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Encyclopedia Judaica: Ransoming of Captives

CAPTIVES, RANSOMING OF (Heb. פִּדְיוֹן שְׁבוּיִים; Pidyon Shevuyim): The religious duty to ransom a fellow Jew captured by slave dealers or robbers, or imprisoned unjustly by the authorities to be released against ransom paid by the Jewish community. The fulfillment of this mitzvah was regarded by the rabbis of the Talmud as of paramount importance (BB 8a, 8b). It is told of R. Phinehas b. Jair that he went to ransom captives, and because he was fulfilling this duty, a river parted to enable him to cross (Ḥul, 7a, TJ Dem. 1:3). Maimonides explains that "(The duty of) ransoming captives supersedes (the duty of) charity to the poor.…" (Yad, Mattenat Aniyyim, 8:10).

To avoid the extraction of exorbitant ransom payments or repeated kidnapping by captors, the rabbis ordained that captives should be redeemed only at their market value as slaves (Git. 4:6; Git 45a; also Ket. 52a, b) unless the captive had been taken in place of the person who had to ransom him. When R. Joshua b. Hananiah was in Rome he ransomed a young man who later became the scholar R. Ishmael b. Elisha. Joshua heard of the young man's imprisonment and went to the prison and said "I swear not to move from here until I ransom him no matter what the price" (Git. 88a). The following rules for the ransoming of captives were laid down in the halakhah:

(1) Women captives should usually be given preference before male captives (Hor. 3:7; Hor. 13a).

(2) A person captured together with his father and his teacher may ransom himself first. He is then bound to ransom his teacher and only thereafter his father. A scholar should be given preference even to a king of Israel (Hor. ibid.).

(3) When a person is captured together with his wife, his wife takes precedence, and the court (bet din) has the power to compel the husband to ransom his wife) (Sh. Ar., YD 252:10).

(4) Money set aside for charity purposes or for the building of a synagogue may be used to ransom captives (BB8b).

(5) A person who delays the fulfillment of this duty and causes an undue prolongation of his fellow-Jew's imprisonment is regarded as if he has spilled his blood (Yad, loc. cit., 8:12). Notwithstanding the limitation set by the Mishnah against excessive ransoms, a person may redeem himself with any amount of ransom demanded by the captors.

Middle Ages

Under Islam, as under Roman rule, Jews had frequent occasion to fulfill this commandment. During the 9th–12th centuries in Muslim countries Jews were often seized by soldiers or pirates while on business on the high seas or during revolts and disturbances. The community of Alexandria imposed a special levy upon its wealthy members or conducted campaigns in other communities for ransoming captives. In the Middle Ages in Christian lands, the captives were often Jews who had been imprisoned in consequence of a *blood libel or *Host desecration libel, or simply to extort money from them. The ransoming of Jewish captives was facilitated by the fact that their devotion to the Sabbath and kashrut observance made Jews inconvenient servants with whom their new masters were willing to part. *Judah Halevi describes this as one of the gifts the Sabbath has conferred on the Jews: "For the gentiles would have apportioned you among them as their slaves were it not for those dates that you keep with such strict observance" (Kuzari, 3:10). *Meir b. Baruch of Rothenburg , at the end of the 13th century, forbade Jews to ransom him after he had been imprisoned to forestall the development of a precedent which would encourage despots to hold rabbis for ransom.

According to Sefer Ḥasidim (12th–13th centuries), a person who ransoms captives is meritorious because he saves men from torture and women from dishonor. The Jews of Spain considered that ransoming captives was an important duty; although their communities had no special fund for ransoming captives, when necessary, the communal leaders used endowments designated for this purpose, or the official in charge of charity collected money from the community.

Communities would spend large sums for this purpose and special officers were appointed for this task. Many of the regulations of the Council of Lithuania (see *Councils of the Lands ) concern the ransom of captives, for the Tatar raids from the Crimea during the 16th and 17th centuries made the ransoming of the captives thus seized a frequent phenomenon in Jewish life, particularly in the Ukraine and Volhynia. At the time of the *Chmielnicki massacres (1648–49), when masses of Jews were taken captive, the majority were ransomed by the Jewish communities in the Ottoman Empire. The Council of Lithuania permitted all communities having at least ten adult Jews, i.e., a minyan, to ransom captives without first obtaining permission to draw from the general budget of the Lithuanian community. This was allowed to prevent delay of their redemption, since the expenses were levied on the Jews throughout the country: it was noted by the Council that "the quicker one acts in this matter, the more praiseworthy will he be deemed, and his reward will be paid by the One who dwells in abundance." To redeem captives taken to lands in the Ottoman Empire, the Council of Lithuania collected contributions from every community and settlement within its jurisdiction. Throughout the Russian-Polish war (1654–67) the Council conducted a campaign in all the synagogues for ransoming the captives, and appointed special officers to go from house to house to collect contributions. The Council of Four Lands appointed a special person for the task of redeeming captives. In Nathan Nata *Hannover 's Yeven Meẓulah it is related that captives were assisted by their brethren in all countries which they reached, such as Moravia, Austria, Germany, and Italy.

Among the associations (see *ḥevrah ) formed for the purpose of ransoming captives in the communities, that of Venice became the most important: the Society of the Supporters of the Fund for Ransoming Captives, established by the brothers *Aboab , assisted captives and obtained their release in Eastern Europe, Persia, and the Barbary coast. The society's income was derived from the annual payments made by its members; it also received contributions from other communities. During the Middle Ages and into modern times the concept of the captive has been broadened to include a Jew unjustly constrained and imprisoned.

The ransoming of captives is one of the traditions in Jewish life expressing and encouraging feelings of compassion and solidarity.

[Natan Efrati]


Sh. Ar., YD 252, EH 78; Baron, Community, index, S.V. Redemption of Captives; Eisenstein, Ozar Yisrael, 8 (1912), 192–3; S. Dubnow, Pinkas ha-Medinah (1925), index, S.V. Pidyon Shevuyim; Y. Bergman, Ha-Ẓedakah be-Yisrael (1944), index; Halpern, Pinkas Va'ad Arba Araẓot (1945), index; idem, in: Zion, 25 (1960), 16–56 (= Yehudim ve-Yahadut be-Mizraḥ-Eiropah (1969), 212–49). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: E. Bashan, Shivya u-Fedпt (1980).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.