Simon Jackson
Legal Advisor to Torah Mitzion


The Talmud (Gittin 58b) relates the following story:

The Rabbis taught: R. Yehoshua ben Hananiah once happened to go to the great city of Rome, and he was informed of a child with beautiful eyes and face and curly locks who was in prison. He went and stood at the doorway of the prison and said: “Who gave Jacob for a spoil and Israel to the robbers?” (Isaiah 42:24) The child answered: “Is it not the Lord, He against whom we have sinned and in whose ways they would not walk, neither were they obedient unto his law” (ibid.). He said: “I feel sure that this one will be a teacher in Israel. I swear that I will not budge from here before I ransom him, whatever price may be demanded.” It is reported that he did not leave that spot before he had ransomed him at a high figure, nor did many days pass before he became a teacher in Israel. Who was he? – He was R. Yishmael ben Elisha.

The commentators ask: how could Rabbi Yehoshua have contravened the principle categorically set down by the Mishna that “We do not redeem captives for more than their value”? Various resolutions are suggested, each of which limits the Rabbis’ restriction and permits the redemption of captives even at a price which exceeds their worth. One interesting limitation is mentioned by Tosafot (Gittin 45a, s.v. delo ligrebu velaytu), who explains that the boy was captured during the period of the destruction of the Second Temple, when Jews were taken captive in great numbers within the framework of Rome’s policy to suppress the Jewish rebellion. Payment of even a high ransom in such circumstances was thus permissible, because it did not increase the risk of anyone else being taken captive.

Danger to Life 

Some of the Poskim (see, e.g., Tosafot, Gittin 58a, s.v. col) are of the opinion that the Rabbis’ ruling against redeeming a captive for more than his actual value only applies where the captive’s life is not in danger; where, however, there is danger to his life, it is a mitzvah to redeem the captive at any price. These Poskim assume that the child’s life was in danger, and this was the reason for Rabbi Yehoshua’s willingness to pay an exorbitant price for his release.

This exception makes sense if we assume that economic considerations form the basis of the Rabbis’ enactment; for how can one place a value on a human life? If, however, security considerations underpin the Rabbis’ ruling, this argument clearly cannot stand: for, by acceding to the kidnappers’ demands, the security situation as a whole will only be further weakened (the lives of those saved included).

In fact, this consideration is the subject of dispute between the Poskim, many of whom rule that, where a captive’s life is in danger, exorbitant demands for his release should not be met, so as not to endanger the lives of many others in the future. We will discuss this issue further in our final column on this subject.

Talmid Chacham

Another answer suggested by Tosafot and other Poskim is that the Rabbis’ restriction does not apply to the redemption of outstanding Torah scholars or people who have the potential to be of this caliber. It is possible to argue that the distinction made here is not arbitrary: for if only Torah scholars are redeemed for greater than their worth no security risk is thereby created for others (only a small number of Torah scholars exist and the kidnappers are generally unaware of their identity). However, this suggestion is not without difficulties as it effectively discriminates, at the end of the day, between different human beings on the basis of their intellects. Having said that, the following two points are worth noting:

1. Prof. A. Shternberg, who researched this exception in Middle Eastern Jewish communities and examined its practical application from the Middle Ages down to the conquest of North Africa by Napoleon, proves that Jewish communities tended to ransom their captives for even more than their true worth where necessary. In his opinion, “A person’s suffering and the conditions of his captivity assumed primary significance on the community’s list of considerations to pay out large sums, and not merely his intellectual standing.” From this it follows that “if it is permissible to pay any price for redeeming any Jew, the special standing of the Talmid Chacham is no longer relevant.”

2. The story of R. Meir of Rotenberg [the Maharam] cited on p. 1 serves as proof of the fact that even a great Torah scholar ought not to be redeemed at any cost. According to the testimony of the Maharshal, R. Shlomo Luria (Yam Shel Shlomo, Gittin 4:66), R. Meir was “an outstanding Talmid Chacham, whose learning and piety was matched by none other in his generation, such that it was permissible to expend all the money in the world to redeem him.” The Maharshal continues: “R. Meir was certainly concerned that if the community were to redeem him, all rulers would make it their mission to capture and hold to ransom the outstanding Torah scholars of their generation, such that all the money in the Diaspora would be insufficient to redeem them, and in this manner the Torah would be lost to the Jewish world. Therefore, the pious Maharam ruled: Better for a little extra wisdom to be lost from Israel than for the wisdom of the Torah itself to be lost. And the proof that this worked can be seen from the fact that the kidnapping of scholars ceased after this incident.”

“Whatever a man has he would give up for his life”

One final exception to the Rabbis’ enactment, to which we shall return in our next column on this subject, is based on a Gemara in Ketubot 52a. The Gemara there states: “Where a man’s wife is captured, and the captors demand 10 times her value, he has an obligation to redeem her…” However, the question is asked: if the prohibition against redeeming captives for greater than their value applies also to the individual, and not only on the public purse, how could the Rabbis have obligated a husband to redeem his wife for greater than her value?! Tosafot (ibid. s.v. vehayu mevakshin) offer an extremely interesting answer to this quandary: “Even according to the security consideration, the Rabbis did not prohibit a person from redeeming himself for more than his worth, as the verse states (Iyov 2:4): Skin for the sake of skin! Whatever a man has he would give up for his life! – and here a person’s wife is like himself.

In other words, the Rabbis did not see fit to make an enactment which would have the effect of restricting a person’s natural instinct for survival. No restriction is therefore placed on a person’s right to redeem himself.

Next Column: Prisoner Exchanges in the Modern State of Israel.