There are over 220 Jews being held as hostages in Gaza. Each of those precious Jewish souls is of infinite value. Bringing them home is a halachic imperative and a stated objective of Israel’s operation in Gaza. But a decision may have to be made as to what happens when the goal of saving Jewish lives today can result in the sacrifice of other Jewish lives and endangering the Jewish people as a whole? A look back at our history and halachic sources will not give us answers but can provide insight.
In last week’s parsha, we read how Abraham, and 318 men rescued his nephew, Lot, when he was captured by four kings. Rashi states that what caused Lot to be captured was his presence in Sodom, a city known for wickedness and the perversion of justice. Abraham did not say that being taken captive served Lot right because of his decision to settle in Sodom. What mattered was that Lot was family. Abraham did not hesitate to take on some of the most powerful rulers of his time to save his nephew. The tradition of going to great lengths to save our fellow Jews dates to the very beginning of our history.
Attempts to rescue hostages over the years have had mixed results. The most famous case was the July 4, 1976, rescue of 102 hostages on Air France Flight 139, which was hijacked to Entebbe Airport in Uganda. Other efforts were notably less successful. On September 6, 1972, a West German attempt to rescue the members of the Israeli Olympic team resulted in the killing of all the athletes. On May 15, 1974, Israeli special forces raided a school in Maalot where 115 Israeli children were being held as hostages. All the terrorists were killed but 25 of the children were murdered by the terrorists. Operation Eagle Claw, an American attempt to rescue 52 hostages in Iran, was aborted and resulted in a crash and destruction of two of the aircraft.
The taking of Jews as hostages and prisoners is not a phenomenon of the last few years. In ancient times, prisoners of war were often sold into slavery. That was the fate of Jews following the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians and the Second Temple by the Romans. Other Jews went to great lengths to redeem as many of them as possible.
Over the years it seems to have been a fairly frequent practice for criminals to capture people, especially women, and hold them for ransom. Slavery or a life of degradation was the fate that awaited captives who were not redeemed.
The Gemara in Baba Batra (8B) describes pidyon shvuyim, the redemption of captives as a “mitzvah rabba – a great mitzva.”
This was codified by the Maimonides (Gifts for the Poor 8:10) and the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 452:1-3), saying: “The redemption of captives takes precedence over feeding and clothing the poor. There is no greater mitzvah than the redemption of captives. Funds raised for another purpose, even the building of a synagogue, can be diverted to the redemption of captives.” They go on to state that one who turns away from the redemption of captives has violated many positive and negative commandments. Any delay in the redemption of captives is akin to murder. Clearly, pidyon shvuyim – the redemption of captives is one of our highest priorities.
Yet a Mishna in Gittin (45A) states“We do not redeem captives for more than their monetary value for tikkun olam – the betterment of the world.” The Gemara gives two examples of why we should not pay excessive ransoms. The financial pressures of taking on obligations we cannot meet can bankrupt the community. Giving into the demands of kidnappers and giving them a financial windfall can encourage them to take additional captives and to hold them for ransom. In the codes, Maimonides (Gifts for the Poor 8:12) and Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 452:1-4) ruled: “We do not redeem captives for more than their monetary value because of tikkun olam, that our enemies should not make extra efforts to capture them.” In other words, giving our enemies a financial windfall will only encourage them to take more captives.
But the Shulchan Aruch has an important caveat. The limit on what should be paid in ransom applies only when communal funds are used. An individual can pay an unlimited amount to redeem himself or others. The community should pay more to redeem Torah scholars.
The Mishna in Gittin goes on to state, “We do not aid captives in their attempts to escape, for the betterment of the world; Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel said for the betterment of the captives.”
Both the Rambam (Matnot Aneyim – Gifts for the Poor 8:12) and Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 452:5) ruled, “We do not assist captives in their attempts to escape for fear that our enemies will treat them more harshly or place them under heavier guard.”
On the one hand, pidyon shvuyim – the redemption of captives is one of our most important mitzvoth. Failure or even delay in performing it is akin to murder. Yet we should not overpay because giving our enemies a financial windfall will encourage them to take more captives. Each Jewish life is of infinite value. We must make every effort to save the hostages. Yet we are commanded not do so when it will result in endangering more Jewish lives down the road.
Rav Meir of Rothenberg, one of the leading Torah scholars of the 13th century, was held as a captive. Rav Asher ben Jehiel raised 23,000 pounds of silver to redeem him. Citing the Mishna from Gittin 45A, Rav Meir ruled that the ransom should not be paid because it could lead to other Jews being kidnapped.
In June 1944, Rudolf Kastner negotiated with Adolf Eichmann for the release of more than 1600 Hungarian Jews, including the Satmar Rebbe, other community leaders and his own family, to be transported to safety in Switzerland, in exchange for gold, diamonds, and cash. Some people have hailed Kastner as a hero for saving more than 1600 Jewish lives. Others have denounced him as a Nazi collaborator who, in the words of an Israeli court verdict, “sold his soul to the devil.”
One of the most elaborate terrorist attacks occurred in September 1970, when the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), an affiliate of the PLO, hijacked four planes bound for New York and one for London. Three of the planes were flown to a remote airfield in Jordan. The hijackers blew up the three planes in Jordan after the people had been taken to be held elsewhere. They demanded the release of terrorists held in Israeli and European jails and threatened to kill 50 Jewish men being held as hostages if their conditions were not met. The hostages included Rav Yitzchak Hunter, the Rosh Yeshiva of Chaim Berlin, one of the leading Torah scholars of his time. Some Yeshiva students wanted to raise money to ransom Rav Hunter and his family. Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, one of the most revered sages of the time, said that even when the life of a Torah sage is involved, ransoms should not be paid to redeem hostages in war time, because the money will be used to seek to destroy us. The hijackings led to a civil war in Jordan in which King Hussein, with clandestine Israeli help, defeated the PLO and the Syrians. The hostages were released in exchange for three PFLP terrorists held in Swiss jails and a terrorist who was stopped in an attempt to hijack an El Al plane.
The largest prisoner exchange between Israel and the Palestinians took place in 2011, when Israel released 1027 prisoners in exchange for a single Israeli soldier, who had been held captive in Gaza for five years. The prisoners released included terrorists serving two hundred life sentences for the murder of close to 600 Israelis. Among them was Yahya Sinwar, the current leader of Hamas in Gaza. The exchange was supported by most of the Israeli public at the time and was praised for showing how much Israel cherished a single life. Unfortunately, the exchange showed Hamas that the surest way to extract concessions out of Israel was to take and hold hostages. On the first anniversary of the exchange, Hamas held a celebration at which they vowed to capture more hostages to exchange for terrorist prisoners. They fulfilled that vow on Simchat Torah of this year.
The term tikkun olam, as used in the Mishna, means that we issue certain rulings because of practical considerations for the betterment of the community based on real world considerations. Pidyon shvuyim – the redemption of captives is one of the most important mitzvoth. There is no limit to the extent we should go to bring our people home. But due consideration must be given to the impact on the lives and security of the State of Israel, the Jewish people, and the hostages themselves now and for many years to come.
The decision on what to do regarding the hostage situation, like so many others that will have to be made during this war, will be difficult. They should be made based on sober consideration of the risks and a grim realization of the cost. But they should also be made with faith and confidence based on last week’s haftorah.
“Fear not for I am with you. Be not frightened for I am your G-d. Those who contend with you shall be shamed and chagrined. Those who fight you shall be naught and perish. ……. For I the Lord am your G-d, who grasped your right hand, who say to you have no fear, I will be your help (Isaiah 41:10-13).