[Originally published in Hebrew on October 16, 2023].
The terrible Shabbat of October 7th brought with it horrific bloodshed and the kidnapping of children, women, and men in Israel’s Gaza border communities. The dead are being mourned according to Jewish law. As for the hostages, we are obligated to fulfill the commandment of redeeming captives. In the storm of emotions and the turmoil of war, we must not forget the prominence and the unique status of this commandment.
The commandment of redeeming captives has been extensively discussed in halakhic literature, reflecting the prevalence of kidnapping and captivity in the history of the Jewish people. The event still unfolding before us will be remembered as one of the bloodiest in a history stained by the blood of the Jewish people. A group of more than two hundred and thirty-nine individuals (to the best of our knowledge at the time of writing) have been taken as captives, undergoing torment, suffering, and humiliation. The halakhic discussion around the issue of captivity is focused mainly on individuals. Today, we face a multitude of people who have been kidnapped, with few precedents in halakhic literature.
The halakhic discussion around the issue of captivity is focused mainly on individuals. Today, we face a multitude of people who have been kidnapped, with few precedents in halakhic literature.
The commandment of redeeming captives surpasses many other commandments. “There is no greater mitzvah than redeeming captives”, writes Maimonides (in the sense that it includes many other mitzvot). “Redeeming captives takes precedence over feeding the poor and clothing them, since the captive is included among the hungry, thirsty, and naked, in danger of losing their lives. And one who averts his eyes from redeeming them transgresses ‘do not harden your heart or shut your hand’, and ‘do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor’,... and nullifies the commandments: ‘You shall surely revive your brother’,... ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’, and many similar precepts” (Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 8:10).
The source of this ruling is found in the Babylonian Talmud interpreting the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “‘Thus says the Lord: He who is for the sword, to the sword; he who is for famine, to the famine; and he who is for captivity, to captivity’, and Rabbi Yochanan said... The sword is more severe than death, famine is more severe than the sword, but captivity is more severe than all of them, as they all are encompassed within it” (Bavli, Bava Batra 8b).
The commandment of redeeming captives surpasses many other commandments. “There is no greater mitzvah than redeeming captives”, writes Maimonides.
The halakha is determined in the Shulchan Aruch: “Every moment that one delays in redeeming captives, when it is possible to expedite, it is considered as if one has shed blood” (Yoreh De'ah, 252:2). (As an aside to the legal discussion, it is interesting to note that Hasidic thought connects a person's suffering with the suffering of the Shekhina [Divine Presence], suggesting that freeing captives is akin to the redemption of the Shekhina from exile: “For when Israel is in captivity, it is truly the captivity of the Shekhina... and through redeeming captives, one elevates the Shekhina from exile…” [Rabbi Nathan Sternhartz of Nemirov, Likutei Halakhot, Yoreh De'ah, Laws of Charity, 2:6].)
The main discourse, both legal and moral, about the commandment of redeeming captives revolves around the cost of the redemption payment. “We do not redeem captives for more than their value mipnei tikkun ha‘olam (for the betterment of the world)” (Mishnah, Gittin 4:6). The sages are divided over the meaning of tikkun ha‘olam' in this context (Bavli, Gittin 45a, and see Rashi there). Is the Mishnah concerned with burdening the community with heavy financial obligations, implying that individuals may redeem themselves or others at any cost? Or is the aim to prevent encouraging future abductions? Showing our enemies that we are willing to pay any price for our brothers could potentially lead to an increase in abductions. It seems that, according to the latter opinion, the release of terrorists would also be prohibited. According to this approach, the main consideration is security, and redeeming captives at an exorbitant price would therefore be forbidden both for individuals and the public. Maimonides adopts this view: “We do not redeem captives for more than their value mipnei tikkun olam, lest the enemies pursue them to capture them” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 8:12).
The following points are not intended to constitute a halakhic ruling. The subject, which concerns matters of life and death in the strictest sense, is exceedingly complex. Nevertheless, with due caution, I will attempt to explain why the horror of October 7th deviates from the conventional discussion on the redemption of captives, placing it in a situation where even if 'for more than their value' is required, equivalent to the release of terrorists, it is, in my opinion, incumbent upon us to pay the price.
The subject, which concerns matters of life and death in the strictest sense, is exceedingly complex. Nevertheless, with due caution, I will attempt to explain why the horror of October 7th deviates from the conventional discussion on the redemption of captives, placing it in a situation where even if 'for more than their value' is required, equivalent to the release of terrorists, it is, in my opinion, incumbent upon us to pay the price.
Risking the Lives of Captives
The sages are divided on the matter of ransoming captives whose lives are in danger. Some argue that even in this situation, it is inappropriate to redeem captives for more than their value, since this would encourage the captors to continue kidnapping, endangering the larger community. Others contend that, in the face of a threat to life, it is proper to redeem captives at any financial cost, even if this poses a risk to future lives.
The Babylonian Talmud tells the following story: “The Sages taught: There was an incident with Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah who traveled to the city of Rome. He was informed: There is a child in prison, very handsome, with beautiful eyes, and his hair is arranged in braids. Rabbi Yehoshua stood at the entrance to the prison and said: ‘Who caused Jacob to be despoiled and Israel to be robbed?’ (Isaiah 42:24). The child answered: ‘Was it not the Lord? We sinned against Him… and did not heed His Torah’. Rabbi Yehoshua said: I trust that this child will issue rulings to the people of Israel. He swore an oath that he would not leave there until he had redeemed him for any amount the captors demanded. It was said: He did not move from there until he ransomed him for a large sum…” (Bavli, Gittin 58a). The Tosafot hasten to explain what allowed Rabbi Yehoshua to seemingly override the ruling of the Sages not to ransom captives for a large sum: 'If their lives are in danger, we redeem captives for more than their value.'
This describes the nuanced perspectives in Halakha regarding the obligation to redeem captives when their lives are at risk.
Individual Abduction versus Mass Abduction
In both Jewish thought and Jewish law, all discussions regarding the parameters of redeeming captives seem to revolve around a single captive or a few captives. As far as I am aware, the law does not apply to the scenario of a large group that has been taken captive.
However, this is precisely the situation we face. A large group – men, women, children, including elderly, sick, injured, wounded, and people in mortal danger – are all expected to endure harsh captivity, degrading their dignity and desecrating their divine image. Even in this case, are we compelled to not redeem the captives, the hostages, for “more than their value”? Is tikkun olam not the exact opposite?
A large group – men, women, children, including elderly, sick, injured, wounded, and people in mortal danger – are all expected to endure harsh captivity, degrading their dignity and desecrating their divine image. Even in this case, are we compelled to not redeem the captives, the hostages, for “more than their value”? Is tikkun olam not the exact opposite?
It makes sense to think that the appropriate tikkun here would be precisely a supreme effort to rescue the large group of captives. This is not a matter of individual versus public interest, as might occur in the case of an individual's redemption, where a private interest can clash with the economic well-being or security of the general public. Here, two public interests are competing with each other. As several scholars have recently emphasized, it may be necessary to distinguish between people organized in traditional communities, to which the rabbinic legal discussion refers, and people organized in the framework of a modern state with resources, and military and economic institutions.
Furthermore, the impact on the hostages in our current situation is certain and absolute. Years of torment and sorrow await them, and many of them will surely not survive. The security implications of acceding to the demands for returning terrorists – paying ransom, delaying military action, and as a result, encouraging the terrorists to attack us again – are, by contrast, only possibilities, even if, based on experience, they are close to certainties. If the Israeli government and all who are committed to Israel's security are wise enough to stand guard and not be complacent, then neither this great evil, namely the suffering of the hostages, nor any other evil, such as repeated terror attacks, will befall us. Unfortunately, this bitter enemy needs no encouragement. They will take advantage and inflict pain upon us if, God forbid, we do not stand our guard, whether we release the hostages or not.
This is what Rabbi Ovadia Yosef writes in his ruling: “Most Rabbinic authorities are of the opinion that in a situation of danger, we do redeem captives for ‘more than their value’, and we have not found among the great Rabbinic authorities anyone who says the opposite. It seems that actually this is the course that we are compelled to take... And even when the ransom exceeds their value, and there is a concern that they will further raise the [ransom] fee, despite this, when there is an immediate danger, we do not take that into account, because in any case, they will do everything in their power to kidnap, kill, and murder in order to disrupt the ordinary course of life in the State of Israel…” (Yabia Omer Part 10, Chapter 6, Section 6).
The innovation in Rabbi Ovadia's statement is correct even in our current situation: these murderers need neither encouragement nor incentives; rather, they do everything to sow death and destruction. If we show special concern for our hostages, it makes no difference to their kidnappers. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that this situation is not straightforward. Ignoring the fact that yielding to the terrorists’ demands validates the effectiveness of kidnapping, it is presumable that Hamas followers would perceive this as a national victory. The release of the hostages – essentially saving lives – against political and security considerations that have consequences for the general public is hard to bear. Either way, the only means to prevent this in future are vigilance, fortitude, and continuously standing guard; everything that we unfortunately failed to do on that fateful Sabbath day.
Redemption by the Captive Himself
Many legal authorities believe that even when it concerns a demand for payment exceeding the captive’s own value, abductees are authorized to pay from their private funds in exchange for their release. This position is of significant consequence concerning the obligation and capacity of the state to redeem hostages, as Rabbi Shaul Israeli taught:
“Since our soldiers went to war on a mission on behalf of the state, for the defense of the people... there exists an implicit, unwritten, but self-evident commitment, that any means at the state’s disposal must be taken to redeem them if they fall captive. Just as there is an obligation in the event of their injury, God forbid, in war, there is no less an obligation to take any action aimed at their release... And since the power invested in the state in this regard is by virtue of the obligation it has undertaken in return for their service, it is as if the hostages were redeeming themselves, in which case no restriction exists, and the provision that ‘we do not redeem the captives for more than their value’ is not relevant (Havat Binyamin, Part 1, 16).
We are not debating here the question of the logic or moral justification for entering Gaza, the destruction of its cities, the level of security that can be achieved in its aftermath, or the question of what happens next — who will take responsibility for the ongoing lives of those who survive. But it is clear to all that the heavy bombardment and entry into Gaza endangers the lives of the hostages, both through direct injury from Israeli shelling and by encouraging their murder by Hamas.
There is a time to kill and a time to save lives. In my humble opinion, this is a time for the redemption of captives, our hostages. There is ample scope in Jewish law — and to be honest, in basic human reasoning — to stop and think about the correct action to take at this moment. Alongside strategic considerations, about which opinions naturally differ, we should also be guided by the humane considerations that are anchored in Jewish law.
Moti Kaplan is a graduate of Yeshivat Hayishuv Hahadash, a senior research fellow in the faculty of architecture and urban development at the Technion, and a teacher of the urban development track at Hebrew University. He is an editor of the National Master Plan No. 1.