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    P i d y o n i m
    Shevuyim means
    redeeming a
    captive, paying
    s o m e o n e ’ s
    ransom. It
    is among
    the highest
    priorities of
    mitzvos. Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh
    De’ah 252:1) is more important
    than feeding and clothing the poor.
    If we fail to redeem captives, we
    risk rampant death and assimilation
    of upstanding members of our
    Some people think pidyon shevuyim
    is a relic of the past, when bandits
    controlled key roads and pirates
    rules the seas. But the truth is that
    kidnapping for ransom purposes
    still occurs and insurance companies
    sell policies to companies and high
    net worth individuals to help in the
    case of a ransom demand. Pirates
    still operate on the seas, board ships
    and take hostages. And, of course,
    in recent decades terrorists hijacked
    airplanes and took hostages.
    I. Exorbitant Ransoms
    The Mishnah (Gittin 45a) lists
    two rabbinic enactments regarding
    1) Do not pay an exorbitant ransom,
    i.e. above the going rate (for reasons
    discussed below). We will define
    below how to determine a reasonable
    2) Do not help captives escape
    (because that will endanger those who
    fail to escape and future captives).
    The Gemara asks whether the
    enactment against paying exorbitant
    is because of:
    A) doing so will place an undue
    communal burden, or
    B) paying too much ransom will
    encourage more kidnappings.
    The Gemara says that the practical
    difference between reasons A and B
    is whether an individual — a family
    member or friend — can volunteer
    to pay the exorbitant ransom. If the
    enactment is to prevent a communal
    burden, this should be allowed
    because the burden is carried by
    individuals and not the community.
    If the enactment is so as not to
    encourage further abductions, then
    even individuals may not volunteer
    to pay an exorbitant ransom because
    everyone will suffer in the future.
    The Gemara does not offer a definitive
    conclusion but Rambam (Mishneh
    Torah, Hilkhos Matenos Aniyim 8:12)
    and Shulchan Arukh (ibid., 4) cite the
    second explanation. They rule that
    we are not allowed to pay exorbitant
    ransoms to avoid encouraging future
    II. Reasonable Ransoms
    What is a reasonable ransom and what
    is exorbitant? Rav David Ibn Zimra
    (Radbaz, 16th cen., Egypt; Responsa
    1:4) discusses the custom he saw
    when he arrived in Egypt (he was
    among those expelled from Spain).
    In Egypt, Jews were accustomed to
    paying ransoms as much as 5 times
    what Muslims would pay. Radbaz
    struggles to define the going rate for
    ransom in a way that justifies this
    One way to define market rate is to
    see for what price someone like the
    captive would sell on the slave market
    (yes, Jews were traded as slaves in
    Africa in those days). Obviously,
    today that would not work because
    there is no slave market, at least not
    out in the open. Even in those days,
    Jews paid ransom that was much
    higher than the market slave price.
    Radbaz suggests looking at the
    common ransom paid by all people.
    Maybe the average for a man or
    woman of that age serves as a
    reasonable ransom, allowing for
    some variance in the exact amount.
    However, that still does not account
    for the high ransoms that Jews were
    paying in Egypt of his time.
    Radbaz offers a number of
    unconvincing rationalizations:
    perhaps a gentile would pay such
    a high ransom if necessary; maybe
    we pay an average ransom for the
    captive and an additional premium
    for the religion (I don’t understand
    what this means); maybe the
    captives all fall under one of the
    exceptions we will discuss shortly.
    None of these explanations answer
    the question satisfactorily but
    Radbaz concludes that he should not
    interfere with the ransom practice of
    his day.
    Tosafos (Gittin 45a s.v. de-lo)
    struggle to reconcile all the different
    stories in the Talmud about captives
    with this enactment not to pay
    exorbitant ransoms. In order to
    make sense of
    the conflicting
    n a r r a t i v e s ,
    Tosafos list a
    few exceptions
    to the
    1) You can pay
    any amount to
    redeem yourself
    or your spouse.
    2) You can pay
    an exorbitant
    ransom for a
    Torah scholar or
    someone who
    shows promise
    of growing into
    3) During a time of great antiSemitism, such as immediately
    following the destruction of the
    Temple, you can pay any ransom
    because people kidnap Jews with
    abandon and will not be encouraged
    by paying high ransoms. This
    certainly applied to the Holocaust.
    4) Later scholars debate whether
    you can pay an exorbitant ransom
    to save someone from certain death.
    (See Pischei Teshuvah, Yoreh De’ah
    III. Guilty Parties
    In the course of discussing these
    laws, Rav Shlomo Luria (Maharshal,
    16th cen., Poland; Yam Shel Shlomo,
    Gittin 4:72) says that if someone
    is captured because he stole from
    gentiles, there is no mitzvah to
    redeem him from captivity. Even if
    the punishment is disproportionate
    to the crime, he knowingly entered
    that dangerous situation and does not
    merit a communal effort of the highest
    priority to pay his ransom.
    Rav Meir (Maharam) Lublin (17th
    cen., Poland; Responsa, no. 15)
    discusses the case of a Jewish man
    who was caught with a gentile
    (Christian) woman. The local gentiles
    threatened to kill him but would have
    freed him for a ransom. Maharam
    Lublin says emphatically that there
    is a mitzvah to redeem him from this
    captivity even though he brought it on
    himself through sinful behavior.
    Radbaz (Mishneh Torah, Matenos
    Aniyim 8:13) says that he was asked
    whether there is a mitzvah to redeem
    someone held captive for stealing
    from gentiles. He says that this does,
    indeed, constitute the mitzvah of
    pidyon shevuyim. This would also be
    the case of someone is held captive
    for stealing from Jews.
    Ultimately, whether there is a mitzvah
    of pidyon shevuyim for someone
    guilty boils down to a debate between
    Maharshal on one side and Radbaz
    and Maharam Lublin on the other. In
    my survey of authorities of the last
    century, I have found that they seem
    to follow Maharshal. These include
    Rav Malkiel
    Ta n n e n b a u m ,
    Divrei Malkiel
    5:60; Rav
    Shmuel Wosner,
    Shevet HaLevi 5:135; Rav
    Shlomo Zalman
    A u e r b a c h ,
    as quoted in
    Ve-Alehu Lo
    Yibol (2:113);
    Rav Yitzchak
    Z i l b e r s t e i n ,
    C h a s h u k e i
    Chemed, Gittin