Photo Credit: Jewish Press

“I’ve never seen anything like that…We have to rewrite the textbook.” These were the words of Dr. Renana Eitan, an experienced Israeli psychiatrist tasked with treating the released hostages in late 2023. Our communities have been davening many times a day for the safe return of the hostages, and as we continue to do so, this statement by Dr. Eitan reminds us that our concern for the hostages should not end when they are released. To maintain that sensitivity, it is worth reflecting on why the experiences of the hostages may be especially severe.

Most people are familiar with the colloquial usage of the term “trauma,” which generally refers to an experience in which a person survives various forms of harm, including threatened, physical or emotional. But due to the terms general nature, “trauma” is insufficient to describe the diverse and extreme types of injury that hostages can suffer. “Torture” is a more specific word that can help give language to the experiences of the hostages.


Nearly 50 years ago in the World Medical Association Tokyo Declaration defined the term “torture” as follows:

The deliberate, systematic or wanton infliction of physical or mental suffering by one or more persons acting alone or on the orders of any authority, to force another person to yield information, to make a confession, or for any other reason.

The impact of the experience of torture can be far-reaching, including physical symptoms like chronic pain; psychological and emotional challenges like PTSD and depression; relationship difficulties; difficulty with daily tasks and regular work; and unhealthy coping strategies such as alcohol or other substance use.

While these outcomes may also be present among survivors of other traumatic experiences, most people probably intuit that experiencing torture likely leads to a more severe impact than does most other forms of trauma. However, it may not be so clear why there is a difference. In this column, I will focus on one aspect that can make torture so impactful.

A hallmark of torture is the victim’s absolute lack of control of the manner, duration, or frequency of the assaults that, combined with the actual psychological or physical pain imposed on the victim, creates the conditions that we would call torture. The victim’s perception of control and agency is decimated, and the perpetrator has free reign to exploit this complete vulnerability.

The severity of this type of vulnerability is reflected in statements of Chazal. Rashi, interpreting a drasha in the Gemara (Bava Basra 8b), seems to underscore this insight. The verse in Yirmiyahu (15:1-2) lists the terrible things Hashem says will happen to the Jewish people:

Send them away from My Presence and let them go! And if they tell you, ‘Where shall we go?’ say to them, ‘Thus said Hashem: Whoever is destined for death, to death; whoever for the sword, to the sword; whoever for famine, to famine; and whoever for captivity, to captivity.”

The Gemara comments that the prophet’s list increases in severity, making captivity the worst, even worse than death or famine. Rashi explains that captivity is regarded as worst because “[the captive] is under the hand of his captors who can do him as they wish.” Rashi highlights that the captors’ complete control, and, by inference, the captives’ complete vulnerability, are central to what makes captivity the worst of these terrible possible punishments.

With this insight, we might also better understand a passage in the tochacha. The Torah (Devarim 28:34) tells us that things can get so bad that “[you will be] driven mad by what your eyes behold.” What does a person behold that leads to this madness? Some commentators point to the previous verses, such as 28:32: “Your sons and daughters shall be delivered to another people, while you look on; and your eyes shall strain for them constantly, but you shall be helpless.” Painfully, many families lived this nightmare just a few months ago. Not only were their children taken captive, but the powerlessness in the face of this atrocity can drive a person crazy.

With this insight, we can more deeply appreciate another statement of Chazal regarding those threatened with torture. In a remarkable passage, the Gemara (Kesubos 33b) argues that torture might be regarded as more severe than death, or at least the threat of torture is more fearful than the threat of death, and that had the three righteous men – Chananya, Misha’el, and Azaria – been threatened with torture instead of death, they might have bowed down the Nevuchadnezar’s statue instead of submitting themselves to such punishment.

Many rishonim interpret that the type of torture discussed in this Gemara refers to indefinite abuse, as opposed to a type of assault with a clear end point. In other words, there were two aspects that created the psychological pressure: 1) the anticipation of physical pain; and 2) the total helplessness to limit the abuse. The Gemara teaches that this second aspect may make the pressure too difficult to bear. As the Shita Mekubetzes quotes, torture leads a person to despair about his life and his pain is greater. If this reality is true for these three spiritual giants, it is certainly true for our brothers and sisters who were taken captive on October 7.

This extreme vulnerability and powerlessness, which is a feature of the torture that hostages confront in captivity, is only one of the psychological factors that contribute to the challenges they may face when they are freed. As we continue to pray for the wellbeing of the hostages and soldiers, we should also continue to pray for those who may now be physically safe, but continue to deal with the psychological and emotional wounds.

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Dr. Ethan Eisen received semicha from RIETS, and a PhD in clinical psychology from GWU. He authored the recently published book focusing on Torah and psychology, "Talmud on the Mind” (Kodesh Press).