As Jews we are commanded to engage in pidyon shvuyim, the redemption of our captives; indeed, doing so is called a “mitzvah rabbah,” a supremely valuable and noble act. Yet even as more than 200 children, elderly people, women and men are held hostage in Gaza, the question of their release has become politicized in Israel, with those demanding the prioritization of their immediate release branded as less patriotic. As scholars, we aim to show the degree to which ransoming captives has been a fundamental Jewish value throughout our tradition.

Due to the historical conditions under which Jews have lived, as a cultural and political minority, the question of the treatment of Jews taken captive—as well as the community’s concern for its members in captivity—have always been acutely relevant. Diverse Jewish literary texts that describe the situations where captives find themselves deal both with technical questions of how to redeem them and with the tremendous sympathy necessary to understand the physical suffering and psychological harm inflicted on captives, their families, and members of their community who refuse to stand by, doing everything in their power to secure their loved ones’ redemption.

With the establishment of the State of Israel, the obligation to redeem captives was transformed and, in many ways, also intensified. For this religious commandment had suddenly become grounded in a national ethos. And the commitment to redeem captives—even at a high price, one which cost the community dearly—became a litmus test of Israeli solidarity and an essential component of the social contract between the State and its citizens.

What is the root of this commandment?

The situation of the captive brings into focus a tension between the interests of the individual (captives and families) on one hand and, on the other, competing interests within a community. In this light, we can see that debates surrounding the captive—both in the history of Jewish law and in Israel today—have always been key elements of Jewish social solidarity. They are charged with questions of identity and the community’s boundaries: who is included in them, and who is not.

Gender is another vital and inextricable aspect of these debates. Discussions in Jewish law draw a sharp distinction between male and female experiences of captivity and, consequently, between how one is to deal with and conceive of redeeming female, as opposed to male, captives. Above and beyond the extreme uncertainty and constant fear of death in which all captives exist, captivity for women is very often linked to sexual violence. While men can also be subjected to sexual violence in captivity, for women, this kind of assault is nearly synonymous with captivity and compounds the horror of the experience.

Jewish responsibility for captives is rooted in the rise of a religious tendency which began to play a central role in the political arena in late antiquity and fostered the growth of social solidarity. In the era of the Sages—the first centuries of the first millennium—as well as the Middle Ages, Jews lived and labored under the yoke of foreign powers. Lack of Jewish sovereignty, as well as sporadic Jewish revolts against the Roman Empire in the Land of Israel, saw the use of hostages as political and economic leverage against Jews. This transformed the captive into a test of communal bonding and self-reliance.

As a basic starting-point for this discussion, we might consider the words of the Talmud (tractate Baba Batra 8b), quoting the prophet Jeremiah: “The redemption of captives is a supreme commandment…as it is written [by Jeremiah], And it shall come to pass, if they say unto thee, ‘Whither shall we go forth?’ then thou shalt tell them, ‘Thus saith the LORD; Such as are for death, to death; and such as are for the sword, to the sword; and such as are for the famine, to the famine; and such as are for the captivity, to the captivity.’”

Fusing psychological and political sensitivity, the Talmudic authority Rabbi Yohanan comments: “Each subsequent element in this verse is worse than the one before. The sword is worse than death…the famine is worse than the sword, and the captivity is worse than all of them together.”

Beyond this acknowledgement of the sheer anguish of captives whose lives hang by a thread, debates in Jewish law also engage with the question of how far the commandment to redeem captives extends—and where it stops. The Mishnah (a compendium of Jewish law from the Land of Israel, concluded in the early third century CE) states, in the tractate on Bills of Divorce (Gittin), that one is not to redeem captives for more than their price.

That statement is often used as the main slogan of those who are unconditionally opposed to engaging in prisoner swaps between Israel and the Palestinians. But the truth is much more complicated.

First, the Mishnah is attempting to strike a balance between present and future concerns by stipulating that there should be a hierarchy among the captives who are redeemed. So, for instance, a woman is to be clothed and brought out of captivity before a man (according to the Mishnah elsewhere.) This indicates that any discussion of captives presumes the obligation to redeem them.

Second, the Mishnah never specifies a sum that would be “more than their price”: it leaves the matter up to the accepted norms of each time and place.

Third and most fundamentally, the Mishnah was created by rabbis in a context where Jews lacked political authority, one where this burden fell squarely on the shoulders of community members. Indeed, the Mishnah, like early rabbinic literature in general, does not distinguish clearly between individual and communal responsibility to redeem captives. (The Jewish community was a means to fulfill one’s religious obligations, but it lacked the power and autonomy to bear such obligations of its own.) The Jewish state, by contrast, has a vast and varied arsenal at its disposal that no individual can access. This changes the issue completely.

The period between the Mishnah and the conclusion of the Talmud (roughly 300 years) was characterized by growing engagement with the question of the redemption of captives. Where the Mishnah treats the subject in dry juridical terms, the sages of the Talmud provide expansive, often harrowing descriptions of captives and their fates. These illustrative narratives reveal the horrifying complexity of problems that the rabbis are trying to address in ordinary life.

The Talmud, in its own tractate Gittin, depicts the bitter fate of a woman by the name of Tsafnat bat Peniel who is sexually violated by her captor and, in throes of pain, cries out to God, charging Him not only with disregarding her own dignity but also His own. Following her story, we find the story of a captive redeemed by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananyah. The captive was a young and handsome Talmud scholar imprisoned in Rome. Rabbi Yehoshua became convinced of the boy’s brilliance and made an oath to redeem him—notably, “for whatever sum they put on his head,” in open defiance of the Mishnah cited above, but in accord with the boy’s own clever argument from Scripture from between the prison bars.

Whereas the ethos of redeeming captives has an episodic and voluntary character in classical rabbinic literature, in the Middle Ages it became a principle of communal and intercommunal life. There are letters addressed to the leadership of the Jewish community of Old Cairo (found in the Cairo Geniza, a repository for Jewish documents that survived miraculously for 1,500 years) pleading for financial support to pay ransom for captives. These letters portray a reality in which residents of particular areas, who were taken hostage by military fleets or bandits, were to be sold as slaves—no small number of Jews among them—and in which a local community has organized to collect the asking-price on their behalf.

If we compare methods for redeeming captives in the Jewish community with those of Christians in the same era and their prisoner exchanges, or prisoner exchanges among Muslims in the early Abbasid period (from about 750–900), we see that they parallel each other. We might say that Jewish communities of the Middle Ages forged a “safety net” which helped to address concern about redeeming their fellow believers who had fallen captive. In other words, this communal safety net played the same role, among Jews, as the state played among Christians and Muslims, as far as the redemption of captives was concerned—except that, in the case of Jews, rather than exchange prisoners, one required the expenditure of funds (sometimes in tremendous quantity) to recover one’s fellow citizens.

Even without political and economic institutions at their disposal, medieval Jewish communities turned the commandment to redeem captives into a core value and did everything in their power to protect their sons and daughters or, if necessary, to ransom them, even at a bitter and onerous price. An unequivocal expression of this obligation may be found in the words of Maimonides in the 12th century: “The redemption of captives takes precedence over the feeding and clothing of the poor. And you have no greater commandment than the redemption of captives, for the captive is to be classified among those who hunger as well as those who thirst, those who are naked and those who stand on the brink of death.”

Maimonides goes on to provide support from the Bible for this assertion: “Therefore, one who turns his gaze aside from the redemption of captives transgresses the prohibitions, ‘thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother’ (Deuteronomy. 15:7), as well as ‘neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbour’ (Leviticus. 19:16), as well as “and the other shall not rule with cruelty over him in thy sight” (Lev. 25:23.) Furthermore, such a person disregards the commandments ‘but thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him’ (Deut. 15:8, 11), as well as ‘but fear thy God; that thy brother may live with thee’ (Lev. 25:36), ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ (Lev. 19:18), ‘deliver them that are drawn unto death’ (Prov. 24:11), and many statements such as this.”

Maimonides concludes emphatically: “And so you have no greater commandment than the redemption of captives.”

In stark contrast to the Roman conception, whereby the captive automatically lost his status as a free citizen when taken into custody beyond the limits of the state, Judaism developed collective responsibility for captives which has survived the captivity of Jewish communities themselves.

Further, the evolution of practices of redeeming captives in the first millennium of the Common Era attests to the emergence of shared self-definitions among all three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In all three, a community of believers was conceived as a unified religious society, one which was to satisfy its members’ need for strong mutual bonds.

When we examine how captives were redeemed, we discover a deep connection between the faith of individual believers and their religious social order as a whole. The individual captive remains a part of the body politic of believers, even when his or her own body has been temporarily severed from them. The act of their redemption bears witness to the individual’s fundamental identity with the group and, at the same time, testifies to the group’s identity in opposition to its enemies.

Returning to the Jewish tradition in particular, we can offer no better conclusion than the words of Rabbi Joseph Karo in his 16th-century code of Jewish law, the Shulhan Arukh:

All who turn their gaze aside from the redemption of captives transgress the prohibitions:
‘thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand’
‘neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbour’
… and they disregard the commandments:
‘but thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him,’
‘that thy brother may live with thee,’
‘love thy neighbour as thyself,’
‘deliver them that are drawn unto death.’

And every minute that one delays in redeeming the captives, by every available means, it is as if one is spilling blood.

We offer a prayer for the swift return of all the hostages.

Translated by James Adam Redfield

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