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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The standard explanation for "more than their value" is the amount that captive would fetch if he/she were sold as a slave.  Even so, despite, the clear language of the takkanah in the Mishnah, we know from the Talmud, the commentaries, the Cairo Genizah, and the responsa literature that they were many exceptions to the rule:

1) The very next sentence in Gittin (45a) says that "Levi bar Darga redeemed his daughter for 13,000 gold dinars." Thirteen and 13,000 are typical round numbers in the Talmud, but Levi must still have paid far more than she was worth. Indeed, Abaye immediately adds that Levi may have acted against the will of the Sages.

2) A beraita (a teaching of the Tannaim, the mishnaic Sages) in Ketubot 52a-b says that if a wife is taken captive, the husband may pay up to 10 times what she is worth the first time; after that, he may redeem her or not redeem her. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, echoing the Mishnah in Gittin, rules that the husband may not pay more than she is worth because of Tikkun Olam. But the Tanna Kamma, the "First Tanna," obviously disagreed with the Mishnah in Gittin and ruled that a husband may pay 10 times what his wife is worth.

3) Another beraita in Gittin (58a) relates that R. Yehoshua ben Hannania was in Rome and they showed him a handsome Jewish boy in prison. When he tested the boy and saw that he knew the Bible by heart, he said: "I am certain he will become a legal authority! I will not leave here until I redeem him for whatever price they name. They said: he did not leave until he redeemed him for much money."  The little boy grew up to become Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha. Tosafot [a group of medieval Talmud commentators] derive from this story that when there is sakkanat nefashot (mortal danger), one may pay more than the captive is worth.

4) Another opinion in Tosafot (ibid. and to 45a) says that we derive from this story about the young scholar that one may redeem a Sage for more than he is worth.

5) A third opinion in Tosafot (45a) says that we derive from this story that after the destruction of the Temple, Jews are targets in any case and paying a high ransom will not cause more or less kidnapping.

6) Furthermore, we know from the Cairo Genizah that the normal ransom for a captive was 33 dinars, but Jews

7) R. David ibn Zimra--the Radbaz (Egypt and Israel, 1479-1573)--says in his responsa that "all Jews are already accustomed to redeem their captives more than their value in the marketplace, for an old man or minor are only worth 20 dinars and yet they are redeemed for 100 dinars or more. This is because the reason for the Mishnah is that they should not seize more captives, but we see in our day that the kidnappers do not set out in the first place to capture Jews, but rather whoever they can find." He further says that even if Jews pay more ransom for Jews than non-Jews do, that is because the captive is a Sage (see above) or because there is a danger that the captive will be forced to convert (this latter argument is his own invention). In other words, the Radbaz goes to great lengths to justify the custom in his time of ignoring the Mishnah in Gittin.

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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.