Laws that facilitate Jewish warfare
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In the Torah, the Hebrew term maḥaneh often refers to the entire Israelite community in the desert; however, it sometimes denotes an Israelite war camp (for example, Deuteronomy 23:10). Indeed war was a reality in nascent Israel and during the Second Temple period, especially from the Hasmonean revolt onward. Rabbinic literature rules on weapons and battle attire, with particular attention to their ritual purity, whether they may be worn or carried on Shabbat, and prohibitions against selling them to gentiles. This military equipment therefore seems to be owned by Jews, as both an integral part of Jewish life and a defining element of Jewish masculinity (see more in Mishnah Shabbat 6:3-4; 6:1-2; Kelim 11:8; Tosefta Kelim Bava Metzi‘a 3:1). This tosefta demonstrates that rabbinic halakhah also concerns itself with the practicalities of warfare, by not only depicting Jews in a defensive position but also as waging non-compulsory wars.
This passage from the Tosefta regulates three pragmatic matters that pertain to operating a Jewish military camp. Tannaitic literature discusses several types of warfare: In Mishnah Sotah 8:7, the optional war (milḥemet hareshut) is contrasted with milḥemet mitzvah, which is explained as a response to an enemy attack. In this context, milḥemet hareshut could be understood as an Israelite initiative, either to attack non-Jews or to expand Jewish territory, without a divine mandate (see various views of milḥemet hareshut in Jerusalem Talmud Sotah 8:7, 23a). The term milḥemet ḥovah (obligatory war) also appears in Mishnah Sotah 8:7, defined as a war that was commanded by God, such as battles against Amalek or Joshua’s campaigns (see this mishnah for opinions on these categories; see also Henshke, “The Optional War”). However, Tosefta Sotah 7:24 states that:
ר' יהודה היה קורא למלחמת הרשות מלחמת מצוה
Rabbi Yehudah [son of Rabbi Ilai] would call an optional war (milḥemet reshut) “a war of mitzvah”(milḥemet mitzvah).
While the word mitzvah denotes a religious commandment or a good deed, Rabbi Yehudah – a fourth-generation tanna who was active in the mid-second century – seems to consider waging a war, even an optional war, to be a mitzvah; thus, he casts the Jewish exercise of military power in positive terms (see Henshke, “The Optional War,” p. 96; on Rabbi Yehudah son of Rabbi Ilai and his perspective on Rome, see Ben-Shalom, “Rabbi Judah.” See p. 16 for a discussion of our tosefta). In a related vein, tannaitic halakhah seems interested in facilitating the performance of the Jewish military camp by exempting its members from particular religious obligations, in obligatory and optional wars alike (for the differences between the Houses [Schools] of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael on this subject, see Henshke, “The Optional War,” p. 97).
First, the Tosefta declares, in an anonymous voice, that Israelite soldiers in a military camp may seize dried wood, using the root g-z-l, which denotes robbery or illegal acquisition. Mishnah Eruvin 1:10 articulates this same ruling with different words: “They may bring wood from everywhere.” A baraita (tannaitic unit) in Jerusalem Talmud Eruvin 1:10, 19c-d reads:
תני בשם ר' יודה. ... היוצאים למלחמת הרשות מותרין בגזל עצים לחים ואסורין בגזל עצים יבישין. [היוצאים למלחמת חובה מותרין בגזל עצים יבשין ולחין].
It is stated in a tannaitic tradition in the name of Rabbi Yehudah: … “Those who go forth for an optional war (milḥemet hareshut): They are permitted to seize (lit. to rob) freshly cut (lit. moist) wood, but they are prohibited to seize dried wood. Those who go forth for an obligatory war (milḥemet ḥovah) are permitted to seize dried and freshly cut wood.
In this passage, the Talmud differentiates between an optional war and an obligatory war with regard to Jewish troops’ access to dried wood. If this baraita from the Talmud and our tosefta are in tension with one another, we see that, for the Tosefta, dried wood is also permitted in an optional war (and certainly in an obligatory war). Wood was one of the most important commodities needed to sustain a military force. In the Roman army, wood served as fuel for cooking fires and as the primary raw material for building a camp and siege works. Soldiers’ food rations were usually raw grains and other ingredients that they would then cook in small groups; thus, “the army in the field had to collect a large amount of firewood or fuel daily” (Roth, The Logistics, p. 59, 123). When waging a siege, wood was needed in significant quantities (Roth, The Logistics, p. 60-61, 316). It is reasonable that this demand for wood was a burden on the local population. Nonetheless, these tannaitic texts allow Jewish warriors to gather dry wood, by force if necessary, during an optional war. Thus, although theft is broadly prohibited by the Torah and rabbinic law, these texts make an exception by allowing wood to be exacted without its owners’ consent for the sake of military victory.
Our tosefta then cites Yehudah ben Tema (or Tyma), whose time and biographical details are unknown. This sage first rules that the people of a camp may reside anywhere; that is to say, a Jewish military encampment may even be located on private property. In this case, the Roman military presence within a civilian community or on its premises would cause great hardship. Yet this instruction effectively aims to ease the operation of Jewish forces. Neither this ruling nor the previous one are mentioned in the Torah.
Yehudah ben Tema also states that, wherever members of the camp are killed, they should be buried on that plot. A parallel to these teachings from Yehudah ben Tema appears in Jerusalem Talmud Eruvin 1:10, 19d. The Talmud deliberates on whether the deceased may be transferred from the place where they died for burial elsewhere.
These laws from the Tosefta may have been composed to facilitate Jewish military actions. Mishnah Eruvin 1:10 seems to share this goal for, in addition to easing access to wood, this source also grants exemptions from certain laws of ritual purity, tithing, and Shabbat. While it is unclear when these laws were created and formulated, they appear in collections that were compiled during the third century CE, centuries after the demise of the Hasmonean kingdom and decades after Jews’ final attempted rebellion against Rome (the Bar Kokhba revolt, 132-135 CE). However, the fact that rabbinic literature continued to transmit and discuss these teachings indicates that, at least some, rabbinic circles endorsed or envisioned a time (in an unspecified future) when Jews would again exercise power. In the third century, Jewish military camps were purely theoretical. Yet, these laws regulate an imagined realm where a Jewish army – which faithfully adheres to religious commandments – would again initiate a war.