On October 22, 1973, the tenuous ceasefire between the Israelis and the Egyptians attempting to end the Yom Kippur War, was broken. As a result, the Israel paratroopers captured the road to Suez City, thereby encircling the Egyptian Third Army east of the Suez Canal. General (and future Prime Minister) Ariel “Arik” Sharon mobilized his paratroopers across the canal. Egyptian attempts from the air to support their trapped comrades were met with fierce Israeli resistance and heavy Egyptian losses. Four days later, on October 26th, corresponding to the 30th of the month of Tishrei, President Anwar Sadat’s troops were trapped on the eastern side of the Suez. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger demanded that the Israelis allow non-military supplies to the trapped Egyptian soldiers and threatened sanctions if the Israelis would destroy the Third Army. Eventually an Israeli-Egyptian ceasefire brought relief to the Egyptians.

Maimonides, in his Halachic opus (Laws of Kings 6:7) rules, “When besieging a city to conquer it, it is forbidden to surround it on all four sides, but rather, only on three sides. [The Jewish Army] must allow one path for those who would like to escape or retreat.” Maimonides, who often does not provide sources in his legal work, nonetheless mentions that this law is learned from a Biblical verse: “And they warred against the Midianites, as the Lord commanded Moses…” (Numbers 31:7). While the text makes no mention of mercy during sieges, a Midrashic source (Sifrei, parashat Matot #157) upon which Maimonides seemingly relies, records this extraordinary mercy rule.

Jewish war doctrine distinguishes between voluntary wars and mandatory wars. While the former were undertaken in order to expand the borders of the Land of Israel, mandatory wars are fought to stave off existential threats to the inhabitants of Israel, such as the Yom Kippur War, or fights against nations like Amalek, bent on killing all Jews. All Jewish legal authorities agree that this ethic of surrounding the enemy on only three sides would apply in a voluntary war, but debate whether this rule applies to mandatory wars as well. Radbaz, Ramban, and the unknown author of Sefer Hachinuch, all maintain that this rule is not applied in an existential war. Minchat Chinuch, a later erudite expansion on the Sefer Hachinuch, however, suggests that Maimonides’ ruling applies to obligatory wars as well. He argues that the source for this ethic, the war to punish Midian, was a mandatory war, as God commanded Moses to wage war with them.

One of the hallmarks of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) is its adherence to a strict code of moral conduct, holding its own soldiers accountable for war crimes and excesses when warranted.

This Treat was originally posted on October 9, 2018.

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