Charity – redeeming prisoners for more than their worth

The year is 5260/1500. Twenty miles from shore a strange ship approaches, dozens of armed bandits leap aboard and before you can blink you’re en route to the slave markets of Tangiers. What happens next?

For thousands of years, sea travel was dangerous not only because of primitive sea craft but also because of pirates who roamed the Mediterranean to rob people’s bodies and possessions. Then the rise of Islam led to centuries-long conflicts between Muslim and Christian, which became worse as each side sent out predators to prey on the enemies at sea. In those days, sea travel was so hazardous that Jewish merchants setting out on sea voyages often wrote their wives provisional divorce documents contingent on them failing to return after three years.

Fragments of the Cairo Geniza dating from the Rambam’s time discuss the fate of Jewish families from Christian Byzantine captured by Muslim pirates and shipped to Alexandria to be redeemed by Jews. Local dayanim exerted their influence to collect funds from the kehilla and write appeals to towns all over Egypt. Documents report how pirates tortured their victims to speed the procedures: “The sailors brought us two men, one a good looking young man who knows Torah, the other a boy of about ten years. When we saw them in the hands of the non-Jews, they beat them and shocked and frightened them before us… we had mercy on them and our mercy upon them was aroused, and we redeemed them from their captors.”

In those pre-Geneva Convention days, the fate of captives was a life of slavery and to redeem them one had to pay the prisoner’s full slave market price. A scrap of parchment describes how Jews paid small fortunes to redeem their brothers: “Every person whose heart moved him brought of the gold and silver, and so the women, until 18 zehuvim were collected.” Ransoming was not cheap since the average ransom of those times was 30 golden dinars per person, enough to support a family for a whole year; when ready cash was not available the people gave anything the pirates were willing to accept, “We gathered from men and women, youths and maidens, gold and silver and copper and fl ax, raw and spun, and cushions and covers and other things.”

The non-Jews couldn’t believe their eyes. “All the non-Jews are amazed and say, ‘Happy is the nation that is so, happy is the nation that Hashem is its G-d, for they ceased their work and labored day and night until they had rescued these prisoners from cruel people.”

Geniza fragments also describe how Jews in Ashkelon and Egypt redeemed surviving Jews from the hands of the bloodthirsty Crusaders.

During the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, Knights of Saint John on Malta Island terrorized Muslim shipping while Muslim Corsairs (pirates) operating from North Africa terrorized Christian sea craft. Once again, it was up to the Jews of the Christian and Muslim worlds to bail out Jewish victims with major port kehillos such as Venice and Leghorn setting up special funds for this purpose. A new problem developed after pirates began demanding higher ransoms. Until then, prisoners were generally ransomed for whatever they were worth in the slave market, while now the pirates demanded whatever they pleased and this situation ran head on against halacha.

To understand the problem let us examine the mussar and halacha that lie behind pidyon shevuyim (redeeming prisoners).

Why is pidyon shevuyim so important? Although redeeming prisoners is no separate mitzvah in itself, it includes many other important mitzvos. The Rambam (Matnos Aniyim 8:10, based on Bava Basra 5b) writes that it “precedes sustaining and clothing the poor, and there is no mitzvah as great as pidyon shevuyim. Because the prisoner counts among the hungry and naked, and is in danger of his life.” The Rambam lists a number of mitzvos that one fulfi lls through this mitzvah such as “You shall surely open your hand to him” (Devorim 16:5) and “Your brother shall live with you” (Vayikra 25:36), mentioning once again that, “You have no mitzvah as great as pidyon shevuyim.”

The Beis Yosef (Yoreh De’ah 252:3) goes even further, stressing that, “Every second that one delays from redeeming prisoners where one could do it earlier is as if one spilt blood.” Precisely because pidyon shevuyim is such a great mitzvah, Chazal laid down strict guidelines limiting how much one can spend on it, as the Mishnah (Gittin 4:6) categorically states, “We do not redeem prisoners for more than their value because of tikun ha’olam (public benefi t).

Why is this tikun ha’olam? The Gemara (Gittin 45a) offers two possibilities, either that it saves communities from impoverishment or that it prevents unscrupulous non- Jews from capturing Jews and holding them for giant ransoms. The Rambam (ibid halacha 12) rules like the second option, “We do not redeem prisoners for more than their worth because of tikun ha’olam, so that enemies should not pursue them in order to capture them.”

However, the Gemara (Gittin 58b) relates a story that contradicts this rule, describing how R. Yehoshua ben Chananya redeemed the young Yishmael ben Elisha from a Roman prison for far more than he was worth. While some Rishonim answer that Yishmael ben Elisha’s life was in danger, the Shulchan Aruch cites another answer that the rule of tikkun ha’olam does not apply when the captive is a talmid chochom.

Therefore, when R. Yehoshua ben Chananya saw Yishmael ben Elisha’s brilliance he redeemed him for any price.

Centuries after the sealing of Shas, two famous incidences arose that seemed to contradict the Tikun Ha’olam rule. One was the famous incident where a great talmid chochom refused to allow himself to be redeemed for a large ransom, and the other was the custom of Mediterranean communities to pay huge ransoms for regular, unlearned people. Everyone knows how the renowned

Rav Meir ben Baruch of Rothenburg (the Maharam) refused to allow himself to be ransomed for an exorbitant sum and died in prison after seven years. Rav Shlomo Luria (the Maharshal, Poland 1510-1574, Gittin 4:66) objects that this seems to contradict normative halacha:

“I heard that the Maharam of Rothenberg was imprisoned in Ensisheim Castle for a number of years and the prince demanded a large sum from the kehillos, and the kehillos wanted to redeem him, and he did not allow it as he said, ‘We do not redeem prisoners for more than their monetary worth.’ I am surprised because since he was a great talmid chochom and there was no one like him in his generation in Torah and chassidus, it was permitted to redeem him for all the money in the world. Even if he, in his humility, did not consider himself a great talmid chochom, still, he should have been concerned regarding bitul Torah. As he himself writes, he was sitting in deep darkness with no Torah and no light and he was mourning that he did not have books of poskim and Tosfos. How could he not be concerned about the transgression of bittul Torah since the public needed him?”

The Maharshal answers that the Maharam had a new rationale that redefi ned halacha:

“Certainly, his logic was that if they redeemed him, this might lead to all princes doing the same to the great talmid chochom of the generation for much money until all the money in the exile would not suffice to redeem them and Torah would be forgotten from Yisroel. Therefore, the chassid said, ‘Better that a little extra wisdom is lost from Yisroel, than that the principle Torah is lost.’ And proof [that he was correct] is that since then this matter and destruction of seizing chachmei hagolah has ended.”

The Radbaz (Rav David ben Zimra, (1479-1573) who served as Av Beis Din in Egypt, addressed the second problem of redeeming prisoners for more than their worth:

“…For some time, all Yisroel have the custom of redeeming prisoners for more than their value that they would be sold in the market place, because a boy or old man are not worth more than ten dinars and people redeem them for a hundred and more. The reason for this custom is that we hold that the reason [for the decree is] lest they are encouraged to come and expend their efforts capturing Jews. However, in our time we see that kidnappers do not go out specifically for Jews, but for whomever they find.

Therefore, even if we redeem them for more than their market value, since we do not redeem them for more than non- Jews are redeemed, it is permitted. And leave Yisroel alone, as they are gomlei chesed the sons of gomlei chesed….” However, the Radbaz admits that this answer is insufficient since Jews actually paid more ransom for Jews than kidnappers could ever get for non-Jews. To escape this quandary the Radbaz explains that first, there are sometimes wealthy non-Jews who ransom themselves for equally high amounts; second, perhaps there is a talmid chochom among the group of Jews being redeemed, and third, perhaps the group includes children who will be forcibly converted if they are not saved. Although the Mishnah may have included even these cases in the tikun ha’olam, he concludes, nevertheless, “Seeing that the matter is in doubt, leave Yisroel to continue the trait [of chesed]; since they are happy and rejoice in it, they will have great reward….”

The Maharshal (ibid), too, mentions that the Jews of Turkey ransom Jewish captives for more than their worth. He offers the rationales that since there are so few Jews left, unless they are redeemed “the ember of Yisroel might extinguish.” Also the captives sometimes force the prisoners to transgress the Torah and might kill them if they are not redeemed.

These historical sugyos have renewed significance in our time when Arabs are regularly demanding the return of hundreds of terrorists in return for a handful of prisoners and sometimes only in return for their dead bodies. Does agreeing to such terms contradict the tikun ha’olam that we should not overpay for a prisoner in order to not encourage the capture of even more Jews (as indeed happens), or can one differentiate between Jewish prisoners of war in terrorist hands and the prisoners spoken of by Chazal and the poskim? To answer this question would require a qualified posek and an article in itself!

(Source of much information: Eliezer Bashan (Sternberg), in his doctoral thesis Pidyon Shevuyim Be’artzos Hayam Hatichon Mimei Habeinayim ad Hazman Hachadash, Elul 5731.)

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