The issue of the redemption of Jewish hostages and captives from enemy hands is unfortunately a very old and painful one. The mishna in Gittin already recorded for us that even though the commandment of redeeming captured Jews is one of top priority in Jewish life, demanding that even holy artifacts be sold to raise funds for such a purpose, nevertheless we are forbidden to pay an exorbitant price to secure the freedom of such a captive. In an age when hostages and captives were sold on the slave markets of the world it was relatively simple to judge what was an “exorbitant” price demanded for the release of the captured Jew. However, in our times the criterion of what is considered an “exorbitant” price for the release of a Jewish prisoner is very difficult to establish.
The Israeli army and government has had to deal with this painful problem quite a number of times over the past decades. Its main purpose has always been to return the captive home in the best condition possible. Great debate has always accompanied this situation and policy and I am grateful that such terrible decisions are not mine to make. Many have said that the past prices paid were “exorbitant.” Others say that the price was worthwhile and justified. Perhaps only Heaven itself can decide on such impossible Hobbesian choices.
Jewish history is replete with such incidents of hostages and captives. In the thirteenth century, the great rabbi Meir of Rottenburg, was taken hostage by one of the local dukes. Rabbi Meir was one of the great Ashkenazic scholars of the Middle Ages. He was the mentor and teacher of Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel (Rosh) the greatest of the latter Tosafists and one of the basic decisors of halachic law. The duke demanded a great ransom for the release of Rabbi Meir. The Jewish communities of the area, out of their great love and respect for Rabbi Meir and their loyalty and honor to Torah scholars, were prepared to pay this exorbitant ransom. However, Rabbi Meir himself forbade the Jews from so doing, arguing, undoubtedly correctly, that payment of the ransom would only encourage the duke to repeat his evil deed with even Rabbi Meir himself becoming the victim a second time.
Under his mentor’s advice, Rabbi Asher fled the German area and took up residence in Toledo in Spain. The duke did not relent on his extortionist demands and eventually Rabbi Meir passed away in the prison of the castle of the duke. The duke then demanded the very same exorbitant ransom for the release of the body of Rabbi Meir for Jewish burial, also a cardinal principle and commandment in Jewish life and law. Again, according to the wishes of Rabbi Meir as he expressed them during his last years of life, the ransom was not paid.
The duke held the body for ransom for thirteen years. Eventually, a very wealthy Jew from Mainz came to a settlement with the duke and Rabbi Meir was buried in the ancient Jewish cemetery of Mainz. Next to his grave lies the body of the wealthy Jew who obtained the release of Rabbi Meir’s remains. These two graves in the Jewish cemetery remained a place of Jewish visitation and veneration even until our very day.
During the reign of the Czars of Russia during the nineteenth century many rabbis and Jewish public figures were arrested, almost always on trumped up charges of disloyalty or illegal monetary transactions. Great efforts were made to obtain their freedom, often by exerting political and diplomatic pressure on the Russian government from other world powers. Means of corrupting the police and government ministers were also employed in order to obtain the release of these prisoners. But again there was a great hesitation to pay any “exorbitant” price to the Czar and to his cohorts for the release of the arrested prisoners.
The decisions regarding these cases were basically ad hoc depending on the exact circumstances of each case. But the problem of an “exorbitant” price always remained within the Jewish community and apparently remains so until our day. Judaism abhors simplistic answers to very complicated problems and issues. There has never been a simple answer to the question of ransoming Jewish prisoners or hostages. There obviously is no simple answer to this issue today. We can only pray for wisdom, patience, balanced behavior and Godly inspiration to help us arrive at the correct decisions in such matters, if and when, God forbid, they arise.