Although gentile women are forbidden, the Torah makes an exception in times of war (21:10-13). “When you go to war against your enemies . . . and see a beautiful woman (yefas to’ar) among the captives, and you desire her, you may take her to wife. Bring her into your home, and she shall cut off her hair and do to her nails . . . and she shall bewail her father and mother for a month, then you may come to her.”
The Torah brings the warrior’s inflamed, impulse-driven desire under control by establishing a one-month cooling off period during which the captive woman sits in dishevelment and bewails her parents. During this time, “she shall cut off her hair and do to her nails.” While the requirement to cut off her hair is unambiguous and clear, what exactly is she supposed to do to her nails?
The Talmud records (Yevamos 48a) a dispute on this question. Rabbi Eliezer contends that she must cut her nails. By juxtaposing the nails to the hair, which must be cut off, the Torah undoubtedly wanted that the nails should be cut as well. Rabbi Akiva also notes the juxtaposition of the nails to the hair, but he deduces that she should let her nails grow. Just as cutting off her hair makes the captive woman less attractive, so does letting her nails grow exceedingly long.
Perhaps the underlying argument behind this dispute concerns their understanding of the essential purpose of these laws. According to Rabbi Akiva, these laws serve to remove the Jewish conqueror’s desires for his captive. The point of comparison between hair and nails is that they both affect the woman’s attractiveness. It is, therefore, logical to deduce that just as cutting off the hair makes her unattractive, doing her nails means letting them grow to make her unattractive.
According to Rabbi Eliezer, however, the purpose of these laws is to condition the pagan captive woman to become a suitable wife for a Jewish man by transforming her emotional framework. She must go through a modified mourning, a liberating catharsis of bewailing her parents, and she must cut off her hair as a symbolic removal of the dead appendages of her previous life, the “dead” religion, the “dead” culture. Consequently, the Torah requires her to cut off her nails as well, since they too are a dead appendage of the body.
Modern people would probably be shocked by the fate of the rebellious son, the ben sorer umorer (21:18-21). “If a man will have a wayward and rebellious son who does not listen to the voice of his father and the voice of his mother . . . [The parents] shall say to the elders of the city, ‘This son of ours is wayward and rebellious . . . All the men of his city shall pelt him with stones, and he shall die.’”
They needn’t worry. The conditions that had to be met before the death penalty could be administered were so stringent as to make it virtually impossible for it ever to occur. And our Sages indeed assure us that it never did. The Torah’s purpose in introducing this law is didactic rather than practical.
The Midrash Tanchuma observes that this commandment is the third in the parashah. The first is the commandment of yefas to’ar, which provides the laws for marrying a heathen woman captured in wartime. The second details the laws of inheritance that apply when a husband has children with two wives, one beloved and one hated. From this sequence, the Midrash infers that a man who marries a heathen captive will come to hate her, and that the union will eventually produce a ben sorer umorer, a rebellious son.
What is the psychology that drives this chain of events?
Perhaps we can find the answer in the story of Amnon and Tamar. Amnon, David’s son, harbors a passion for his stepsister Tamar. Unable to restrain himself any longer, he violates her. Afterward, Amnon sends her away; her pleas for him not to do so fall on deaf ears (II Samuel 13:15). “Amnon despised her with a great hatred; his hatred was even greater than the love he had felt for her.” Amnon hated her because her very presence reminded him of his surrender to his animalistic instincts. Rather than hate himself, he chose to hate the person who reminded him of his venal act.
In a similar fashion, the Jewish conqueror who succumbs to his lust and marries an unworthy heathen wife may regret his own weaknesses. The Torah predicts that instead of directing his recriminations at himself he will come to hate the wife taken in the moment of his weakness.
Finally, the Midrash suggests, this union may produce a rebellious son. This is not because the heathen wife will fill her son’s head with wrong ideas. Wrong ideas do not necessarily lead to rebelliousness; plenty of parents teach their children foolishness and nonsense, and yet the children show no inclination to rebel. The principal causes of rebellion lie elsewhere.
Rebellious children are unhappy children, and the primary source of unhappiness for children is disharmony in the home. Children desperately need the safety and nurturance of a happy home. When they sense tension between parents, their upbringing and happiness are greatly compromised. When a wife is hated and there is acrimony in the home, rebellious children will follow.