Tools of Hope: Finding Guidance from Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef

The third installment of this series discussed the mitzvah of ransoming captives (pidyon shevuyim) along with the mishnah’s caveat that “We do not ransom captives for more than their price, to benefit the world.” The captors discussed in the mishnah were motivated by profits and the sages were concerned that if they learned that Jews pay higher ransom than other groups, this weakness would be exploited. When considering the case of the Entebbe hostages, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef initially suggested that the mishnah’s rationale still applied, so exchanging terrorists for hostages would be forbidden since it would incentivize further hijackings.

However, as his argument progresses, it becomes far from clear that the mishnah’s ruling should apply to terrorist captors. The mishnah presumes that the captors’ sole interest is to make money, whether by ransoming Jews or others. Consequently, they are careful to keep their captives alive to maximize their profits. Terror organizations are driven by ideology, and the Entebbe terrorists targeted Air France flight 139 specifically because it was filled with Jews traveling to Israel. Perhaps the release of even a single terrorist prisoner would constitute an “overpayment” as it would only embolden terrorists. On the other hand, perhaps it would be permissible to pay any price for hostages of terrorists, because they are ideologically rather than economically motivated and have no qualms about shedding Jewish blood.

The medieval rabbis posit several circumstances in which the mishnah’s ruling would not apply, and Rabbi Yosef, with his characteristic thoroughness, turns to these sources to investigate whether any of these exceptional cases resemble the situation Israel faced in Entebbe. One such case appears in the Talmud itself, on Gittin 58a:

It happened that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah went to the great city of Rome. They told him: There is a [Jewish] boy in captivity, with beautiful eyes, good looks, and his hair arranged in curls. [Rabbi Yehoshua] went and stood by the prison door, and recited: “Who gave Jacob for spoil, Israel to bandits?” (Isaiah 42:24). The boy responded [with the continuation of the same verse]: “Is it not the Lord, against Whom we have sinned, in Whose ways they did not want to walk, nor His Torah to heed?” [Rabbi Yehoshua] said: “I am certain that he will issue instruction to all Israel. [I swear] by the Temple service that I will not leave here until I ransom him for whatever price they set for him!

Rabbi Yehoshua paid an exorbitant price for a captive child, who went on to become a leading scholar. Medieval commentators note that this incident contravenes the ruling of the mishnah, and they justify Rabbi Yehoshua’s actions by suggesting reasons that allowed Rabbi Yehoshua to depart from it. Perhaps, it is permissible to do so when the captive is—or might become—a great sage. Or perhaps it is permissible when the captive’s life is threatened, or there is concern that a captive child will be raised as a gentile. Finally, some suggest that in the aftermath of the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction (when Rabbi Yehoshua visited Rome), when so much of the Jewish population was already in captivity, the mishnah’s concern about incentivizing captors to target Jews was irrelevant.

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef notes that, among these reasons, the second seems to apply to the Entebbe hostage situation, since the hijackers threatened to murder the hostages unless their demands were met: “Accordingly, in our case, where the hundred captive Jews are in definite danger, we need not concern ourselves with the possibility that this will encourage them to abduct more. . . rather, we redeem them however possible.”

Not all rabbinic authorities agree with this exception, however. For instance, Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman (1194–1270), known as Ramban or Nahmanides, argues that since every captive’s life is inevitably at risk, the mishnah must have taken danger into consideration when ruling against overpayment. Rabbi Yosef counters Nahmanides with a distinction, first suggested by Rabbi Menahem Meiri (1249–1315), between captors motivated by profit and captors who have no strong interest in keeping their hostages alive.

Rabbi Yosef also marshals a vast array of sources, mainly from early modern and modern responsa, to show that the bulk of halakhic precedent permits overpayment to save a captive whose life is threatened. These sections of Rabbi Yosef’s responsa constitute the sort of encyclopedic tour de force for which he was known.

The medieval rabbis certainly had opportunities to practice pidyon shevuyim, but it was in the sixteenth century that it became commonplace. This was a consequence of a dramatic increase in piracy and slave trading in the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea basins. It fell upon the Jews of the cities with significant slave markets to ransom their kidnapped fellow Jews. Rabbi Yosef quotes extensively from Rabbi Shlomo Luria (Maharshal, 1510–1573) who describes this phenomenon from the perspective of the Polish Jewish communities whose members were captured:

Nowadays, due to our many sins, Israel has diminished in the diaspora, and we must show compassion toward the surviving remnant, so that the ember of Israel is not extinguished. . . . Furthermore, if they do not redeem them, there is concern that [the captors] will kill [the captive Jews] out of malice, and when lives are threatened, we overpay for captives. . . . Therefore, [the Jews of Turkey] were moved to give physical and financial support to the ransom of captives; may heaven help them.

Turkish Jews paid high prices for Jewish captives, and Maharshal heaps praise on them for it. He then offers an account of the captivity of arguably the greatest thirteenth-century Ashkenazic sage, Rabbi Meir ben Barukh (Maharam) of Rothenburg:

I heard that Maharam of Rothenburg, of blessed memory, was jailed in the castle of Ensisheim for several years. The nobleman demanded a large sum from the communities, and the communities wanted to pay, but [Maharam] did not let them, saying that we do not ransom captives for more than their price. But I am astonished, for he was an outstanding Torah scholar, and in his generation he had no peer in Torah or piety, so it was permissible to ransom him for all the money in the world! Even if, in his great humility, he did not want to hold himself out as an outstanding Torah scholar, he still should have shown concern for the neglect of the Torah. . . . He surely thought that if they ransomed him, we would have to worry that every nobleman would do the same to the outstanding Torah scholar of the generation for so much money. Eventually there would not be enough money in the diaspora to redeem them, and the Torah would be forgotten in Israel.

Maharam’s death in captivity is not only Jewish history’s best-known instance of refusal to overpay ransom, but also one of very few such instances. In the main, communities paid high prices to redeem fellow Jews, and rabbis like Maharshal justified and praised the practice.

A similar pattern emerges in another responsum from Radbaz, who we met in Part I of this series, and which Rav Ovadiah Yosef also quotes at length (Responsa Radbaz 1:40):

You have asked me, so I will give you my opinion concerning the teaching of the Mishnah: “We do not ransom captives for more than their price.” Is the “price” that of a slave sold at market, or is the “price” what non-Jewish captives are sold for?

Answer: It is already the custom of all Israel to ransom captives for more than their market price. Indeed, an elder or minor is not worth more than twenty dinars in the market, yet they are ransomed for 100 or more.

Radbaz was confronted with the fact that Jewish communal “custom”—a term that indicates how common pidyon shevuyim was in his time—was to ransom captives for prices well above their slave market value. He justifies the custom by arguing that it is a transaction predicated on kinship and emotional bonds, not market forces. What one would spend to buy the freedom of one’s child or grandparent does not depend on the market or actuarial value of the captive. Radbaz then validates the prevailing practice by reinterpreting the Mishnah to have been talking about not paying over the prevailing ransom value, rather than slave market prices, for Jewish captives.

Yet he remains dissatisfied because Jews were in fact paying higher ransoms than other groups. He offers several justifications for this overpayment, variations of ideas we have already encountered:

First, there are non-Jewish captives who are ransomed for the same amount that we ransom Jews. . . . Second, perhaps among [the Jewish captives] is a sage. . . even one who is not yet a Torah sage, but is primed to become one, is ransomed for any amount. Third, perhaps there are children who will be forced to transgress religious law, in which case we are in fact ransoming the law. As a rule, they compel them to violate Shabbat and holidays, and they torment them with suffering worse than death.

According to Radbaz, we may pay a higher-than-average ransom price if there are some gentiles who also fetch such a high price. There is no limit to what we may pay to ransom a Torah scholar, so the mere possibility that one captive child will become such a scholar justifies overpaying for everyone. Yet he remains somewhat dissatisfied with such justifications:

Though there are grounds to dispute this and say that the Sages [of the Mishnah] made no such distinctions, it is nevertheless possible that the Mishnah was not referring to captives such as these. Since the matter is uncertain, leave Israel be, for they give generously for ransoms and rejoice in performing the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim.  Theirs is a beautiful custom that upholds the virtues of our father Abraham, of blessed memory, as it is written: ‘The most generous of peoples…the people of the God of Abraham’ (Psalms 48:10).”

Radbaz concludes that the textual halakhic basis for the communal practice of overpaying to redeem captives is not ironclad. However, the moral intuition of the Jewish people to uphold the virtues of generosity and charitability, the legacy of “our father Abraham,” is enough to overcome whatever textual uncertainties remain.

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef quotes Radbaz’s and takes his argument one step further, arguing for the exchange of terrorist prisoners for hostages:

Therefore, in the present case as well, even if there are grounds to say that [exchanging terrorists for hostages] is considered overpayment, since the present case [of the Entebbe hostages] entails substantial danger, we do not exhibit concern that they will redouble their efforts to seize more captives.

As Rabbi Yosef goes on to say, such terrorists will do “whatever they can to abduct, kill, murder, and disrupt normal life in the State of Israel,” regardless of the incentive structure. He closes this part of the argument with the hope that a verse in Psalm 37 will be fulfilled, and “their swords shall pierce their own hearts and their bows shall be broken” (Psalms 37:15).

For nearly two thousand years, the Jewish people had but one tool for redeeming hostages from captivity: money. After the hijacking of Air France flight 139, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef was called upon to assess the acceptability of a different tool: exchanging captives for imprisoned terrorists. He reached his conclusion by analyzing a broad array of halakhic case law and commentary but also by highlighting sources that validate communal practices based on collective emotion and intuition—even if they seemed to contradict the formal halakha.

Ultimately, the Entebbe hostages were rescued in a daring and successful military operation—another tool that was unavailable to the Jewish people for so many centuries. Rabbi Yosef was not consulted in advance about the permissibility of such a rescue operation. Rather, like so many of his predecessors through the centuries, it fell to him to justify action that the Jewish collective had already taken. In a postscript to his responsum, he writes that a military operation is acceptable if it is very likely to succeed, even if it will cost human lives, and even if a bloodless exchange of hostages for terrorists is possible.

Entebbe was not the first instance of hijacking a plane filled with Jews on its way to or from Israel. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef was not even the first or only rabbi to address the permissibility of releasing terrorists to secure the release of hostages—or of conducting a military rescue operation. He is but one example—though perhaps the greatest example—of how a virtuoso halakhic authority brings both vast halakhic erudition and profound empathy to bear on a horrific, emotionally charged, and largely unprecedented dilemma. Indeed, it is precisely this tempering of halakhic principles with the real human responses to these dilemmas—the way in which the blanket statement of the Mishnah was tempered by the story of Rabbi Yehoshua’s instinctive response to a Jewish boy held captive in a strange city—that enable the Jewish tradition to cope with new tragedies and horrors.

At the time of this writing, over one hundred of the hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7, 2023, are presumed to still be alive in Gaza. As in 1976, the Jewish people have tools available that our forebears could only dream of: prisoners to trade, a military with which to carry out rescue operations, and diplomatic and financial leverage. Yet the Jewish muscle-memory that shapes our collective intuition, guides our response to calamity, and gives us hope that we will overcome this, too, remains much as it was 500 years ago, when Radbaz wrote of paying exorbitant sums to ransom elders and minors, and 2,000 years ago, when Rabbi Yehoshua vowed to redeem a Jewish child in Roman captivity.

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