Once upon a time, in the kingdom of Geshur, there lived a beautiful princess named Ma’acha. She was beloved by her father, King Talmai, and princes and nobles were beginning to seek her hand in marriage.
But war broke out with the Israelites. Ma’acha was captured. David noticed her, a beautiful woman among the captives.
The Bible does not tell us much about Ma’acha. When King David’s sons are listed, we learn that “the third was Absalom, son of Ma’acha, the daughter of Talmai, the king of Geshur” (II Samuel 3:3). Later, we learn that “Absalom, son of David, had a beautiful sister, and her name was Tamar” (II Samuel 13:1).
Based on the verses, we might have assumed that David simply married a princess from a neighboring kingdom, perhaps as part of an alliance with Geshur. However, to reconcile difficulties arising from the episode of Amnon and Tamar, rabbinic sources assert that Ma’acha was captured in war according to the laws of the yefat to’ar, the beautiful woman. (Sanhedrin 21a).
Parashat Ki Teitzei opens with this mitzvah (Deuteronomy 21:10-13):
When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God gives them into your hand, and you take captives. And you see among the captives a beautiful woman [yefat to’ar], and you desire her, and you take her to you for a wife. You shall bring her into your house, and she shall shave her head and grow out her nails. And she shall take off the dress of her captivity, and she shall sit in your house and weep for her father and her mother a month of days, and afterwards you shall come to her and have relations with her and she shall be to you for a wife.
The mitzvah is a troubling one. One of the Torah’s central imperatives is “Kedoshim tihiyu,” “Be holy!” (Leviticus 19:2). Rashi understands that verse as emphasizing sexual restraint. Furthermore, in Parashat Ki Tetzei, we learn that sanctity is especially critical within a military camp (Deuteronomy 23:10-15). Yet here the Torah permits taking a beautiful non-Jewish woman during a war.
The Talmud (Kiddushin 21b) explains that the Torah makes allowances for human weakness in extenuating circumstances: “A beautiful woman – The Torah spoke only in response to the evil inclination [yetzer ha-ra].”
A soldier in the midst of war is liable to be overcome by lustful feelings towards female captives, and to act with no restraint at all. The Talmud explains this mitzvah is intended to minimize an inevitable transgression.
Thus, according to one school of thought, the Torah permits a soldier to have relations with a captive woman, exactly once. Furthermore, this single episode of relations creates a commitment. The soldier cannot simply take his pleasure and then abandon the woman in captivity. He must bring her to his home, and ultimately either marry her or set her free.
Maimonides (Laws of Kings 8:2) summarizes:
Similarly, he has relations with a woman while she is not Jewish if his inclination seizes him, but he may not have relations with her and just go. Rather, he brings her into his home, as it is said: “And you see among the captives a beautiful woman,” and it is prohibited to have a second act of relations with her until he marries her.
According to a second school of thought, the soldier may not have relations with the captive woman at all before conversion and marriage. (For a detailed presentation of this dispute, see Tosafot Kiddushin 22a, s.v. “she-lo yilchatzenah ba-milchama.”)
On an ethical level, this mitzvah is also deeply disturbing. Can the Torah really permit such conduct, ever, even in the most limited and extenuating circumstances?
Under the modern rules of war, sexual exploitation of a captive is considered a war crime. There is no room today, in halacha or in international law, for wartime rape.
The rabbinic understanding of this difficult mitzvah focuses on its aftermath, especially on the long-term consequences of marrying a yefat to’ar.
Ma’acha sits in David’s house, sobbing as she cuts off the braid of thick dark hair that reaches her waist. Her tears mix with the water of the mikveh, as she becomes a member of the nation that has captured her. For three more months, she is seized by fits of weeping.
And then she marries David. By now, she knows she is pregnant.
The baby is a girl. They call her Tamar, and she is as beautiful as her mother. Ma’acha bears another child, a handsome boy this time, Absalom. The big sister dotes on her baby brother. Ma’acha settles into her new life, she loves her children and perhaps her husband, maybe she is happy. The years pass. She watches proudly as Absalom grows taller than his sister, and protective of her.
But Absalom cannot protect Tamar from Amnon, their eldest half-brother. Tamar is raped, humiliated, silenced. Absalom avenges her and flees to Geshur. He ultimately returns, and eventually attempts to seize the kingdom from his father, David.
As David flees from Absalom, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 107a) recounts that Chushai Ha-arki rebukes him:
What is the reason that you married a yefat to’ar [beautiful woman]? [David] said to him: The Torah permits a yefat to’ar. [Chushai] said to him: You did not expound the adjacent verses, for the Torah immediately follows [the mitzvah of the yefat to’ar] with “If a man has a wayward and rebellious son.” Whoever marries a yefat to’ar — he will have a wayward and rebellious son.
David, it seems, had understood taking a beautiful captive woman as fully permissible, and thus unproblematic.
Chushai argues that, by juxtaposing this mitzvah with that of a rebellious son, the Torah cautions that a man who marries a yefat to’ar risks bringing disaster upon his family.
A midrash (Tanchuma Ki Tetzei 1) criticizes David even more harshly:
Whoever marries a yefat to’ar, a wayward and rebellious son comes from him. As it is written regarding David, because he desired Ma’acha the daughter of Talmai king of Geshur when he went out to war, Absalom, who sought to kill him, came from him, and he slept with [David’s] 10 concubines before the eyes of all Israel and the eyes of the sun, and through him tens of thousands were killed from Israel…
Even in circumstances where the Torah permits taking a yefat to’ar, the choice to do so can be calamitous. Absalom’s rebellion sparks a bloody civil war. Absalom is caught in a tree by his hair, and killed by David’s general, Yoav. When David receives the news of his death, he cries and weeps in anguish: “My son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom, would that I would die instead of you, Absalom my son, my son!” (II Samuel 19:1)
Ma’acha also weeps. Once, she wept for her father and her mother; now she weeps for her children. For Tamar, the obedient princess who will never regain her honor or overcome her trauma. For Absalom, the defiant prince with hair as long as his mother’s. For beauty wasted and a family in ruins.