth, and upon peace.

And the three of them are one thing. [Where] justice comes to be, truth comes to be, [and then] peace comes to be. Rabbi Manna says: And the three of them are

[found together] in one verse, “Truth and judgments of peace you shall judge in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16).

Genesis Rabbah 8:5

[Midrash Aggadah to the book of Genesis (Bereishit); compiled 5-7th century in Eretz Yisrael]

Rabbi Simon said:

At the time that the Holy One, blessed be He, set out to create the First Man the ministering angels assembled into sects and factions – some of them saying,

“Let him not be created,” and some of them saying, “Let him be created.” This is [the meaning of] what is written, “Compassion and Truth engaged, Righteousness and

Peace took up arms” (Psalms 85:11).

Compassion said: Let him be created for he practices compassionate deeds.

But Truth said: Let him not be created for he is all lies.

Righteousness said: Let him be created for he performs righteous acts.

But Peace said: Let him not be created for he is all strife.

What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He took Truth and cast it to the earth. This is what is written,

“You cast Truth to the earth” (Daniel 8:12).

The ministering angels said before the Holy One, blessed be He, “Master of the universe, how can you disgrace your chief court advisor?! Let Truth rise from the earth!”

This is what is written, “Truth will sprout from the earth”

(Psalms 85:12).

War – Biblical sources – Milchemet Mitzvah (Chovah)- Obligatory War

Shemot (Exodus)

17:14 And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘Write this for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.’ 17:15 And Moses built an altar, and called the name of it Adonai-nissi. 17:16 And he said: ‘The hand upon the throne of the Lord: the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.’

Devarim (Deuteronomy)

25:17 Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way as ye came forth out of Egypt; 25:18 how he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, all that were enfeebled in thy rear, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God. 25:19 Therefore it shall be, when the Lord thy God hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget.

7:1 When the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and shall cast out many nations before thee, the Hittite, and the Girgashite, and the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; 7:2 and when the Lord thy God shall deliver them up before thee, and thou shalt smite them; then thou shalt utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor show mercy unto them; 7:3 neither shalt thou make marriages with them: thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. 7:4 For he will turn away thy son from following Me, that they may serve other gods; so will the anger of the Lord be kindled against you, and He will destroy thee quickly.

20:16 Howbeit of the cities of these peoples, that the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth, 20:17 but thou shalt utterly destroy them: the Hittite, and the Amorite, the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite; as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee; 20:18 that they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods, and so ye sin against the Lord your God.

Devarim (Deuteronomy) Chapters 20-21

20:1 When thou goest forth to battle against thine enemies, and seest horses, and chariots, and a people more than thou, thou shalt not be afraid of them; for the Lord thy God is with thee, who brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.

20:2 And it shall be, when ye draw nigh unto the battle, that the priest shall approach and speak unto the people, 20:3 and shall say unto them: ‘Hear, O Israel, ye draw nigh this day unto battle against your enemies; let not your heart faint; fear not, nor be alarmed, neither be ye affrighted at them; 20:4 for the Lord your God is He that goeth with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.’

20:5 And the officers shall speak unto the people, saying: ‘What man is there that hath built a new house, and hath not dedicated it? let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man dedicate it.

20:6 And what man is there that hath planted a vineyard, and hath not used the fruit thereof? let him go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man use the fruit thereof.

20:7 And what man is there that hath betrothed a wife, and hath not taken her? let him go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man take her.’

20:8 And the officers shall speak further unto the people, and they shall say: ‘What man is there that is fearful and faint-hearted? let him go and return unto his house, lest his brethren’s heart melt as his heart.’

20:9 And it shall be, when the officers have made an end of speaking unto the people, that captains of hosts shall be appointed at the head of the people.

20:10 When thou drawest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. 20:11 And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that are found therein shall become tributary unto thee, and shall serve thee. 20:12 And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it.

20:13 And when the Lord thy God delivereth it into thy hand, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword; 20:14 but the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take for a prey unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the Lord thy God hath given thee.

20:15 Thus shalt thou do unto all the cities which are very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations. 20:16 Howbeit of the cities of these peoples, that the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth, 20:17 but thou shalt utterly destroy them: the Hittite, and the Amorite, the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite; as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee; 20:18 that they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods, and so ye sin against the Lord your God.

20:19 When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an axe against them; for thou mayest eat of them, but thou shalt not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged of thee? 20:20 Only the trees of which thou knowest that they are not trees for food, them thou mayest destroy and cut down, that thou mayest build bulwarks against the city that maketh war with thee, until it fall.

21:10 When thou goest forth to battle against thine enemies, and the Lord thy God delivereth them into thy hands, and thou carriest them away captive, 21:11 and seest among the captives a woman of goodly form, and thou hast a desire unto her, and wouldest take her to thee to wife; 21:12 then thou shalt bring her home to thy house; and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails; 21:13 and she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thy house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month; and after that thou mayest go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife.

21:14 And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not deal with her as a slave, because thou hast humbled her.

Rabbinic Explanations

Mishnah Sotah 8:7

With regards to the exemptions in Devarim 20 –

[first it offers an anonymous opinion.]

“To what does all the foregoing apply? To voluntary wars, but in the wars commanded by the Torah all go forth, even a bridegroom from his chamber and a bride from her canopy.”

[The same Mishnah next quotes a different opinion, attributed to Rabbi Judah.]
  1. Judah says: To what does all the foregoing apply? To the wars commanded by the Torah; but in obligatory wars all go forth, even a bridegroom from his chamber and a bride from her canopy.

Mishna Sanhedrin 2:4:

He [the King] may lead forth [the host] to a voluntary war on the decision of a court of seventy-one.

[In other words, an obligatory war is ordained by God in the Torah, and can be called by a king or general without the authority of a general assembly. A voluntary war allows for a country’s expansion or increased power and wealth, and must be supported by the judicial body. Wars that are not clearly either obligatory or voluntary might include wars in response to threats to national security, such as another nation amassing troops at the border, developing weapons of mass destruction, cutting off access to trade, taking citizens hostage, or attacking an ally.]

Talmud Bavli Sotah 44b

The wars waged by Joshua to conquer [Canaan] were obligatory in the opinion of all; the wars waged by the House of David for territorial expansion were voluntary in the opinion of all; where they differ is with regard to [wars] against heathens so that these should not march against them.

Self Defense

Rab Judah stated in the name of Rab: If foreigners besieged Israelite towns it is not permitted to sally forth against them or to desecrate the Sabbath in any other way on their account. So it was also taught: If foreigners besieged etc. This, however, applies only where they came for the sake of money matters, but if they came with the intention of taking lives the people are permitted to sally forth against them with their weapons and to desecrate the Sabbath on their account. Where the attack, however, was made on a town that was close to a frontier, even though they did not come with any intention of taking lives but merely to plunder straw or stubble, the people are permitted to sally forth against them with their weapons and to desecrate the Sabbath on their account. (Talmud Bavli, Eruvin 45a)

Exodus – Shemot

22:1 If a thief be found breaking in, and be smitten so that he dieth, there shall be no bloodguiltiness for him.

22:2 If the sun be risen upon him, there shall be bloodguiltiness for him–he shall make restitution; if he have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.

The Value of Human Life

Whence do we know that in the case of danger to human life the laws of the Sabbath are suspended? — R. Ishmael answered and said: If a thief be found breaking in… Now if in the case of this one it is doubtful whether he has come to take money or life; and although the shedding of blood pollutes the land, so that the Shechinah departs from Israel, yet it is lawful to save oneself at the cost of his life — how much more may one suspend the laws of the Sabbath to save human life! (Talmud Bavli, Yoma 85a)

The Law of the Pursuer

Jewish law compels a Jew to take the life of a pursuer (Jewish or otherwise) who is trying to take the life of a Jew; Shulchan Aruch 425. The source quoted for this statement is the Talmud in Sanhedrin (72b) which derives from the verse in Genesis 9:6 (“One who sheds man’s blood by man shall his blood be shed”) one of the dispensations to kill the pursuer.

Tosafot (Sanhedrin 72b) notes that this verse only makes the killing of the pursuer permissible but not obligatory. Tosafot claims that it is Deuteronomy 22:27 (“the betrothed Damsel cried and there was none to save her”) which makes this action obligatory rather than optional, and this verse only has legal effect on Jews.

Rabbi Shlomo Zevin argues with this position; See Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, Leor Hahalacha, (2d ed.; Jerusalem, 1956) pages 150-57. Rabbi Zevin notes that the verses in Obadiah 1:11-13 chastise the kingdom of Edom for standing by silently while Israel was destroyed. Hence, he claims, it appears that all have an obligation to help. He also argues that the Talmud in Sanhedrin 72b was only referring to a house robber (literally, Bah BaMachteret; according to Jewish law, one who robs houses presumably will kill the owner of the house if interrupted. Thus the owner of the house may kill the robber during the burglary) and not a pursuer. Other modern commentaries also disagree with the Minchat Hinuch; For a summary of the discourse on this point, see R. Yehuda Shaviv, Betzer Eviezer, (Ztomet, 1990) pages 96-99 who appears to conclude that most authorities are in agreement with Rabbi Zevin’s ruling; see also R. Yitzchak Schmelks, Bet Yitzchak, Yoreh De`ah II, 162 and Novella of R. Chaim Soloveitchik on Maimonides, Rotzach 1:9.

“Therefore the Torah decreed, ‘If he comes to kill you, prevent him by killing him [first]’” (Sanhedrin 72a).