Michael Boyden

Freeing Hostages – At what Price?

There is no other nation or religion that has had throughout the ages to contend repeatedly with the quandary of whether to pay ransoms to release hostages. The Jewish People, however, has had to deal with the problem for at least the past two thousand years.

The Mishna, which dates back to the 2nd century, already addresses the issue of whom to redeem if one has to choose between one’s teacher and one’s father (Baba Metzia 2:11). The answer, it rules, depends upon whether one’s father was a scholar or not. If he wasn’t, then one’s teacher takes preference.

Gittin 4:6 further states that one should not pay more for the hostages than they are worth, and that being for the sake of tikkun olam. The meaning being that, were one to overpay, things would get out of control, because more hostages would be taken.

The Talmud in tractate Gittin 45a warns of the danger of paying an excessive ransom, which could lead to the community becoming impoverished, or result in additional Jews being taken hostage and even larger sums being demanded for their release.

The 12th century rabbi and philosopher Moses Maimonides wrote that ransoming hostages takes precedence over feeding and clothing the poor. “There is no greater mitzvah than ransoming hostages, because a hostage falls into the category of the hungry, the thirsty and the naked, and his life is in danger” (Matanot Aniyim 8:10).

However, all that having been said, there is a limit. It is reported that Rabbi Meir ben Baruch (the MaHaRaM of Rothenburg), who was one of the leading Jewish scholars in Germany in the 13th century, was imprisoned by the authorities. When they understood how important he was to his community, they demanded an exorbitant sum for his release. The Jewish community managed to raise the money. However, the MaHaRaM forbade them to pay such a huge figure for his release preferring instead to rot in prison in harsh conditions until he died.

On the one hand, we are commanded to free hostages, but we are equally warned of the dangers involved in paying too high a price.

Most people agree that Netanyahu bowed to public pressure when he agreed to free 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, some of whom had been convicted of multiple murders and carrying out attacks on Israeli civilians, in return for just one soldier, Gilad Shalit.

One of the prisoners released was Yahya Sinwar, who now heads Hamas’s political wing in Gaza.

We understand that during the coming days Hamas intends to release fifty of the hostages that Palestinian terrorists dragged from their homes into the Gaza Strip on the morning of October 7th. That is just 20% of those currently being held captive. It is reported that an additional ten of those who were savagely abducted will be released for each further day that the IDF agrees to a ceasefire.

On that basis, in order to bring all of the hostages home, Israel will have to refrain from pursuing its military objectives until the middle of December. By that time Hamas will have had an opportunity to re-group and be better placed to attack IDF forces.

Only time will tell whether the price that we shall pay for the release of those hostages will have been worthwhile.

However important and welcomed their release may be, the ultimate question is whether the pause in fighting and the entrance of supplies into the Gaza Strip, including gasoline, will impede Israel’s ability to try to uproot Hamas, thereby enabling families to return to their homes in the south of the country in the knowledge that what happened on the morning of Simchat Torah will never happen again.

About the Author
Made aliyah from the UK in 1985, am a former president of the Israel Council of Reform Rabbis and am currently rabbi of Kehilat Yonatan in Hod Hasharon, Israel.
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