Ransoming Captive Jews

An important commandment calls for the redemption of Jewish prisoners, but how far should this mitzvah be taken?

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Excerpted with permission from the website of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, which has the complete text of Rabbi Golinkin's responsum (rabbinic decision) with footnotes.

Rabbinic Literature & Medieval Jewish History

Anyone who surveys this topic historically is struck by the fact that many thousands of Jews were captured and held for ransom throughout Jewish history and that Jewish communities went to extraordinary lengths to redeem captives.

Indeed, the Talmud (Bava Batra 8b) calls pidyon shvuyim a "mitzvah rabbah" (great mitzvah) and says that captivity is worse than starvation and death. Maimonides rules that he who ignores ransoming a captive is guilty of transgressing commandments such as "you shall not harden your heart" (Deuteronomy 15:7); "you shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother" (Leviticus 19:16); and "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18).

ransom in judaismAnd one who delays in ransoming a captive is considered like a murderer (Yoreh Deah 252:3). Indeed, Maimonides himself wrote letters exhorting his fellow Jews to redeem captives and collected money for pidyon shvuyim.

The Exception to the Rule

It would seem from the above that pidyon shvuyim is an absolute mitzvah, which must be followed at all times. But there is one major exception, as explained in the Mishnah (Gittin 4:6 = Bavli Gittin 45a):

"One does not ransom captives for more than their value because of Tikkun Olam  (literally: "fixing the world"; for the good order of the world; as a precaution for the general good) and one does not help captives escape because of Tikkun Olam."

This Mishnah was codified by the standard codes of Jewish law. The Babylonian Talmud (ibid.) gives two different explanations for this takkanah (rabbinic enactment):

A)    "because of the [financial] burden on the community";

B)    "so that they [=the robbers] should not seize more captives"--i.e., paying a high ransom for captives will encourage kidnappers to kidnap more Jews and demand still higher ransoms.

The Talmud does not decide which explanation is correct, so halakhic authorities throughout the ages stressed one or the other, leading to different conclusions. Rashi, for example, says that if you accept the first explanation, a relative could pay an excessive ransom, because that does not place a financial burden on the community; whereas according to the second explanation, a relative may not pay the high ransom because that will still encourage the kidnappers to kidnap more Jews.

Was the Mishnah in Gittin Followed in Practice?

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Rabbi David Golinkin

Rabbi David Golinkin, Ph.D., is president and rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches Talmud and Jewish law, and he heads the Va'ad Halakhah (committee on Jewish law) of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement's Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.