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Negotiating with Kidnappers

Negotiating with Kidnappers

Exploring the Talmudic thought process involved in releasing terrorists in exchange for the freedom of the three abducted Israeli soldiers.


Judaism is comprised of a complete and specific system of practical Torah, and through the Talmudic process, sweeping Divine principles are translated into practical application. One must descend from the clouds of theological inspiration, roll up one's sleeves and tediously weigh the bits and pieces until one has ascertained that he is meticulously fulfilling God's will in the most practical of circumstances.

Let us take a most relevant of cases: the three abducted Israeli soldiers and the demands of their kidnappers for the freeing of thousands of terrorists in order to release them.

Before we proceed further, a few caveats. The author of this article is no way a competent enough authority to rule on so weighty an issue; the length of this article is barely enough to scratch the surface. The real circumstances are known only to the government authorities.

But still this case will provide a fascinating insight into the some of the complexities in Jewish law that a rabbi must consider, and how misleading it is to translate a position into a simple, popular slogan.

The following would be a Talmudic thought process:

1. "Freeing captives is the greatest form of charity and it supersedes all other causes" (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 252, 1). "Anyone delaying this mitzvah is considered as guilty of blood-spilling" (ibid.).

This would seem to urge us to do whatever it takes in order to free a prisoner.

2. The Talmudic sages, however, seeing a terrible consequence of this great mitzvah, enacted the following decree:

"One does not free captives for more than their value (i.e. one would evaluate them as indentured servant -- their potential earning power."

The reason was twofold: (a) Captors demanded ransom that would devastate the community, causing widespread suffering, and (b) great ransom whetted the appetite of kidnappers and encouraged more and more kidnappings.

This would seem to imply that if the demands are outrageous, then one ought not to exchange them.

3. What if the captivity will conclude in the killing of the captive -- do we still refrain from ransoming him at an exorbitant price?

Torah authorities have debated this point and many are of the opinion that if the captive's life is in danger, then the above injunction does not apply.

It would seem that we ought to do whatever it takes to free them, for there is definitely an almost certainty of their being killed.

4. The above principles make sense when we are giving up money in order to save a life; but in the case Israel is presently grappling with, we are giving up murderers who potentially endanger other people's lives. Looking at the whole picture, can it be stated that we are in effect saving lives by agreeing to terrorist demands?

5. Yet another point must be considered. Is the killing of the captives, God forbid, a certainty if they are not released? And is the damage done by the release of terrorists to be viewed as a likelihood, not a certainty?

6. One more issue. This injunction applies to the community as a whole. What about the individual himself? If he can negotiate his own release, may he do so at an exorbitant price? What about his immediate family?

The list of issues and sources go on further and further.

Some of these issues had an extraordinary public application about 700 years ago. The leader of Ashkenazic Jewry at the time was Rabbi Meir ben Boruch of Rottenberg. He was imprisoned by a German ruler, Rudolph, whose voracity knew no bounds. Rabbi Meir (known as Maharam Mi'Rottenberg) was imprisoned until his death, and his body was not released. The community did not ransom him, as he himself had ruled. Seven years after his death, a private member of the community paid almost all of his own money to release the body, with the stipulation that he be buried next to him.

It is important to bear in mind when we see the devastated parents of the captives on one hand, and the look on the face of those who lost kin at the hands of terrorists on the other hand, that decisions about life and death should never ever be decided by raw emotions. Torah values, principles and laws must be weighed by the responsible minds of Torah authorities, and only then can we feel that we have done that which is right, price notwithstanding.

Please pray for three kidnapped soldiers: Gilad ben Aviva, Ehud Ben Malka, Eldad Ben Tova

September 9, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 11

(11) Yankel Moishe, October 25, 2011 11:52 AM

Rothenburg, not "Rottenberg"

I am aware this mistake is unfortunately quite widespread in frum circles, but the Maharam was not from "Rottenberg", but from "Rothenburg (ob der Tauber)". These are two different towns in Germany, the first ~50km east of Frankfurt am Main, the second ~150 km to the south east. There is also a "Rottenburg (am Neckar)", ~200 km south of Frankfurt.

(10) Esther K., October 12, 2011 8:29 AM

It's complicated

Everyone knows pidyon shvuyim is a tremendous mitzvah, however this exchange is quite the complicated one. It reminds me of this past winter when there was a huge blizzard and as a result weddings were being canceled. My aunt went according to Rabbanim and kept the wedding on its scheduled date. However she stated after the wedding that she was not able to enjoy her own sons wedding not even for one minute, knowing that someones life can possibly be at stake due to traveling in for her wedding. I think the parable is pretty clear.

(9) glennahill, October 11, 2006 10:31 AM

Where is the proof of kidnapped soldiers being alive?

Why have the Hitlers not excepted Israel's offer of returned murders for kidnapped soldiers?Why is the Red Cross refused to see kidnapped soldiers,to let Israel know they are still alive?Something is wrong with this picture.I hope Israel and the supporters of Israel,worst fears do not come to pass.We want to see the soldiers walk across the line,not carried.Pray for the IDF and the kidnapped soldiers of Israel."Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem,they shall prosper that love thee."

(8) Anonymous, September 24, 2006 10:37 AM

the swap

I think if Israel decides to release ONE of its prisoners for a captured soldier it should be a civilian imprisoned for a non-violent, or relatively non-violent, crime in which no loss of life occurred. That is the only fair exchange there can be. The reality is most of those in Israeli prisons are terrorists and would only spill more Israeli blood if released.

I continue to pray for the release and well-being of all three IDF soldiers--Gilad, Ehud, and Eldad.

(7) Joe, September 11, 2006 9:50 AM

G-d help me but I don't see how we can do it.

I pray for these men. I pray for their release. G-d help me though, if we trade, the enemy wins and will be encouraged to more outrages. I don't see how we can do it.

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