Politicians often assert that they will not negotiate with terrorists. Whether it be giving criminals money in exchange for kidnapping victims, or releasing prisoners in order to bring a hostage home, the official political line is usually a firm no. And for good reason: Kidnapping for ransom is a key way that criminal organizations and terrorist groups finance their operations.
But the reality is more complicated. Families of kidnapping victims understandably care little about these large political goals, and will do whatever they can behind the scenes to bring their loved ones home.
According to the rabbis, this behavior is not just understandable — it’s a requirement. The mishnah on Ketubot 51a states that a man is obligated to ransom his wife if she is kidnapped. Whether or not this stipulation was written into the marriage contract, this obligation is automatically assumed upon their marriage.
This obligation was not just theoretical and came into play more frequently than one might imagine. In the ancient world, regular people were taken prisoner during military conflicts, kidnapped by slave-traders, and seized by bandits who made money by extorting their families. Ransoming captives may well have been a relatively common occurrence in many communities. One of the blessings of the Amidah, which describes God as one who “supports the falling, heals the sick and releases the captive” offers a clue as to the extent of this problem.
But when God does not save kidnapping victims, how do we humans balance the urgency of freeing our loved ones with the desire not to reward their kidnappers or, even more importantly, encourage this kind of villainy? How do we bring a loved one home without incentivizing future kidnapping?
The Talmud today presents two opinions on this question. Here is the first:
The sages taught: If she was taken captive and they were seeking from up to 10 times her value, on the first occasion, he must redeem. From this point forward, if he wants, he redeems, if he does not want, he does not redeem.
The husband is obligated to pay even an exorbitant ransom amount for his wife, but only the first time that she is kidnapped. If she is kidnapped again, he is not obligated to pay to redeem her. Apparently, according to the rabbis, when a man takes on the obligation to redeem his wife, he is only obliged to redeem her once. But that one time, he must pay whatever the kidnappers demand, even if it is exorbitant.
This is not the only opinion. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel insists that, in fact, you cannot pay a ransom of 10 times a person’s value, even the first time they are kidnapped. Instead, one must pay only what a person is “worth.” Why?
For the betterment of the world.
What does Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel mean, though, when he says that the reason is “for the betterment of the world?” The Hebrew expression he uses, tikkun olam, is likely familiar to many, as it is an animating principle of much Jewish social action today. In that context, it refers to the Jewish mission to continually strive to make the world a better place. In ancient rabbinic literature, however, its meaning is less sweeping — it simply means a ruling in the interest of public policy. Fun fact: It is only through Lurianic Kabbalah in the early modern period that the term took on the notion of cosmic repair.
How might it better the world not to pay more than a captive is worth? The medieval commentator Rashi explains that doing so will incentivize future kidnapping, as kidnappers will learn that they can make more and more money from continuing their criminal behavior.
So can you negotiate with terrorists? The rabbis on today’s daf say yes, one should in fact pay the ransom. But only to the extent that you don’t make the problem of kidnapping worse. Finding that balance is not easy.
Read all of Ketubot 52 on Sefaria.