If you’re a fan of swashbuckling historical romance novels, then you’ll know that, for much of history, there was a pretty good chance that people from all walks of life might be taken prisoner. Imprisoned in jail, held for ransom by highwaymen or taken captive by pirates at sea…all were risks that we may find hard to imagine today. Indeed, in the middle ages it was particularly common for Jews to be held for ransom, sometimes by the government itself.

Living in an era when a life of slavery was a definite possibility for one taken captive, the sages were fully aware of the perils of captivity. Indeed, Rabbah ben Mari explained (Talmud Bava Batra 8b) that captivity is worse than natural death, sword and famine, and therefore the redemption of captives is a religious duty of the greatest importance.

Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon/Rambam Spain/Egypt/Israel 1135 – 1204) wrote that the act of pidyon shevuyim, redeeming the captive, was part of three different mitzvot in the Torah: 1) “you shall not harden your heart” (Deuteronomy 15:7); 2) “you shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother” (Leviticus 19:16); and 3) “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

At the same time that the sages proclaimed the greatness of this mitzvah, they also decreed that captives should not be redeemed for more than their worth, to prevent abuses (Mishna Gittin 4:6). These limits were decreed a) for fear of burdening the community with impossible ransom obligations and b) for fear that overpaying would encourage the kidnappers to take more captives. While this concept certainly prevented some redemptions (see the story of Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg), most captives were redeemed, often from community funds specifically collected for pidyon shevuyim.

DISCUSSION POINT: In what ways can the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim be performed in the 21st century?