Gittin 45

The price of redemption.

In this chapter of Tractate Gittin, we have encountered a series of ordinances instituted by the rabbis for the betterment of the world — essentially, adjustments to the law to help someone who might find themselves in a legal bind. 

Back on Gittin 36, for example, we learned that witnesses must sign their names to a bill of divorce for just this reason. This is not, strictly speaking, a halakhic requirement. But as the Gemara explained, the rabbis instituted this requirement because if the divorce were to be contested and the witnesses to the transmission of the divorce bill could not be located, having those who witnessed the writing of it put their names on the document gives the woman another path to authenticate it. 

In this context, we find a curious ruling in a mishnah on today’s daf. 

Captives are not redeemed for more than their value, for the betterment of the world.

If our desire to have a better world leads us to change the rules to help ensure that a woman does not become stuck in a marriage and unable to remarry, wouldn’t that same desire also justify doing whatever we can to redeem those who have been taken captive? Why would the mishnah limit what we can pay in ransom?

The Gemara raises two possibilities:

For the betterment of the world, is it due to the financial pressure of the community? Or perhaps because they will not seize and bring additional captives?

Although the redeeming of captives is considered a great mitzvah (see Bava Batra 8b), it has its limits. If the obligation to pay a ransom had no cap, a town could bankrupt itself to redeem a single person and put the welfare of the entire population at risk. Another possibility is that demonstrating a willingness to pay whatever it takes would provide incentive to would-be captors to take more prisoners.

In attempting to figure out which of these is the reason for the mishnah’s ruling, the Gemara relates the following about an excessive amount paid in ransom: 

Levi bar Darga redeemed his daughter with thirteen thousand gold dinars. 

If the concern were about incentivizing captors, the Gemara reasons, it shouldn’t matter whether the money came from the communal pot or, as in this case, from private hands. It must be then that the concern is for communal welfare. In this case, since Levi bar Darga was paying out of his own pocket, maybe the mishnah’s ruling doesn’t apply to him. On the other hand, maybe Levi bar Darga acted without rabbinic approval and so his example can’t be taken as proof that the mishnah is concerned with protecting the community. 

Whatever the reason behind the mishnah’s ruling, it surely highlights the complexities of redeeming captives. Requiring witnesses to sign a bill of divorce is a no brainer if doing so helps divorced women remarry. But the case of the captives is not as simple. Clearly, reuniting them with their families is a path to better the world, and we ought to do what we can to make this happen. But sometimes, the Talmud suggests, the costs may outweigh the benefits.

This dilemma continues to this day. Governments negotiating prisoner exchanges and law enforcement contemplating whether to pay a kidnapping ransom must all consider whether redeeming captives is merely incentivizing more of the same. While some might argue that the right thing to do is to pay no matter the cost, today’s daf suggests that sometimes, in order to truly benefit the world, difficult choices must be made.

Read all of Gittin 45 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 30th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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