Thursday, September 11, 2014

Judaism’s Top 40 - Elul 20, #22 in the countdown - Pidyon Shevuyim – Ransoming Captives

When the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was traded for 1,000 Aram prisoners (a number of whom were subsequently recaptured this past summer), it reopened a long standing controversy among Jews.

This ethical quandary is a classic example of the age-old concept of “Pidyon Shvuyim,” the rescue of captives. The Talmud considers it to be among the highest of priorities (Bava Batra 8b) and later legal authorities concur. 

Maimonides writes: “The redeeming of captives takes precedence over supporting the poor or clothing them. There is no greater mitzvah than redeeming captives for the problems of the captive include being hungry, thirsty, unclothed, and they are in danger of their lives too. Ignoring the need to redeem captives goes against these Torah laws: “Do not harden your heart or shut your hand against your needy fellow” (Devarim 15:7); “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed” (Vayikra 19:16). And misses out on the following mitzvot: “You must surely open your hand to him or her” (Devarim 15:8); “...Love your neighbor as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18); “Rescue those who are drawn to death” (Proverbs 24:11) and there is no mitzvah greater than the redeeming of captives.” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Matanot Aniyim 8:10-11)[

The Shulchan Aruch adds: “Every moment that one delays in freeing captives, in cases where it is possible to expedite their freedom, is considered to be tantamount to murder.” (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah 252:3)[

Medieval Jewish communities often were called upon to pony up big bucks to redeem kidnapped kin. In contemporary Israel, it has become standard practice to swap busloads of prisoners for one captive soldier, or even for his remains.

There are limits. Medieval jewish communities never had as high a stake in this as modern Israelis do.  In a detailed responsum on the subject that predates Shalit’s capture, Rabbi David Golinkin concludes, “We do not pay excessive ransom… In other words, the public takes precedence over the individual, even if this endangers the individual. Exchanging hundreds or thousands of terrorists for one Israeli encourages kidnapping of Israelis, and frees hundreds or thousands of terrorists who will pick up their weapons and attack Israel. In other words, it endangers the public and should not be done.”

What’s most clear here is that every human being is considered of infinite value – and that Jews will go to great lengths to save their brothers and sisters,

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