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Redeeming Captives in Jewish Law

Over the generations, especially in the Diaspora, Jews were often kidnapped or taken captive and large sums of ransom money were demanded for their release. The Sages of Israel were called upon to decide the proper response to this painful situation, and they formulated basic cardinal rules concerning the redeeming of prisoners and the amount of money that could be paid toward their redemption.

Our Sages have taught that the redemption of captives is a great mitzvah for which a person should donate charity, placing it at the top of the list of worthwhile causes because the captive suffers greatly from hunger, medical problems, psychological trauma, and often sub-human conditions whereby his life is often in danger (Baba Batra 8B). Therefore, it is improper to spare means in rescuing captives (Rambam, and Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah

Nonetheless, Chazal postulated the halakha that it is forbidden to pay an over- exorbitant amount for pidyon shivuim (redeeming hostages), as is stated in the Mishna: “They must not ransom captives for more than their value, for the good order of the world” (Gittin 45A). The main reason given for this enactment, in both the Gemara and the Rambam, is to not create an incentive for highwaymen and kidnappers to constantly seize Jewish prisoners, knowing that we are willing to pay any price to set them free. There is another way of explaining this enactment – not to pressure the public to donate funds beyond their capability. However, most of the Rishonim, including the Rif, Rosh, Rambam, and the Tur, say the principle reason is not to encourage our enemies to kidnap more Jews, and this is the ruling in the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 252:4).

For example, it is told of Rabbi Meir from Rottenberg, one of the great Torah scholars of his time, who was taken hostage in Alsace about eight-hundred years ago. The evil emperor, Rudolph, requested a staggering amount of money for his release. The Rabbi’s many students wanted to raise the funds in order to secure his release, since according to the halakha, in a case where a Gadol HaDor (leader of the generation) is taken captive, there is no limit to the amount that must be paid to set him free. Nevertheless, Rabbi Meir (known as the Maharam M’Rottenberg) instructed his students not to agree to the emperor’s demand, believing that if they handed over an enormous amount for his release, the enemies of the Jews would kidnap more rabbis and demand extravagant sums for their freedom. Thus, the Maharam M’Rottenberg sat in prison for seven years until the day of his death. As a result of his greatness of soul and self-sacrifice for the welfare of Clal Yisrael, he prevented the capture of other leading rabbis and the economic collapse which could have shattered many congregations.

Nevertheless, the rule prohibiting an overly excessive payment of money to redeem hostages applies when it is the public who must supply the funds. In contrast, if a very rich person is captured and wants to redeem himself with his own wealth, he is free to pay whatever price is asked. This is because his case does not represent a danger to the general community but only to the rich person himself, seeing as the kidnappers may think to kidnap him again, now knowing that he is willing to pay handsomely for his freedom. This decision is the personal matter of the rich man (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 252:4). However, in a case where a member of a wealthy person’s family is kidnapped, the rich man is not permitted to pay ransom more than the person’s worth. Regarding the kidnapping of a wealthy man’s wife, the poskim (Jewish law arbiters) are divided in their opinions whether he is permitted to redeem her by paying an excessive ransom.

Redeeming Hostages Whose Lives are at Risk

What is the halakha in a case where kidnappers threaten to kill the hostage if their monetary demands are not met?

There are poskim who say that the prohibition against paying exorbitant sums applies in normal situations when the life of the hostage is not immediately at stake. However, in a case of pikuach nefesh when life is threatened, since all of the commandments in the Torah are broken to save a life, the enactment of the Rabbis not to pay overly excessive sums of money in order to free a hostage is certainly not heeded, and everything must be done to redeem him.

In opposition, many poskim, including the Ramban state that even in a case where the kidnappers threaten to kill the hostage, we do not give in, and it is forbidden to pay an exorbitant amount. Once again, the reason is that conceding to the kidnappers will only increase their incentive to kidnap other Jews and threaten their lives. Thus, out of concern for the overall welfare of the public, and because of the life-threatening danger to future captives, it is forbidden to surrender to the kidnapper’s threats and demands.

In practice, this question was not decided categorically, and the leading halachic authorities amongst the Achronim were also divided on the issue (Pitchei T’shuva, Yoreh Deah

Whether to Surrender to the Demands of Terrorists?

Since the founding of the State of Israel, on several occasions terrorists have kidnapped civilians or soldiers and threatened to kill them if we do not free large numbers of Arab terrorists in Israeli jails. In cases like these, are we to accept the demands of the kidnappers and free the terrorists in order to save Jewish lives, or should we refuse?

We previously saw that in a case where a hostage’s life is in immediate danger, the authorities were divided on whether or not to give in to their demands. Some say it is proper to redeem him, even at a price greater than his worth because his life is threatened, while others say it is forbidden, out of general concern for the welfare of the public.

These opinions are applicable when the kidnappers are normal criminals seeking monetary gain. But in a case of an ongoing war between Israel and terrorist enemies, it is forbidden to give in to any coercion on their part, for it is clear that if we were to concede, our enemies would view this as a sign of weakness, raising their morale and increasing their incentive to strike at us further. As we have learned from the past, every time terrorists succeeded in getting their way, it motivated others to join them in their war against Israel. Additionally, if we give in, terrorists will not be concerned about getting caught, trusting that if they are apprehended and put in Israeli jails, they will be freed quickly in the next prisoner exchange. Also, it is a proven fact that a percentage of the released terrorists will return to carrying out attacks against Jews. Therefore, despite the pain of the matter, we are not to give in to coercion and pay an excessive price for the hostage, above and beyond the customary payment demanded in kidnappings, i.e., a one-for-one exchange.

The rule is that during time of war we do not give in to any demand from the enemy, and if even if one Jew is taken hostage, we set off to war to free him. Thus, it is written in the Torah: “And when the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who dwelt in the Negev, heard that Israel came by the way of Atarim, then he fought against Israel and took some of them prisoners” (Bamidbar, 21:1). Rashi cites Chazal who explain that only one handmaid was captured from Israel. The Jews did not enter into negotiations for her rescue – rather they set off to war. This is also what King David did when Amalek invaded Zeklag and took the women captive – he set off to war to rescue the captives without bothering to negotiate first (Shmuel 1, 30.). Even if the enemy came only to steal straw and hay, we set off to wage war against them, because if we give in to them on something less significant, they will continue to fight against us with even greater resolve (Eruvin 45A).

All of this concerns terrorists and enemies who are perpetually at war with us. However, if the war has ended, it is permissible to exchange all the enemy prisoners in our hands for the Jews whom they have taken captive, even if the prisoners we set free substantially outnumber the Jews who are released. This is because exchanges of this sort are customary when cease fires are formulated and all prisoners are set free. This is not considered paying more than the captives are worth on a prisoner-for-prisoner basis, and therefore we are not concerned lest the return of prisoners encourages the enemy to continue to war their against us. If the enemy does return to its former belligerency, it is most likely for other reasons (see Tachumin
Vol.4, pg.108).

Is it is Mitzvah to Save a Terrorist in Danger?

Years ago, a terrorist attempted to kill a Jewish boy in the center of Jerusalem. Thank God, the boy was only slightly wounded. People at the scene chased angrily after the terrorist, seeking revenge. Suddenly a woman, who happened to work for a Haredi newspaper, arrived at the scene and shielded the terrorist with her body, thus saving him from blows and possible death. Did this woman act in accordance with the halakha by saving the terrorist?

A: There are two sides to this question – first, concerning the laws of “rodef,” and second, concerning the commandment “not to stand idly by on the blood of your fellow.” It is clear that as long as the terrorist is armed and dangerous, even if there is the slightest doubt of danger, the din (law) of rodef (pursuer) applies to him or her. In such a case, it is a mitzvah for anyone to rescue the person in danger by striking at and neutralizing the rodef. If it is possible to do this by wounding him, this is the preferable response. But if there is a chance that wounding him will not put an end to the danger, or that in the effort to only wound him time will be wasted and he will have an opportunity to harm others, the rodef should be killed in order to save the people whom he or she is endangering (Shulchan Aruch, Hoshen Mishpat 425:1).

If danger from the terrorist no longer exists, then we still must clarify the question if it is necessary to intervene in order to save the terrorist from the angry crowd? The Talmud states that the most evil haters of Israel are to be “lowered and not raised” (Avodah Zara 26B). This means that if it is possible, they should be killed. Regarding less evil-doers (without defining the different levels), the Talmud states, “They are not lowered, but neither are they raised.” In other words, we are not to kill them in any active manner, but we are also not commanded to save them. For example, if a terrorist fell into a pit where he is likely to die, we do not help him to climb out. This is the ruling of the Rambam (Hilchot Rotzaoch 5:10) and the Shulchan Aruch (Hoshen Mishpat 425:5).

In the example mentioned above, there is no doubt that a terrorist who intends to slaughter Jews in the middle of a city is to be considered a wicked person of the highest order, with the Talmud’s classification, “lowered and not raised.” If possible, he should be killed. At the very minimum, he should not be helped or saved. While “dina d’malchuta dina” maintains that according to state law, it is forbidden to kill a terrorist who no longer poses a threat, nevertheless, according to the same state laws a person is not obligated to help a terrorist, or save him. Therefore, according to the halakha, there was no need for the woman to defend the terrorist, since the halakha states “not raised,” i.e., we don’t rescue such an evil-doer.

To summarize, a person in a position of governmental authority, such as a policeman or a soldier, must act according to his or her orders. Even on Shabbat, according to international agreements, we are required attend to our enemy’s wounded so as not to arouse the world’s animosity against us (See the
Chatam Sofer, Yoreh Deah 131; Igrot Moshe 4:79; and
“Milamdei Milchamah”43). However, a citizen who is not serving in any official position where he must save the terrorist is not required to help him, as our Sages have taught: “Whoever is merciful toward the cruel, will in the end be cruel to the merciful” (Midrash Shmuel 18). Therefore in the case of the woman journalist, since it is quite possible that the terrorist was still a threat to the public, it was forbidden for her to place herself and others in danger by shielding him when he was still capable of causing further harm.

The Responsibility to Benefit Others

As the Nation of Israel, we are not responsible only for our own people – we also have responsibility for the well-being of all mankind. While there is an order of preference, whereby fellow Jews are first in line to receive charity and assistance, the ideal vision is to bring benefit to all peoples.

We learn this from Avraham Avinu who loved all of mankind and strove to benefit them both materially and spiritually. As our Sages stated, the angels who visited Avraham when he was recovering from his brit milah (circumcision) appeared to him as idol worshippers who bowed down to the dust on their feet – nevertheless, he ran to greet them, brought them into his home, and served them the finest meal (Bereshit Rabbah 50:4). He endeavored to help all people in any way possible, by feeding them and quenching their thirst, and by teaching the faith in the one and only God. He strove to act justly with everyone, as when he fought against the four kings who sought to imperialistically impose their rule over others.

However, it is forbidden to pardon the transgressions of idol worshippers and other evil-doers. Thus, extending our kindness to the wicked is prohibited. But when it is possible to influence them to adopt a path of repentance, and to bring them closer to true faith, it is a mitzvah to do so, because our fundamental relationship with Gentiles should be one of love. As Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook wrote:

“The love of mankind must be alive in the heart and soul, the love of every individual being, and the love of all the nations, seeking their spiritual and material uplifting. Hatred must be directed only toward the evil and impure in the world. It is impossible to attain the exalted level of ‘Praise the Lord, call out in His Name, proclaim His greatness amongst the nations’ without an inner love, from the depths of the heart and the soul, to bring betterment to all of the peoples, to improve their circumstances, and bring richness to their lives” (Midot HaRiyah, Ahavah 5). Rabbi Kook wrote that this spirit of responsibility and active brotherly love toward all of mankind prepares us for the coming of Mashiach.

This excerpt was taken from Rabbi Melamed’s book on Jewish law, ‘Peninei Halakha: Ha’am v’Ha’aretz’, and was translated from Hebrew. Other works by Rabbi Melamed can be found at:

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Laws Regarding ‘Rich Matzah’ and Medicines on Passover

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