Explaining the Mitzvah of Pidyon Shevuyim
“Recently I saw an advertisement saying that it was pidyon shevuyim to save a child from being raised non-Jewish. But I thought pidyon shevuyim is to free a captive, and these children are with their non-Jewish father.”
“Is there a mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim when someone was captured because he was doing something irresponsible or illegal?”
“I know that the Mishnah states that one should not redeem captives at greater than their market value, but how does one establish market value for a person?”
Many news items have revolved around the issue of pidyon shevuyim, the mitzvah to redeem captives or hostages, which Chazal call a mitzvah rabbah — a great mitzvah. And yet, notwithstanding how important a mitzvah it is, at times Chazal placed limitations on pidyon shevuyim. The goal of this article is to understand the importance of this mitzvah and its basic halachic rules and concepts.
The magnitude of the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim is reflected in the following passage of Gemara, which is, at the same time, a commentary to a very heartbreaking passage of Navi:
Rava asked Rabbah bar Mari: What is the source for the Sages’ statement that redeeming captives is called a “great mitzvah”?
In response, Rabbah bar Mari cited the following verse in Yirmiyahu, which contains tremendously harsh rebuke of the Jewish people:
“Vayomer Hashem eilai, im yaamod Moshe UShmuel lefanai, ein nafshi el ha’am hazeh; shalach mei’al panai veyeitzei’u. Vehayah ki yomru eilecha ana neitzei? Ve’amarta aleihem, ko amar Hashem, asher lamaves, lamaves; va’asher lacherev, lacherev; va’asher lara’av, lara’av; va’asher lashevi, lashevi.
“Hashem said to me, even were Moshe and Shmuel to stand before me and plead on behalf of the Jews, I have no interest in this people – send them away from before me, and they shall go.
“And if they [the Jews] ask you [Yirmiyahu], ‘Where are we going?’ Tell them, ‘So said Hashem: he that is destined for natural death will meet natural death; he that is destined for the sword will meet the sword; he that is destined for hunger will perish through hunger; and he who is destined for captivity will be captured’ [Yirmiyahu 15:1-2].
Rabbah bar Mari then added the commentary of Rabbi Yochanan: “This pasuk is organized according to progressively harsh travail. Violent death is more severe than natural death. Death from starvation causes far greater suffering than violent death. Being captured is a greater calamity than death itself — because it includes all the others.” (Bava Basra 8b)
The Rambam (Hilchos Matanos Evyonim 8:10) codifies the conclusion of Rabbah bar Mari ‘s statement:
Redeeming captives receives priority over providing the poor with food and clothing. There is no mitzvah greater than redeeming captives, because a captive is included among those who are starving, those who are thirsty, those who are without clothing, and he is in life-threatening danger. Someone who hides from redeeming him violates the following Torah prohibitions:
(1) Lo se’ameitz es levavecha — do not harden your heart from helping the poor (Devarim 15:7)
(2) Lo sikpotz es yadcha — do not close your hand (ibid.)
(3) Lo saamod al dam rei’echa — do not stand by when someone’s life is in danger (Vayikra 19:16)
(4) Lo yirdenu befarech le’einecha — do not subjugate him with hard work (Vayikra 25:53).
He also violates the positive mitzvos of:
(1) Ki paso’ach tiftach es yadcha lo — you shall surely open your hand to him (Devarim 15:8),
(2) Vechei achicha imach — allow your brother to live with you (Vayikra 25:36)
(3) Ve’ahavta le’reiacha kamocha — love your fellowman as yourself (Vayikra 19:18).
The halacha is that, if necessary, one may sell a sefer Torah to raise the money for redeeming captives (Tosafos, Bava Basra 8b s.v. Pidyon; Shach and Taz to Yoreh Deah 252:1) Although one should not sell a shul to be able to redeem captives, this is only because we want people to dip into their pockets deeply enough to produce the resources. However, when one knows that this will not provide sufficient funding, one may even sell a shul for pidyon shevuyim money (Shach and Taz ibid. Mishnah Berurah 153:24; cf., however, Derishah to Yoreh Deah 252 who disagrees).
Why don’t we redeem captives?
Thus, we find it very surprising that, under certain circumstances, Chazal prohibited redeeming captives. The Mishnah (Gittin 45a) rules one may not redeem captives for more than their market value, because of tikun olam. What does this Mishnah mean that there is a tikun olam, which literally translates as an improvement of the world, not to redeem captives? And what does the Mishnah mean when it says for greater than their market value?
The Gemara presents two disputing reasons how tikun olam is accomplished by limiting the redemption outlay for captives.
(1) The financial pressure will be greater than the community can bear.
(2) The captors will strive to capture other Jews as a result.
Let me explain. In earlier generations, the main cause for someone being captured was not for ransom and not as a hostage for political or prisoner exchange, but because pirates or a marauding armed gang would seize whatever they could of value, and human captives had commercial value as slaves. Thus, any person capable of working had an estimated market price at a slave auction (see Rashi, Kesubos 52b s.v. Trei; however, cf. Shu’t Radbaz 1:40). Notwithstanding the tremendous mitzvah of redeeming captives, Chazal limited how much one should pay to free captives, out of concern that pirates and other criminals would discover that capturing members of the Jewish people is particularly lucrative, and, as a result, they would deliberately target Jews. Thus, the Mishnah‘s takanah established a law that avoids saving one Jew at the expense of creating a menace to others; which explains why it is a tikun olam — it improves world safety.
Why is financial pressure greater than pidyon shevuyim?
This explains the Mishnah‘s takanah according to the second reason cited by the Gemara. However, the Gemara had previously cited a different reason for the tikun olam, which was that redeeming captives at a high price might cause undue financial pressure on the community. This appears to be a strange reason to prevent redeeming captives, particularly when we consider every captive to be in a circumstance of life-threatening emergency. Why would Chazal establish that financial pressure should override pikuach nefashos?
The Chasam Sofer (Shu’t Choshen Mishpat #177 at end) explains that when unlimited redemption funds are paid by the Jewish community coffers, the population itself will become impoverished, which will result in numerous life-threatening emergencies. (The current European financial and political crises are reflective of this.) Therefore, both reasons of the Gemara prevent the threat to one individual from endangering many others.
To sum up. The Mishnah cites a takanah not to redeem captives at greater than their market value because of a tikun olam, and the Gemara cites two reasons to explain the tikun olam, both of which are meant to avoid an inevitable situation that will endanger more people.
A difference in practical halacha
Is there any difference in halacha between the two reasons? Indeed, there is.
According to the first reason — that we are concerned about impoverishing the community – the takanah includes only a situation in which public funds are being used, but not when the redemption money is raised privately. However, according to the second reason, that we are concerned that criminals will now target Jews, the takanah is applicable even when we are raising private funds to redeem the captive, since this establishes a precedent that endangers other people. Thus, the two explanations of tikun olam disagree whether the takanah was specifically that the official community coffers may not be used to redeem captives at greater than market value, or whether this was an absolute takanah binding on all individuals.
To explain this consequence, the Gemara cites the story of a man named Levi bar Darga, who redeemed his captured daughter for a huge sum. The Gemara notes that whether Levi bar Darga was permitted to do this or not depends on which of the two answers of the Gemara we accept. If the tikun olam was to protect future captives, Levi bar Darga was not permitted to redeem his daughter at above her value in the slave market, since this would encourage the targeting of Jews. However, if the tikun olam is to avoid undue pressure on the community chest, Levi bar Darga and any other individual who is paying a ransom out of his personal pocket are permitted to pay whatever they choose, since they are making no requests of the community.
An interesting exception
There is one interesting exception to this rule. The poskim rule that the takanah not to redeem a captive for greater than his market value applies only to a third party redeeming someone, but does not apply to the captive himself, who may redeem himself at whatever price the captors demand (Tosafos, Kesubos 52a s.v.Vehayu; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 252:4).
If the captors threaten bloodshed
Now that we understand why we may not redeem captives for more than “market value,” we will explore whether there are any other exceptions to the tikun olam rule.
Is there any exception when the peril to life is more direct, such as when the captors threaten to execute the captives if their ransom demands are not met? Granted that the Rambam states that every instance of redeeming captives is pikuach nefesh, there are instances in which the level of pikuach nefesh is much greater, such as when the bloodthirsty captors may execute their hostage rather than sell him or her into slavery. Under these circumstances, does the rule of not redeeming captives above their market price still exist?
Indeed, many authorities consider this case to be an exception to the rule (Tosafos, Gittin 58a s.v. Kol and 45a s.v. Delo). They rally support to this position from the following story recorded by the Gemara (Gittin 58a). The great Tanna, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, was in Rome shortly after the churban of the Beis Hamikdash when he heard of an unusually gifted lad who had been captured. Rabbi Yehoshua succeeded in communicating with the child and was tremendously impressed by the child’s acumen, realizing that this child would become a valuable asset for the Jewish people if he would be allowed the opportunity to develop into a Torah scholar. Rabbi Yehoshua decided to buy the child’s freedom at whatever this would cost, which he succeeded in doing at a very high premium. The child grew to become the Tanna Rabbi Yishmael.
Tosafos raises the question: how was Rabbi Yehoshua permitted to collect such a high ransom, when Chazal prohibited redeeming captives at above market price? Tosafos presents three reasons why Rabbi Yehoshua was permitted to do so.
(1) When there is a clear danger, the takanah does not apply.
(2) The Jewish people’s need for Torah scholars is very great, and therefore, one may redeem talmidei chachamim and potential talmidei chachamim at a higher price.
(3) At the time of the churban, how much ransom one paid to release a particular prisoner would not affect how many captives the Romans seized. Thus, the reason for the takanah did not apply in this instance.
Targeting talmidei chachamim
Many of us know of the famous story of the Maharam of Rottenberg (Germany), the famous thirteenth century “Captive Rabbi,” who refused to allow himself to be redeemed for an excessive price, out of concern that this would become a common practice of gentile kings and marauders. There is no reason to assume that the Maharam disagreed with Tosafos‘ conclusion that one may redeem Torah scholars at above market price. It is more likely that the Maharam realized that in his day, were he to have be redeemed for an exorbitant ransom, it would have endangered other talmidei chachamim and caused a great loss of talmidei chachamim to klal Yisrael.
Redeeming from imminent danger
Later poskim debate whether the first answer of Tosafos, that the takanah does not apply when the captive is in grave danger, is considered the final say in halacha (see Pischei Teshuvah, Yoreh Deah 252:4). For example, the following responsum disputes Tosafos’ conclusion:
In the early sixteenth century, the Maharam of Lublin, Poland, was asked the following question by the Jewish community of Apta. (We should be careful not to confuse him with the Maharam of Rottenberg whom I mentioned above, who lived in Germany some 300 years earlier.) A young man of their community had been seized by gentiles, who contended that they had caught him engaged in unsavory activities, and that they were going to either execute him or forcibly convert him to their religion, in this instance, Islam. The community questioned whether it was required to redeem the young hostage, since he was accused of violating halacha and, in addition, had caused his own imprisonment by acting foolishly. In addition, assuming that they were responsible for redeeming him, they asked whether they were required to do so if the ransom demanded was excessive. (It appears from the responsum that the redemption funds would come from the general community funds or, perhaps, a special tax collection for this purpose.)
The Maharam responded that even were we certain that the young man had sinned, this fact would not exempt the community from redeeming him, even with use of public funds. Nevertheless, the Maharam contends that although they are required to redeem him, they are not required to pay more than his market value, even though his life is in serious danger. The Maharam contended that every captive is in life-threatening danger, yet Chazal ruled that we do not redeem captives at greater than “market value” because the potential life-threatening menace to the larger community endangers more people (Shu’t Maharam Lublin #15).
(The responsum of the Maharam has a surprising ending. After discussing all the halachic ramifications of the question asked, he reports that he consulted with a wise scholar familiar with the political scene near Apta, a certain Rav Moshe ben Rav Yehoshua, who advised that the accusation against the young man was merely an excuse of the jealous and greedy gentiles to demand funds from the Jewish community, and that the particular crime of which the young man was accused did not warrant the punishment they were threatening. Furthermore, the Maharam notes, it was uncertain whether the young man had indeed performed the act of which he was accused.)
Kidnapping for ransom
Does the takanah apply today, when the potential captors are not looking for prisoners that they can sell as slaves, but rather hostages that they can hold for ransom?
In an early responsum, the Radbaz (Shu’t #40) notes that the custom is to redeem captives at above the value that they would fetch in the slave market. He contends that even though the price is often ten or more times the captive’s slave value, the fact that the captors are not looking specifically for Jews means one can pay the higher price that a ransom would fetch. However, he notes that one should not pay more than gentiles would pay as ransom, since this could lead the captors to single out Jews in the future. The Radbaz notes, however, that common custom was to redeem at even higher prices. The Radbaz then proceeds to explain that this practice, which appears to run counter to the takanah of the Mishnah, is based on the following four heterim.
- Since there are wealthy gentiles who pay high ransoms for family members, potential kidnappers will target wealthy people, not necessarily Jews.
- Sometimes, the captive qualifies as a talmid chacham, who may be redeemed at above market price.
- When there are minors involved who will be lost to Judaism, we may redeem them at any price.
- We are not providing public funds, but seeking donations for these redemptions, which is not included in the takanah according to the first approach of the Gemara. (This last reason of the Radbaz is surprising, since the Rif, Rambam, and other major halachic authorities all rule according to the second reason the Gemara cited.)
Saving children from shmad
The third justification of the Radbaz touches on a different question, which unfortunately has become common, and leads us to a discussion about a different type of pidyon shevuyim. This is where we are not endeavoring to save someone’s physical life, which may not be at risk, but to save their spiritual life. It is accepted halacha that, in such a situation, there is no limit to how much money one is required to spend to save them, and the acts undertaken to save them supersede all the mitzvos of the Torah. This means that if one needs to travel on Shabbos or violate Shabbos in some other way to save a child from falling under non-Jewish influences, one is required to do so, just as saving physical lives supersedes Shabbos (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 306:14). Therefore, someone who needs to fight a legal custody battle to save a minor from being raised in a non-Jewish environment is required to spend as much money as it takes to save the minor, even when the chances of winning are slim and communities are required to contribute significant sums to help.
The circumstances surrounding any situation of pidyon shevuyim are extremely painful; yet, precisely for this reason, it is the greatest mitzvah of chesed we can perform on behalf of another Jew, whether we are involved in redeeming him physically or spiritually. We should be certain to respond generously whenever we are approached to help in this mitzvah, and see it as a huge opportunity to do Hashem‘s will.