Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Pirates, Ransoms & The Talmudic Sages

In Collective punishment, Gilad Shavit, Israel, Piracy, Tikkun HaOlam on April 20, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Jews throughout their history have had to contend with kidnappings and ransoms. It was so prevalent that legislation had already appeared in the Talmud.

The Sages ascertained that being held captive was a fate literally worse than death:

Rava said to Rabba Bar Mari, “Where does this notion that redeeming the captive is considered so special that the sages called it an exceptionally great mitzvah appear? As it is written: “And when they will say to you, “Where shall we go?” You will say to them, “So says the LORD, those to die will die, those to go by the sword, will go by the sword, those by famine will be by famine and those who will be taken captive will be taken captive.” (Jeremiah 15:2, 42:11) And Rabbi Yochanan said, “[In this verse] the afflictions become increasingly more severe. [For example] The sword is considered more severe than death.” [and therefore being held captive is worse than famine] (B. Talmud Baba Batra 8b)

Nevertheless, the Sages cautioned that one should not “over pay” for redeeming captives because of Tikun Ha’Olam i.e. one would encourage the practice of kidnapping which would be detrimental to the entire community. The Mishnah states:

One never redeems captives for more than they are worth, because of our concern for Tikkun HaOlam. One also does not help captives escape because of our concern for Tikkun HaOlam. (B. Talmud Gitin 45a)

Using this principle, the primary goal of a policy should be to deter piracy while the goal of redeeming the individual captive is secondary. It is clear that paying ransom encourages piracy, but keeps captives alive, while killing pirates may have a detrimental impact on the survival of captives. Both caving in or military action have downsides. A third option was offered in an op. ed piece in The New York Times:

In 1995, for example, the water supply for Mogadishu, the capital, was shut off by the United Nations humanitarian agencies until a hostage who worked for another aid organization was released. On the first day of the shutoff, the women who collected water from public distribution points yelled at the kidnappers; on the second day they stoned them; on the third day they shot at them; on the fourth day, the hostage was released.

Here in option three, collective punishment makes the captors so unpopular they are forced to release their captives. This reminds me of the O. Henry short story, “The Ransom of Red Chief” where the captive was so obnoxious the kidnappers decided the enterprise wasn’t worth it.

One question, what do you think would have happened if Israel had turned off the water of Gaza after Gilad Shavit was captured? The Sages may have approved, but what would the response of the hypocritical U.N. have been? Not a hard call. For a more comprehensive look at these sources, click on the “Scribd” badge in the margin and look for the file entitled: Tikkun Ha’Olam: The Massive Malapropism, and feel free to check out some of the other files. Too lazy to peruse? Click here.

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