One of them was the father of the Jewish nation. The other was his nephew, who joined the biblical Patriarch in leaving their place of birth on an almost mad journey to a new land. It took some time, as well as a brief adventure in Egypt, before they finally settled in Canaan. But then, the nephew fell captive – he and all who were with him. It happened because of a war they had absolutely nothing to do with, between different groups of petty monarchs with outrageous names like Kedarlaomer and Amraphel.
When Abraham heard his nephew Lot had fallen captive, he did not hesitate, even for a moment. He got his family and entourage together – a mere 318 people, all told – and set out to pursue the four captor kings and their armies, who had just won a decisive victory in the Valley of Siddim (near the Dead Sea) against five other kings. The pursuit began nearby in Sodom and reached all the way to Damascus, but Abraham was finally able to save Lot: “And also Lot … he returned and also the women and also the people” (Genesis, 14:16).
With the captives now freed, the King of Sodom and the King of Salem (Shalem, Jerusalem of today) received Abraham and his people with flowers and gifts (well, bread and wine, anyway). Abraham handed them the loot he was able to take in battle. He went to war not to get rich, but to save Lot and the others taken captive with him.
This is probably the first incident of captives being freed in the recorded history of the Jewish nation.
Judaism considers human captivity to be a grievous sin. One of the Ten Commandments is “Thou Shall Not Steal” – and this commandment in fact refers to kidnapping – stealing people, not inanimate property. The punishment for this is death – “And he who steals a man and sells him, and he is found in his hands, will be put to death” (Exodus, 21:16).
Consequently, and possibly also due to our past, as a nation redeemed from captivity and slavery in Egypt, freeing captives from their captors has become a supreme moral value in Judaism. Something that must be done.
Maimonides says this of the imperative to free captives:
“And you have no greater commandment than the redemption of captives, for the captive is to be classified among those who hunger as well as those who thirst, those who are naked and those who stand on the brink of death.”
(Hilchot Matnot Aniyim, 8:10-11)
According to Jewish law, redemption of captives comes prior to many other things, including even taking care of the non-captive poor. It is even permissible to sell a Torah scroll to redeem a captive with the proceeds.
When a man marries a woman, he makes ten commitments to her, one of which is an obligation to redeem her if she is taken captive.
We are told of how King David himself fulfilled such an obligation. While David was busy with a certain Philistine mess in another part of the country, two of his wives – Achinoam and Avigail – were staying in the city of Tziklag. The Amalekites living in the area exploited the absence of King David and his army to attack the city, burn it to the ground, and take all the women and children captive.
When King David returned to a burned and empty city, he made the decision to pursue the Amalekites, even though he could only take some 400 men with him for the purpose, of whom 200 soon deserted. Fortunately, they caught an Egyptian youth along the way, the slave of one of the captors. He directed them to the Amalekite camp, where David and his men found their enemies “drinking and reveling because of the great amount of plunder they had taken” (the women, we can reasonably assume, were considered part of this “plunder” – 1 Samuel 30:16).
David and his men had the advantage of surprise, and they slaughtered many looters and drove the rest to flight, leaving the property almost entirely intact and many women shaken, but still alive.
But superhero style rescue missions, even if told of our fathers and kings, have not been the main method the Jewish people have used to redeem their captives over the centuries.
During the long years of exile from the Land of Israel, all the leaders of Jewish communities could do was collect money – ransom – to free captives from bondage, or convince other, richer communities to help them out.
The Cairo Genizah, for instance, contains correspondence between Maimonides and various Jewish communities dealing with the redemption of captives – how many and where, and how much it would cost to free them. Among the letters is a receipt signed by Maimonides’ hand, relating to a sum donated for the redemption of captives. The text of the receipt explains that the donation came from the donor’s sale of his property.
The captives redeemed by the communities in Egypt weren’t friends or relatives of the donors, they were Jews who usually came from distant lands such as Mesopotamia and Southern Europe. They were typically were taken captive by pirates or highway robbers and were brought to cities in North Africa to be sold into slavery.
The concept of being taken captive and the difficult experiences entailed were not foreign to the members of Jewish communities, no matter where they were based. Even if they didn’t experience it personally, these people had been raised on stories of exile – in Egypt, Babylon, and later the exiles of the Second Temple period and the horror stories of the captives taken to Rome.
The Jewish captives were their brothers, and it was a great mitzvah to redeem them, even at great expense. Even if they didn’t know them from Adam.
There were cases where the effort to redeem captives failed – where they died due to sickness or abuse. There were also times when freeing captives helped to create new communities or strengthen existing ones.
Such was the case with the legendary “Four Captives.” According to the story, these were four sages who left Babylon, or the city of Bari in Italy, depending on who you ask. Their ship was ambushed by pirates on the Mediterranean, and they were taken captive. In that time, the late 10th century, about 150 years before Maimonides was born, Babylon was the spiritual center of the Jewish People. Jews in communities in North Africa, Italy, and Spain were almost entirely religiously dependent on the sages in Babylon and their religious rulings, which could only reach them after months of travel, in the best-case scenarios.
The pirates did not offload all the captives at once, instead offering their human cargo at the various ports they visited on their voyage. Thus were the four sages spread out across a very broad geographic expanse – from Egypt in the east through Morocco to Spain in the west. At each of the locations where one of the sages was redeemed, that sage eventually helped to establish a new independent spiritual Jewish center.
Rabbi Moses Ben Hanoch and his son, also called Hanoch, reached Spain. They were redeemed with a princely sum by the community of Cordoba, which was then a small, developing community. No-one in the community knew the ragged individuals they saved, yet they did not hesitate to pay more than the community could afford to rescue them. Their adherence to the commandment of redeeming captives paid off in spades: They eventually understood who Rabbi Moses was, and he was appointed as head of the city’s Jewish school. Over time, Cordoba became an important and significant Torah center, and its flourishing alongside other communities helped form the basis of Spanish Jewry’s Golden Age.
But things weren’t always so simple. Jewish efforts to free their captives at any price created a problem, and it was clear to the sages that this might actually encourage the kidnapping of Jews specifically. This is why the sages of the Mishna enacted the following regulation:
“We do not redeem the captives for more than their worth, because of Tikkun Olam (repair of the world).”
This regulation, which decrees that captives should not be redeemed for more than their market value, required people to put their feelings aside, and prefer the rational strategy that considered the long term good of the nation over the desire to ease the pain of a suffering mother or daughter.
But this regulation was not always strictly adhered to. The Gemara tells of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Hananiah, who redeemed a child from the Romans (the Gemara does not tell us if the child was captured alone or with his family). When the effort to redeem the child ran into trouble, he said “I will not move from here until I have ransomed this boy for whatever money may be asked.” And indeed, the Gemara says that he paid a very large sum of money for the child, much more than he was worth. Was it because of mortal danger that he ignored the regulation, or because he knew this child could become a great leader? It is not clear. In any event, per the story, the freed child grew to become the famous Rabbi Ishmael.
One leader who did demand that the regulation be applied – to himself – was Meir of Rothenburg, “The Maharam”, who was born Meir Ben Baruch in 1220 CE in the city of Worms, Germany. Worms is a beautiful town with a rich Jewish history. A number of great Torah sages emerged from Worms whose teachings formed a solid foundation for Ashkenazic Jewry for generations, but the city was also the sight of a terrible massacre of Jews, and the Jewish quarter itself was destroyed a century after the Maharam’s death.
In his youth, the Maharam studied with the great sages of France. Upon returning to Germany, he very quickly became the main Rabbinic authority of Ashkenazic Jewry. Towards the end of his life, the Jews of Germany were increasingly persecuted and he, who believed every Jew must do everything they can to reach the Land of Israel – set out on the difficult journey. But the law of that time forbade the Jews from leaving Germany’s borders. He was caught in Italy and handed over to the German authorities.
The Maharam of Rothenburg was imprisoned in a fortress in the city of Ensisheim, to the dismay of his students and family. The community obviously wanted to redeem him – he was their undisputed leader – and apparently, they even began to collect the necessary funds. But the German ruler demanded an exorbitant sum, and the Maharam – perhaps with the hope of being freed for a more reasonable sum later on – commanded them not to pay the ransom. He died a few years later in prison, leaving behind the commentaries he wrote in his cell, after being provided, reluctantly, with a parchment and quill to write with.
Even after his death, the German authorities would not release his body to be buried. It was only 14 years later that a rich Jew named Alexander Ziskind Wimpen came forward and paid a fortune for the body’s release. He himself was buried alongside the Maharam in the Worms cemetery, where the adjacent graves of the two can still be found, with the gravestones telling part of this story.
The story of the Maharam of Rothenburg is but one of many. In Christian Europe, Jews were perhaps not sold into slavery or used as props in cruel gladiator fights, but they continued to be taken captive and imprisoned in terrifying fortresses and prisons, oftentimes without a fair trial or even a trial at all.
Jewish community pinkasim (ledgers) from all over Europe are filled with side notes on diplomatic efforts to redeem captives, documentation of prayers to free prisoners, or lines in the accounts mentioning sums allocated for such purposes. Success in this field, so it seems, was hard to come by.
Many years later, during the era of the British Mandate in the Land of Israel, redemption of captives took a sharp turn. No longer a question of paying ransom (or bribes to Ottoman officials), the prisoners in British jails now often had a military background – these were members of the underground forces seeking to liberate the country. Alongside (largely failed) diplomatic efforts, the members of the Jewish community or Yishuv and the underground fighters returned to the ways of their forefathers from the Bible – the way of armed struggle.
On May 4, 1947, the Irgun (Etzel) raided Acre Prison to free the underground prisoners held there. This was a complex operation which included coordination among a number of teams, including the prisoners themselves. The Irgun members disguised themselves as members of a British engineering unit and maintenance crew, and a firefight broke out with a British paratrooper force guarding the jail.
The Jewish Yishuv was in tumult. Forty-one Jewish prisoners managed to escape, six of whom were killed and another eight recaptured. Three members of the attacking force were also killed and another three were captured and later executed. In addition, more than 180 Arab prisoners also broke out of jail that day. Most of them were caught, but some – including dangerous criminals with significant potential for killing Jews later on – managed to stay on the outside.
Was this a heroic action redeeming captives, or a needless suicide mission that endangered the Yishuv? In a speech that Menachem Begin, the head of the Irgun, gave on the radio three days later, he said the following:
“Once again, our blood has been spilled and has saturated the hills of Galilee. But it is not the blood of the butchered, but rather the blood of fighters and heroes, giving birth to new heroes, cultivating a new heroism, bringing freedom to the homeland and a life of honor to the people.”
In his eyes, at least, this was a glorious return to the days when the Jewish People could defend itself, even at the cost of blood.
Since the State of Israel was established and to this day, we have been dealing with different and complex aspects of redeeming captives – from soldiers taken in battle to citizens taken as hostages by murderous terrorist organizations.
May it be that all those who have not yet returned from captivity merit us the chance to fulfill the commandment of redemption of captives, and may they return home, all of them.