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The Ongoing Ethical Dilemma: Releasing Hostages in Jewish Tradition

הרב שי טחןד אדר א, תשפד13/02/2024

Tracing back to our forefather Abraham, who waged war to rescue his nephew Lot from captivity, and continuing through the battle against Shechem, who had kidnapped Dinah, the tradition persists to this day...

Jews around the world have strong sentiments regarding hostages, stemming from a profound sense of unity and familial connection. When one member of the community suffers, it's felt as if a close relative is in pain. During periods when Jewish hostages endure exceptionally harsh conditions, the collective anguish reverberates throughout the community.
Tracing back
to our forefather Abraham, who waged war to rescue his nephew Lot from captivity, and continuing through the battle against Shechem, who had kidnapped Dinah, the tradition persists to this day. Even in modern times, the Jewish people have released many prisoners, including terrorists, to secure the freedom of a single hostage.
In Jewish tradition, the preservation of life is of paramount importance. This principle, known as "pikuach nefesh," mandates that almost any commandment can be suspended to save a life. However, navigating situations involving hostages can be complex. Halacha recognizes the obligation to secure the release of hostages, emphasizing the importance of negotiation, ransom payment and diplomatic efforts.
The plight of the captive is dire. In captivity, they are expected to endure suffering and potentially face death (בבא בתרא ח,ב). Therefore, it is established in the Shulchan Aruch (יורה דעה רנב א-ג (that the redemption of captives takes precedence over all other charitable acts. There is no greater mitzvah than redeeming captives, and every moment delayed in their redemption, when it is possible to expedite it, is akin to shedding blood.
Despite this emotional response, it's crucial to examine the matter through the lens of Jewish law (Halacha) and Torah teachings.

Release of hostages for a substantial price.
Our sages enacted two principles that warrant discussion(גיטין פרק ד’ משנה ו’) . Firstly, they established a prohibition against redeeming captives for more than their worth. In other words, it is forbidden to pay a higher price for the release of a Jewish captive than what is normally paid for other captives. Secondly, they advised against attempting to secure their release.
Let's start by discussing the first principle, and later, we'll delve into the second and examine its relevance to our days.
There are two rationales behind the first enactment (גיטין מה,א): one is to avoid financially burdening the public, and the second is to prevent enemies from deliberately capturing Jewish hostages due to the high price they receive for them. If the rescue of captives comes at an inflated cost, it could lead to the future abduction and captivity of many other Jews.
Rashi suggests that the difference between those two opinions lies in a scenario where a relative of the captive is willing to pay the high price. According to the rationale of not burdening the public financially, this would be permitted as the relative takes on the entire expense. However, according to the concern that paying a high price may incentivize further abductions, it is forbidden.
Applying those reasons to our time, where the price of releasing hostages might involve the release of convicted terrorists with blood on their hands, both rationales apply. Firstly, even though the terrorists aren't requesting money, the cost is still high as it entails the risk of these individuals returning to harm other Jews, as history has shown. Additionally, the rescue of such terrorists is deeply painful for the victims' families and indeed for the entire Jewish community. Secondly, the high price paid for their release could indeed encourage further abductions, perpetuating the cycle of violence and endangering more of our people.
One notable story that aligns with your query is that of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg(המהר״ם מרוטנבורג) , a prominent medieval Jewish scholar and leader. Rabbi Meir was taken captive by the German authorities in 1286.
During his captivity, Rabbi Meir was offered several opportunities to secure his release, either by paying a hefty ransom or by converting to Christianity. However, he steadfastly refused to do so, maintaining his commitment to the halacha that a hostage may not be released for more than the accepted value.
Despite enduring harsh conditions and pressure to renounce Judaism, Rabbi Meir remained resolute in his beliefs. He saw his captivity as an opportunity to demonstrate unwavering devotion to his religion and inspire others to remain steadfast in the face of adversity.
Rabbi Meir's decision not to pursue his release had significant consequences. He remained in captivity until his death in 1293, spending his final years imprisoned in the fortress of Ensisheim
There are exceptions to this rule, particularly if a person's life is in danger. The Gemara(גיטין נח,א) recounts a story of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, who encountered a beautiful Jewish boy in captivity, later known as Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha. Rabbi Yehoshua decided to redeem him from captivity at any cost they would ask for him. Tosfot raises the question of whether this contradicts the rule established by Chazal, and answers that since the boy's life was in danger, he could be released at any price.
From this incident, we learn that when a hostage's life is threatened, the principle of not redeeming captives for more than their worth is uplifted. On the other hand, the Ramban contends that every hostage is inherently at risk of losing their life, and Chazal established their rule precisely with this in mind. Therefore, it is forbidden to pay more than their assessed value for their release.
Today, poskim debate whether it is permitted to release Jewish hostages for a hefty and extortionate price, such as releasing terrorists. Chacham Ovadia(יבי״א ח״י עמוד תעא) permits this based on two main reasons. Firstly, he cites the opinion of Tosfot, who permits redeeming Jewish hostages whenever their lives are in danger. Secondly, regarding the concern that such actions might encourage terrorists to further kidnap people, he argues that terrorists attempt such acts regardless, and releasing hostages under these circumstances is unlikely to change their behavior.
Today, we may observe a departure from his previous ruling. We can no longer rely on the logic of releasing hostages solely because they are at risk. Recent events have shown that releasing them in exchange for convicted murderers often leads to more bloodshed among innocent Jewish people. Therefore, we cannot justify saving one Jew while placing others at real and tangible risk.
Additionally, the argument that terrorists will attempt kidnappings regardless of our actions seems less valid today. The incentive for terrorists to kidnap has intensified, as they now perceive a greater reward if successful. Consequently, we cannot dismiss the potential consequences of releasing hostages lightly.

Escape of the hostages and its consequences.
The second takana (enactment) of Chazal was that we should not attempt to release hostages. The rationale behind this directive is that if we do, the kidnappers will intensify the conditions for future captives, often resorting to harsher measures such as tying them with ropes. This reasoning remains highly relevant today. We have witnessed instances where, after releasing hostages like the soldier Uri Magidish, terrorists have imposed even harsher conditions on remaining hostages, confining them to cages and subjecting them to severe treatment, including being tied with ropes.
In my humble opinion, considering the fragmented nature of terrorist organizations today, releasing hostages could be a viable option. However, it should be conducted discreetly, without publicizing it in the media or around the world. This way, the terrorists would remain unaware and less likely to enforce harsher conditions on the remaining hostages.
The Israeli government's approach to negotiating with terrorists, such as the release of Gilad Shalit in exchange for over a thousand convicted terrorists, has been a subject of debate. Some criticize this strategy, arguing that it rewards terrorism and jeopardizes security by releasing individuals who may pose a threat. Many of them were implicated in significant acts of violence, including the masterminding of atrocities during Simchat Torah, as well as the release of Hamas leader Sinwar.
Additionally, there are concerns that public advocacy for the release of hostages could inadvertently raise their value in the eyes of the captors, making it more difficult to secure their safe return.
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