One of the terrible realities of war is that civilian populations are often subject to atrocities. Women are particularly at risk from invading forces – such savagery has only recently been recognised as a war crime.

The Torah demands more of its adherents – that all wars be fought with minimal harm and collateral damage to civilians, but recognises the desperation of armies at war. Under such a reality, the Torah introduces a law called Yefas Toar – the captive woman:

כִּי תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה עַל אֹיְבֶיךָ וּנְתָנוֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ וְשָׁבִיתָ שִׁבְיוֹ. וְרָאִיתָ בַּשִּׁבְיָה אֵשֶׁת יְפַת תֹּאַר וְחָשַׁקְתָּ בָהּ וְלָקַחְתָּ לְךָ לְאִשָּׁה – If you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord, your God, will deliver them into your hands, and you take captives. If you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her, you may take her for yourself as a wife. (21:10,11)

Rashi explains that this is not a command, but permission. Soldiers are not required to take captives home; rather, the Torah addresses mankinds evil inclination. But note that the following laws after Yefas Toar are the case of a despised wife, and then a rebellious son. Chazal understand that the juxtaposition means that if the returning solider married the Yefas Toar, he will come to hate her, and their children will be rebellious.

However, the Rambam codifies it as a mitzva, not just permission.

If it’s a mitzva, why does a negative outcome result from it? There is a principle that people doing a mitzva are protected from harm. Secondly, if it is a mitzva, how does it address the evil of mankind?

Perhaps this mitzva demonstrates that the Torah guides the way even when things aren’t going smoothly – בשעת הירידה. The Torah does not say to “marry” her, but to “take her” – as an emergency measure. The laws continue that for 30 days she must shave her head bald, be unkempt, in mourning, and dressed in black rags. This is not meant to be a romantic, attractive and happy marriage. Perhaps the intent of these laws is that the man will realise precisely who he has brought into his house – and will send her home.

Perhaps then, the “evil of mankind” remark is isolated to the heat of the moment. The Torah recognises the impulse and permits the indiscretion, albeit temporarily. He is meant to get rid of her after 30 days. If he marries her after the 30 day window, the Yefas Toar “loophole” expires, and he is, in fact, committing a sin. He is certainly not doing a mitzva, and Chazal identify that marrying this captive non-Jew will cause marital strife and discord, and the offspring of this relationship will not be model Jews.

This is implicit in the statement that it is specifically “if the returning solider married the Yefas Toar, he will come to hate her, and their children will be rebellious,” – if he gets rid of her, he is safe – but after 30 days he is doing no mitzva.

The Torah is the guiding light under all circumstances. This mitzva illustrates that assistance is available to people in need – but people have to take responsibility eventually – there are consequences of not living up to expectations.