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    I. Important
    In Jewish law and
    tradition, redeeming
    a captive (pidyon
    shevuyim) is the
    highest form of charity.
    The Talmud (Bava
    Basra 8a) refers to it with the unusual
    term of “great mitzvah” and Shulchan
    Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 252:1) says that
    “there is no mitzvah as great as pidyon
    shevuyim.” Redeeming a captive takes
    precedence over all other forms of charity.
    Shulchan Aruch continues that someone
    who ignores the need to redeem a captive
    violates numerous biblical prohibitions
    and commands. However, these rules were
    formulated in a different time. Someone
    who was kidnapped or taken hostage by a
    lawless government requires a ransom for
    release. Does this apply to someone who is
    caught up in a legal system that allows for
    due process?
    In the past, we discussed whether pidyon
    shevuyim applies to someone who is
    guilty. According to some authorities,
    there is a mitzvah to free someone from
    captivity even if he is guilty, and even
    if he committed crimes against his own

    community. However, according to most
    authorities, there is no mitzvah to redeem
    someone who brought the captivity on
    himself, even if the punishment is greater
    than the crime. There is no debate, though,
    about paying the ransom for someone
    innocent. If bandits or a rogue government
    kidnapped an innocent Jew, the community
    must pay the ransom to free him, albeit
    with certain limitations against paying an
    exorbitant ransom to prevent encouraging
    But what about governments that follow
    rules and provide relatively safe prison
    environments? If someone innocent is
    caught up due to a false conviction, is
    there a mitzvah to redeem him? Of course,
    prisons are full of inmates who claim to be
    innocent. Criminal behavior usually goes
    hand in hand with lying. However, some
    people are truly innocent. If we could
    conclusively verify someone’s innocence,
    are we obligated by a “great mitzvah” to
    help free the innocent victim of a faulty
    justice system?
    II. A Captive in Danger
    The key text to answering this question is
    the Talmudic passage in Bava Basra (8b):
    “Rabbi Yochanan says… The sword is

    worse than death… Famine is worse than
    the sword… Captivity is worse than all of
    them, as it includes all of them.”
    According to this passage, captivity
    inherently involves death. Someone who is
    held captive is at the whim of his captors,
    who can starve him, torture him and even
    kill him. He lives under constant risk to his
    life. If so, the “great mitzvah” of pidyon
    shevuyim only applies to a captive whose
    life is at risk. That applies to anyone who
    is kidnapped or held in a lawless, foreign
    prison. It does not apply to someone held in
    a modern country governed by laws.
    Rav Aharon Aryeh Katz (cont., Israel;
    Pesakim U-Teshuvos, Yoreh De’ah 252:1),
    the son-in-law of the author of Piskei
    Teshuvos, rules that pidyon shevuyim only
    applies to captives who might be killed
    by their captors. He writes that pidyon
    shevuyim applies today to those living in
    countries that do not care about innocent
    life and to those captured by underworld
    criminals. However, in countries where
    they do not wantonly kill innocent people
    and the only danger is imprisonment,
    pidyon shevuyim does not apply. In other
    words, someone innocent who is caught
    in the US or Israeli legal systems does
    not fall under the “great mitzvah” of
    pidyon shevuyim. Rav Katz adds that
    helping such an innocent victim still
    consists of a great mitzvah that falls
    into the category of chesed, just not
    pidyon shevuyim. Similarly, Rav Chaim
    Kanievsky (Derech Emunah, Hilchos
    Matenos Aniyim, 8:66 and n. 198)
    says that pidyon shevuyim applies to a
    captive who is at risk of being killed by
    his captors.
    III. All Innocent Captives
    However, Rav Shmuel Eidels
    (Maharsha, 17th cen., Ukraine; Bava
    Basra 8b, s.v. kulhu) explains that
    when the Talmud says that all of the
    previous punishments are included
    in captivity, it does not mean that the
    captors might kill the prisoner. Rather,
    it means that someone in captivity is
    in a weakened condition and might
    die naturally. According to Maharsha,
    pidyon shevuyim applies even to a
    captive who is not in danger of being
    killed by his captors. According to
    this understanding, someone innocent
    who is caught in even the US or Israeli
    legal systems would fall under the great
    mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim.
    Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan (Chafetz
    Chaim, 20th cen., Poland; Ahavas
    Chesed, part 2, ch. 20, par. 2n) says that
    captivity applies even when there is no
    threat of death. He bases this on a ruling

    of the Shach (Yoreh De’ah 252:10). That
    case is complex but Rav Avraham Danzig
    (19th cen., Lithuania; Chochmas Adam
    145:15) restates it simply and clearly: “A
    man and a woman who are in captivity in
    which there is no life danger, the woman
    [is redeemed] before the man… In a place
    where there is life danger, the man [is
    redeemed] before the woman.” Rav Danzig
    clearly applies the mitzvah of pidyon
    shevuyim to a case in which there is no life
    threat and only changes who is redeemed
    first based on the risk.
    IV. Conclusion
    If a truly innocent person is caught in
    the modern legal society, he can quickly
    go bankrupt from the costs to defend
    his innocence against an aggressive
    prosecutor. Even if he wins and clears his
    name, he will suffer from the immense
    burden of the financial debt he had to incur
    to defend himself. All authorities agree
    that it is a mitzvah to help alleviate this
    burden for someone who is truly innocent
    – again, I lack the expertise to determine
    who is innocent and therefore make no
    claims about specific individuals. Some
    believe that the mitzvah is chesed. As we
    have seen, other authorities, including the
    Chafetz Chaim, believe that the mitzvah
    rises to the level of pidyon shevuyim,
    redeeming a captive from bondage. Even if
    his life is not at risk from his captors – the
    police, prosecutors and prison guards – the
    stress and prison conditions weaken him
    and the lack of freedom inhibits him. May
    all the innocent be redeemed from their
    captivity speedily.