The Jewish people are unhappily steeped in the wisdom of experience when it comes to redeeming hostages. Can the Bible and its many commentaries help us determine how to proceed at this terrible time, with some 240 captives in the underground tunnels of Hamas?
The ancient sage Rabbi Yohanan, citing a text from Jeremiah, identifies captivity as a fate worse than plague, death by the sword, or famine. No wonder that the Talmud, in Tractate Bava Batra, says that redeeming captives is a מצוה רבה — a mitzvah that justifies diverting all other funds to its fulfillment. The great code of Jewish law, the Shulkhan Arukh, says there is no greater mitzvah than redeeming captives — and that anyone who delays their ransom unnecessarily is as one who spills blood.
But our tradition also teaches us that we must think beyond the hostages themselves to the broader welfare of the Jewish people, and to recognize that not all situations and contexts are the same. A few touchstones might help responsible leaders navigate the crisis we are now in.
An Ancient and Abiding Obligation
The tradition of redeeming Jewish captives precedes Jeremiah. Early in his odyssey as God’s chosen one, Abraham confronts two crises in which those close to him are abducted. His wife, Sarah, is taken by Pharaoh, and his nephew, Lot, is carried off by four kings who conduct a successful raid on five rebellious vassal-kingdoms. In the first episode, Abraham freezes, and Sarah’s redemption must await God’s intervention. In the second, Abraham musters a makeshift militia from his household, chases and defeats the four kings, and frees Lot and others taken captive with him.
This turns out to be a recurring theme in the Torah. When members of the desert generation are taken captive by the King of Arad, the nation quickly mobilizes to return them. A midrash, however, interprets the Hebrew phrasing to suggest that only a single maidservant had been hauled away. This interpretation stresses not that the depredation was minor but, on the contrary, that abduction is so severe a trespass, the guarantee of freedom offered by a society to its members so basic, that even a single, socially marginal figure warrants the marshaling of all the community’s resources.
We also read in Kings of what befalls King David while on a military expedition. The Amalekites attack Ziklag, his home base at the time. The Amalekites burn the town and carry off every family member there. David’s reaction is striking. First, he weeps: “David and the troops lifted up their voices and wept, until they were unable to weep anymore.” Then he seeks divine counsel: “David consulted God saying, ‘Shall I chase after this band of troops? Will I overtake them?’”
The expression of grief here is intense and overwhelming: We are left in no doubt of the effect on even the mightiest warrior of having one’s family members stolen away. But David, despite his extraordinary military prowess, does not let his emotions determine his response. He recognizes that rescuing hostages is no simple undertaking, and he sets off only after receiving God’s assurance that an operation to liberate them will be successful.
In Mishnah Gittin, a limitation is placed on redeeming captives: One must not ransom them for “more than their worth.” Why is it so important not to overpay? “For the betterment of the world.” The Talmud raises the possibility that this prohibition is designed to discourage further hostage-taking. As befits a Talmudic discussion, however, it proceeds to relate a case that runs the other way. We are told that “Levi bar Darga redeemed his daughter for 13,000 gold dinars”! The implication, at this point in the debate, is that there is in fact no concern about overpaying and thereby incentivizing future hostage-taking; there is only a question of whether there is someone who can bear the cost. The great Talmudic rabbi Abaye replies: “How do you know this redemption happened with rabbinic approval? Perhaps the rabbis objected!” The passage predicts much of the later jurisprudence of this topic: a fierce desire to achieve the return of hostages at any cost by their relatives, moderated by the agonizing but necessary decisions of community leaders as to whether a particular ransom will threaten communal safety more broadly.
Modern hostage theory endorses this Talmudic position. Yet even in the Talmud, it appears to have been honored more in the breach than the observance. One ruling in Ketubot allows a husband to redeem his captive wife for up to 10 times her “worth.” And a story is told of the great Rabbi Yehoshua who, on one of his journeys to Rome in the wake of the destruction of the Second Commonwealth, finds a young boy in a Roman prison fluent in the Bible. Rabbi Yehoshua pledges to redeem him no matter the ransom. The boy, we are told, grows up to be none other than the great Rabbi Yishmael.
Can this story be squared with the Mishnah’s restrictive rule? Tosafot, a compilation of medieval French commentators on the Talmud, offers three possible resolutions: The young boy was obviously a great scholar, as future developments showed, so his freedom was essential for the public good beyond any risk of incentivizing hostage-taking; the boy’s life was in danger, and hostages whose lives are at serious risk are not subject to normal calculations; finally, at the time, Jewish life was so cheap, with hostages being taken left and right, that incentives were irrelevant.
The tradition paints a complex picture. Yes, we must do everything we can, as soon as we can. But we cannot endanger the larger community by doing so. Famously, the prolific 13th-century Tosafist Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg is said to have refused his own ransom based on his reading of the Talmud. He preferred to die in prison — after seven years — rather than put others at risk by allowing a disciple to pay an enormous sum to redeem him. Even so, one must examine the context, particularly with regard to danger to life, when making a final decision.
Then and Now
How can we apply this wisdom to our current moment?
The hostages in Gaza today are being held not for monetary gain but as an act of war. In light of this, it is the precedents of Abraham and David that are the most relevant here: This is a battlefield situation that must be approached with due care. Concerns about incentivizing future hostage-taking are not financial in nature; they are matters of security and military deterrence. The exchange that resulted in Gilad Shalit’s release put more than 1,000 prisoners back on the streets, including Yahya Sinwar, the mastermind of the October 7 massacres, as well as hundreds serving life sentences for planning and perpetrating terror attacks; this swap will continue to be debated. But modern states need to maintain the motivation of their troops with the assurance that they will do everything possible to ensure their release if they are captured. Soldiers who fear being abandoned will be less bold in defending their country.
In addition, the Jewish state obviously has an obligation to emphasize its commitment to the sanctity of life and its preservation, particularly in a conflict in which the hostage takers’ declared aim is to kill every Jew they can. That, after all, is one of the primary purposes of a Jewish state. Perhaps the most powerful articulation of the matter was offered by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the late Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, as he reasoned through the challenges of the raid on Entebbe, which freed many Jewish hostages at great risk to the captives and the rescuing soldiers alike: If the risk to the hostages was certain and imminent, then future risk must be borne to save Jewish lives now.
Rachel Goldberg, mother of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, currently held in Gaza, all but shouted at the United Nations: “Where is the world? … Why is no one demanding just proof of life? … This is a global humanitarian catastrophe!” It is an international catastrophe that infants, the elderly, and entire families can simply be carted off in broad daylight without the world demanding their immediate and unconditional release. This is surely a basic human truth.
Jews, who unfortunately have millennia of experience of our people being held captive, should be loudest in leading the international chorus. Our tradition insists we act responsibly, but with maximum urgency.
Bring them home now.