Unfortunately, redeeming captives has been a relevant issue with the Jewish people for thousands of years. Today, it is particularly pertinent in light of Gilad Shalit’s release. The Rambam (Hilchos Matanos Aniyim 8:10) categorizes pidyon shvuyim as the greatest of all mitzvos and indeed, Hashem forged us as His people by redeeming us from the captivity of Egypt. Thus, it is not only the supreme chesed (Bava Basra 8b), but also the ultimate impersonation of Hashem’s ways (Kad Hakemach). This article will discuss only some aspects of pidyon shvuyim through the ages.
Pidyon shvuyim typifies Jewish history. Of all Avrohom’s giant chasadim, relatively few are mentioned explicitly. Yet one of his deeds to which the Torah devotes pages is his heroic pursuit of the four mighty kings. Avrohom put his life on the line to save his nephew, even though it states nowhere that Lot’s life was actually in danger.
Dovid mounted a similar mission when an Amalek tribe raided his town, Ziklag (I Shmuel ch. 30). Chazal tell us that before setting off to save the captives, he composed the immortal kapitol we recite every Elul and Tishrei, Hashem is my light and my salvation, from whom shall I fear (Tehillim 27). After overtaking the captors, he struck them from twilight until the next evening and not one of them escaped except for four hundred young men who rode on camels and fled, and rescued all his kidnapped family and followers. None was missing of them [the captives] from young to old, sons or daughters, or from the spoil and all that they took for themselves. Dovid returned everything (verse 17).
To emphasize the importance of such rescue efforts, Chazal (Tanchuma, Tetzaveh 4) tell us that Hashem miraculously illuminated the night for Dovid and Avrohom during their pursuit to rescue their kidnapped relatives. Similarly, one of the many pidyon shvuyim stories of the Gemara relates how a river parted for Rabi Pinchos ben Yair when he was on his way to ransom captives (Chullin 7a). After Talmudic times, during the 11th to 13th centuries, most prisoners of Muslims were dragged to the great slave market of Alexandria. The Cairo Geniza contained hundreds of documents and letters pertaining to the pidyon shvuyim of these times when the price for redeeming captives from warriors or pirates was 33 and 1/3 dinars, enough to support an average family for a whole year, and obviously far more than any sum routinely given to a poor person.
Letters testify that the Rambam was deeply involved in coordinating countrywide efforts to redeem captives of the Christian Crusaders. “Do the same as we, all the judges, elders, and talmidim have done,” he writes in one of them. “We go around, night and day, urging people in the shuls, the markets, and at dwellings, in order to collect something towards this great cause. We have contributed as much as we are able to. You too should do for them as befits your generosity… Exert yourselves to collect it quickly and send it to us with our abovementioned dignitary, R. Aharon HaLevi.”
Another aspect of this mitzvah was to support redeemed captives left penniless and often hundreds of miles from home. One Geniza letter appeals: “I inform the holy kehillah that I am a woman who was captured in Eretz Yisroel. I arrived here this week from Sunbat with no clothes, blanket, or sleeping carpet. With me is a small boy and I have no means of sustenance. I beg… to do with me what is fit for any wayfarer…”
Many captives mentioned in Geniza writings were not captives of war, but paupers who could not afford to pay Egypt’s hefty poll tax or their regular debts. They easily ended up in Muslim debtor prisons where conditions were harsh and beatings common. To avoid prison, people often became captive in their own homes. “I am [going through] adversity that none but the Creator of all knows of,” one appellant writes. “I am hiding in my house like a woman. I cannot go out except in the evening. I am fleeing from a debt that I owe. I am unable to do any gainful work unless I go out. My little ones are dying of hunger because I have been hiding out.”
Another person writes to relatives: “I inform you that I am poor, indigent, and naked, I and my family… I am imprisoned on account of the poll tax and dying from hunger, my family and myself.”
Concerning such people the Rambam writes (Malveh V’loiveh 1:6): “If non- Jewish creditors come and imprison the debtor, all Yisroel are obligated to redeem him,” and this is a precedent for saving all unjustly jailed prisoners.
Marine Hunting Preserve
In earlier times, the Mediterranean Sea served pirates and warships as a giant hunting preserve. Muslim Barbary pirates captured Christians, Christian knights raided Christians, and Jews were victimized by both.
After Charles V of Spain gave Malta to the Knights Hospitaller for the Order of Saint John in 1530, it rapidly degenerated into a ransom-funded paradise. The Society for Pidyon Shevuyim in Venice maintained a special offi ce on the island to deal with its huge influx of Jewish captives.
The society was partially supported by a special merchants’ tax, which provided the merchants with insurance in the event they became victims themselves. Negotiations with the knights could take months and years. The town generally had a population of Jews waiting for their release, and for their benefit the pidyon society rented a room in their jail for use as a shul, provided them with a sefer Torah, and even dedicated a Beis Hak’voros in 1675. Captured rabbis, such as meshulachim from Eretz Yisroel, led the kehillah until they got the chance to leave. One learned captive captured in 1666, Rav Moshe Azulai, stayed on to serve the prisoners’ spiritual needs even after he was redeemed, even writing gittin for them when occasion demanded. By the time he decided to leave the island it was too late; he died before the formalities were completed.
The Maltese were such a threat that Rav Chaim Vital (niftar 1620) writes of a vision he had in 1609: “After the coming tribulations, four countries will fall, Malta the first of them, and then will come the redemption.”
One of his talmidim, Rav Chaim ben Avraham Hakohen of Tzefas reported that he leaped into the sea to escape their depredations: “We went by sea and entered a port in a dangerous place and stayed there five days… A frigate arrived at evening… from Malta and almost overcame us. When I saw all hope was lost, I threw myself into the waves and the turbulent water reached my neck. Slowly, Hashem returned me to land and I was saved from the capturers” (Toras Chaim, introduction).
The Maltese slave trade only ceased when Napoleon evicted the knights from the island in 1798. The physical remnants of their pirating days include a gate in the old fortifications of the island’s modern capital, Valletta. It is known as the Jews’ Sallyport.
The Chmielnicki Massacres
The greatest slave market of the 16th century was that of Constantinople. Its Jews were so famed for their generous pidyon shvuyim that Rav Nosson Hanover describes (Yaven Metzulah page 33) how Jews turned themselves over to enemies during the Chmielnicki Massacres of that century, confident that Turkish Jews would redeem them:
“The kehillos of Prohobisht, Zavitov, Zupka, and Titiov and their districts heard what the Ukranians did to our brothers beyond the Dnieper River. Coming against them were the Tartars and Ukranians, the Tartars on one side of the town, and the Ukranians on the other. They said, ‘If we wait until the Ukranians come to the town they will completely destroy us or force us to convert. It is better that that we go as prisoners with the Tartars, for we know that our brothers in Constantinople and other Turkish kehillos are very merciful and will ransom us. And so they did. The four kehillos with their men, women, and children, about three thousand people, went to the Tartars…
“Their capturers had mercy on them and said to them, ‘Do not worry, you will not lack food and drink, and we will soon bring you to your brothers in Constantinople to redeem you…. Our brothers in Constantinople redeemed them and also other captives from Poland , about twenty thousand people, and spent much money on them, whatever was demanded, and fed and supported them until now and did endless other benefits to them. The whole land [empire] of Turkey did the same especially Solonika, redeeming many captives… May Hashem pay them their good deeds they did to our Jewish brothers and guard them from all evil until the coming of the redeemer.”
Rav Yosef of Trani testifies that Turkey had established a special tax for East European refugees even before the Chmielnicki massacres: “For the past twenty-three years, we have had a tax here in Constantinople on all those who bring merchandise from elsewhere who are not residents of the town. When the sages wanted to stop this, they [the organizers] argued that the pidyon shvuyim of those who arrive daily from Russia was a responsibility upon everyone” (Responsa 3:13).
The Vaad Arba Arotzos (The Council of Four Countries representing the Jews of Greater Poland, Little Poland, Ruthenia, and Volhynia) was also deeply involved with redeeming captives and saving converted Jews after Tach Vetat: “Many souls of Israel which were taken into captivity assimilated among and were almost lost among them … we have written an authorization to all the communities and to every place where there is a minyan [quorum] of Jews … to redeem every soul.” The vaad also established how much should be paid and allocated the burden among the different communities (Pinkas Medinas Lita, no. 452).
Zionism, the hoped for death knell of anti-Semitism and persecution, not only failed to cure the disease of kidnapped Jews but recreated it in new guise, giving birth to the phenomenon of prisoner swaps, usually out of all proportion in Israel’s disfavor. Examples are the 1979 swap of 76 Lebanese terrorists in return for one Israeli soldier and the 1985 swap of 1,150 Palestinian prisoners for three Israeli soldiers.
Despite these uneven terms, the return of Israeli soldiers to their homes and families always elicits international Jewish joy and even more so the release of Gilad Shalit whose life was on the knife’s edge for over five years.
As Jews continue the proud fight for the release of unjustly incarcerated Jews such as Sholom Rubashkin, they are proud to continue a Jewish heritage that links Jews firmly to each other and to their destiny.
(Partial source: Mark R. Cohen, Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt, Princeton University Press, 2005.)