Seth D Gordon

Pidyon Shevu’im — Precious Lives and Limitations

The St Louis, Missouri Jewish community, where I serve as a congregational rabbi, designated last week’s parshah, Lech-L’cha, as an Israel solidarity Shabbat.  One public suggestion called for rabbis to speak about pidyon sh’vu’im — redemption of captives, linked to Abraham’s rescue of his nephew Lot. (Genesis 14)  Yet, I did not speak about pidyon sh’vu’im; I chose another topic related to Israel, though I first took several minutes to explain to my congregants why I did not. 

Teaching pidyon shevu’im requires more than invoking it. Logically pidyon shevu’im is a subtopic within the general Torah concept that human life is precious. Its best illustration, I think, is found among the laws of Shabbat, because nothing brings ideals into relief better than actual choices. Observant Jews know and live with these choices, i.e. when family and friends become seriously ill on Shabbat.  My aim is to provide depth to this well-known law and to apply it to pidyon shevu’im for the knowledgeable and those who are not.

Only about 10% of Jews observe Shabbat according to halachah (law). Jews who live “Saturday,” as well as those who practice one or more elements of Shabbat regularly or occasionally — lighting Shabbat candles, enjoying a special meal, attending religious services — are unable to appreciate the conflict between observing Shabbat and doing other acts.  All, including non-Jews who are not bound by the laws of Shabbat, may find this facet of the Torah’s sanctity of life and pidyon shevu’im particularly illuminating.

First, Shabbat rests near the top of a conceptual hierarchy of Jewish law, just under the apex of a pyramid. (Three forbidden acts take precedence even over life.)  The primary proof of Shabbat’s place is derived from the Torah’s punishment for violating the work restrictions of Shabbat:  death by a human court. It is Torah’s most severe punishment.  Nearly all other “ritual” violations have lesser human-court punishments, if any, or are left to God alone.

Second, I anticipate the reaction from those who are appalled by — and may even ridicule —  this severe punishment for a “ritual” violation.  It is imperative to know that the Torah’s legal processes make this punishment practically impossible.  Before the case could be legally adjudicated, the Torah / rabbinic application requires two eye-witnesses who are unrelated to each other and to the violator.  Moreover, each witness must explicitly warn the violator that it is Shabbat, that it is a violation, and that the punishment is death.  Only one case of execution for violating Shabbat in the Torah is recorded.  For all practical purposes, the death penalty only expresses how serious Shabbat is conceptually.

The punishment underscores the extraordinary sanctity of Shabbat and a related law expresses Torah’s sanctity of life:  Piku’ach nefesh docheh Shabbat — saving life sets aside the laws of Shabbat.  It is not only that the punishment is waived, it is not only that it is not sinful to transgress the law in this case, but rather it is sinful to not save life on Shabbat.  But we are still a step removed. The ultimate principle is safek piku’ach nefesh docheh Shabbat — a reasonable doubt that a life is to be saved sets aside the laws of Shabbat.  Torah does not require certainty or even near certainty, but only reasonable doubt.

There are inspirational words in our religious heritage about innocent human life.  The Torah states that man is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and the rabbis taught that “Whoever saves a life it is as if he has saved an entire world” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 1; BT Sanhedrin 37a).  That Torah law taught that execution — with the same aforementioned procedural safeguards — was the punishment for murder and kidnapping.  It too illustrates the same regard for innocent human life, even as our Sages and moderns had some reservations about capital punishment.

Rabbinic debates did not contradict these teachings; they differed on how and to what extent.  Invoking pidyon sh’vuim simplistically may encourage thinking that Torah places the welfare of the more than 230 hostages seized by Hamas as a priority to cease the war, to pay any price.  Ironically, in Genesis 14 Abraham went to war for Lot and he was redeemed.

However, the classic rabbinic teachings on pidyon sh’vuim are not in a military context; they are about paying ransom, money.  Highway bandits would periodically kidnap people for money. (Mishnah Gittin 4:6)  Although RaMBaM does not qualify his emphasis on pidyon sh’vuim, his teaching (Matanot l-Ani’yim 8:10-11) is likely in this context. Simply put, in line with what I cited previously, life is more precious than money.  Yet, the same Mishnah even limits ransom for money.  Large sums of money is not just money; paying ransom can profoundly diminish lives in some communities. 

For other issues and nuances, see the Tosafot (Gittin 58a); (BT Ketubot 52a), and Shulchan Aruch (YD 252:4). The case of R Meir of Rothenburg is relevant. Some rabbis raised the issue that paying ransom would only encourage more of the same, and set an intolerable paradigm for others to be taken.  The superb Florence Melton Adult Mini-School (Hebrew University 1986) ( ethics curriculum; chapter 23), which I was blessed to teach for several years in St Louis, provides many ancient and contemporary Jewish sources.

Hamas (and those like them) is different.  Their motives are not for money.  If the price to release the hostages is cessation of war against Hamas, many other lives will be jeopardized.  It already has, and will continue, to serve as a tempting model for others — against Israel and others, precisely because life is so precious in our religion.  Despite the assertion that Israel, or the US, does not negotiate for hostages, each has, and the numbers are high and growing.  

Israel has over time exchanged many thousands of prisoners for very few.  The US has included money.  Both terrorists and money have killed many and now another 230+ new hostages.  

It is not hard to understand why the families and friends of the hostages are willing to pay virtually any price; it is not hard to see why others are reluctant.  The anguish is reflected in our Torah, because life is so precious.  There is no easy answer.  Choices matter.

I add a personal view.  I wonder whether Israel considered publicly offering a 48-hour or so pause in exchange for all the hostages, perhaps encouraging the US to present it to the near-useless and often corrupt enablers in the UN Security Council.  Such a public move would reflect the Jewish teachings I have detailed. Every one of those lives is precious.  It might have publicly demonstrated to Israel’s families that its leaders are unmistakably working for the release of the hostages, and to the other nations concerned about its citizens.  It might again show that Israel / Jews  are willing to permit humanitarian aid.  If the offer were rejected, it once again exposes Hamas’ priorities — and those of the UN.  Furthermore, it would reduce the risk to the IDF’s soldiers.   Finally, the hostage issue might be a source of impassioned division; this move might unite Israel as it faces challenges in these upcoming weeks and months of anguish.

About the Author
Rabbi Seth D Gordon received his rabbinic s'michah from Rav David Weiss Halivini from the UTJ and has served congregations in Annapolis, Maryland, Bethpage, New York, and St Louis, Missouri. His emphasis is Jewish education. Rabbi Gordon has worked across the board, co-founding a day school in Annapolis, and founded the now defunct African American-Jewish coalition of Anne Arundel County. He also taught in a Jewish Day School on Long Island, NY. He serves on the executive board of the UTJ and is the past Chairman of MORASHAH, its rabbinical organization. He and his wife are blessed with five children and eleven grandchildren; two of their sons, their wives, and five of their grandchildren live in Israel.
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