Photo Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
Families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas dance with two new Torah scrolls dedicated to their return and in memory of those killed in the Oct 7 massacre and ongoing war, at the Kotel, On Tuesday.

The mitzvah of Pidyon Shevuyim, redeeming captives, is called by our Sages a “great mitzvah” (See Bava Batra 8a-b). The Rambam emphasizes, “There is no mitzvah as great as redeeming captives” (Hilchot Matnot Aniyim 8:10). Citing the Maharik, the Shulchan Aruch adds that every moment delayed in redeeming a captive is akin to spilling blood (Yoreh De’ah 252:3). This mitzvah is so great in fact, according to Tosafot one may even sell a Sefer Torah to redeem a captive (Bava Batra 8b, s.v. pidyon shevuyim).

But are some ransoms too exorbitant? Some costs too high? Some demands too unreasonable?


The Mishna (Gittin 4:6) states: “We do not ransom captives for more than they are worth, because of Tikkun Ha’olam – Rectification of the World.” It is one of a number of enactments our sages made to prevent a deterioration of the very fabric of society. The Talmud (Gittin 45a) suggests two reasons why it is forbidden to pay an unreasonable ransom: 1. It is too great of a burden for the community to bear. 2. It will encourage the taking of captives for ransom in the future. Rashi (ad loc., s.v. oh dilma) explains that the practical difference between these two answers would be if one of the captives has a wealthy relative. In such a case it would place no burden on the community, but still may encourage the taking of captives in the future. The Talmud continues and relates how Levi ben Darga ransomed his daughter for 13,000 golden dinars of his own money. Abaye asked, “But who says that he acted with the consent of the Sages? Maybe he acted without the consent of the Sages!”

Elsewhere (Ketubot 52a-b), the Talmud discusses the obligation of a husband to ransom his wife. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel ruled that a husband does not have to pay more than the amount stipulated in his wife’s ketubah, and in general we do not pay an excessive ransom for a captive because of Tikkun Ha’olam (See Rashi, ad loc., s.v. trei kulei).

In this case, even if the husband is willing to pay an excessive amount – placing no burden on the community whatsoever – he is not obligated to do so. According to some, he is not even permitted to do so (See Chelkat Mechokek and Beit Shmuel to Even Haezer 78). This would suggest that the overriding concern is that we should not encourage the taking of captives in the future.

Indeed, the Rambam (Hilchot Matnot Aniyim 8:12) and Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 252:4) rule that it is not permitted to pay an excessive ransom so as not to encourage our enemies to take captives in the future.

But there are exceptions to the rule. Tosafot rules that a captive may pay an excessive amount to redeem himself (and by extension his wife). And based upon Gittin 58a, an excessive ransom may be paid for an exceptional Torah scholar (Tosafot to Gittin 45a, s.v. d’lo l’grevu). In addition, it is permitted to pay an excessive amount for one whose life is in imminent danger (Tosafot to Gittin 58a, s.v. kol mamon. Cf. Ramban to Gittin 45a, s.v. v’yesh omrim. See also Pitchei Teshuvah, Yoreh De’ah 252:4).

In the past, the value of an individual was calculated based on the slave trade (See Rashi to Ketubot 52b, s.v. trei kulei). Writing in 16th Century Poland, the Maharam mi Lublin ruled, “Although the slave trade no longer exists, and therefore there is no price on human beings, we nonetheless calculate according to the value that (the individual) is worth in a place where there are slaves” (Teshuvot Maharam mi Lublin, 15). According to the Radbaz, it has become the accepted norm for Jews to pay more than the fair market value, but no more than a ransom paid for non-Jewish captives as that would be considered excessive (Teshuvot ha-Radbaz 1:40). The Maharshal even praises those “Gomlei Chassadim” who pay more than necessary to redeem Jews from captivity, especially when the captive’s life is in danger (Yam Shel Shlomo, Gittin 4:66).

But what is considered an “excessive ransom” today?

For the families of the 240 hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza – desperately waiting for their return – no price is too high, no demand too great, to get their loved ones back. But this question is far from simple, and the subject of much discussion and debate among contemporary poskim.

In May, 1985, Israel released 1,150 prisoners in exchange for three Israeli soldiers taken captive during the First Lebanon War. The controversial Jibril Agreement – one of several prisoner exchange agreements at the time – generated criticism by many, among them Rav Shlomo Goren. Citing many of the sources discussed above, Rav Goren believed that freeing l,150 prisoners was an unreasonable ransom and would encourage future kidnappings, placing our soldiers in danger (Hazofeh, 11 Sivan 5745). In fact, among those released was Ahmed Yassin, who would later go on to co-found Hamas and serve as its spiritual leader.

Rav Shaul Yisraeli disagreed and argued that the State of Israel is obligated to redeem its soldiers at all costs. As a soldier is a shaliach of the State, he argued that just as an individual is permitted to pay an excessive sum to redeem himself, the State may pay a hefty cost to redeem its soldier. He also argued that since the captives are in vadai sakanah – certain, imminent danger – this overrides the concern of future kidnappings, which is only safek sakanah, possible danger (Chavat Binyamin 1:16).

Rav Chayim David Halevi also defended the State of Israel’s decision to release prisoners in exchange for the return of IDF soldiers. He believed that the release of prisoners does not pose any new, previously non-existent danger since, “These terror groups will always do all they can to harm Jews by all means possible. And there is no doubt that if they could, they would sacrifice themselves and kidnap soldiers and citizens every day in order to release their prisoners being held by Israel.” He also added that if Israel’s policy is not to redeem captive soldiers, this would be a devastating blow to our soldiers’ morale and will cause soldiers to retreat rather than risk capture (Aseh Lecha Rav 7:53).

(Worth noting, when Rav Goren subsequently republished the article in his Torat Hamedinah, he concluded like Rav Yisraeli and Rav Halevi that it is permitted to release prisoners in exchange for the safe return of our soldiers.)

The issue became the subject of discussion and debate once again in October, 2011 when 1,027 prisoners were released in exchange for Gilad Shalit who was held for over five years in Gaza. At the time, Israeli chief rabbis Shlomo Amar and Yona Metzger released a statement supporting the deal. Among those prisoners released were Hamas leaders and terrorists with Jewish blood on their hands. In subsequent years, at least six Israelis have been murdered in attacks planned or perpetrated by prisoners released during the Shalit deal.

As I pen this piece, it has been reported that the Israeli government is expected to approve a deal which would guarantee the release of fifty-three hostages in exchange for a four-day ceasefire. The deal also includes a provision to extend the ceasefire by two days if Hamas releases an additional twenty hostages. Our hope and fervent prayer is that Hashem return all of the hostages to their homes – together with our holy soldiers – safely and speedily. Amein.

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Rabbi Shimshon HaKohen Nadel lives and teaches in Jerusalem, where he serves as mara d'atra of Har Nof's Kehilat Zichron Yosef, rosh kollel of the Sinai Kollel and Kollel Boker at Hovevei Zion, and lectures at the OU Center.