Captivity being considered a punishment worse than starvation or death (B. B. 8b, based on Jer. xv. 2), to ransom a Jewish captive was regarded by the Rabbis as one of the most important duties of a Jewish community; and such duty was placed above that of feeding or clothing the poor. He who refrains from ransoming a captive is guilty of transgressing the commandments expressed or implied in Biblical passages such as the following: "Thou shalt not harden thy heart" (Deut. xv. 7); "Thou shalt not shut thine hand from thy poor brother" (ib.); "Neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbor" (Lev. xix. 16); "He shall not rule with rigor over him in thy sight" (ib. xxv. 53, R. V.); "Thou shalt open thy hand wide unto him" (Deut. xv. 8, 11); ". . . that thy brother may live with thee" (Lev. xxv. 36); "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (ib. xix. 18); "Deliver them that are drawn unto death" (Prov. xxiv. 11; Maimonides, "Yad," Mattenot 'Aniyim, viii. 10; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 252, 2). One who delayed in the work of ransoming a Jewish captive was placed in the category of the murderer (Yoreh De'ah, 252, 3).Urgency of the Duty.
Any money found in the communal treasury, even though it had been collected for other purposes, might be utilized in ransoming captives. Not only the money collected for the building of a synagogue might be so used, but also the building materials themselves might be sold and the money diverted to that end. If, however, the synagogue had already been erected it might not be sold for such purpose (B. B. 3b; "Yad," l.c. viii. 11; Yorch De'ah, 252, 1; see Desecration).
If there were several Jewish captives and the money in the communal treasury was not sufficient to ransom all of them, the cohen (priest) had to be redeemed first, and then the Levite, the Israelite, the bastard, the Natin (see Nethinim), the proselyte, and the liberated slave in the order named. A learned man, however, even though a bastard, took precedence over a priest who was an ignoramus. A woman captive was to be released before a man captive, unless the captors were suspected of practising pederasty. One's mother takes precedence over all others in regard to release from captivity; and thereafter one is required to release himself, then his teacher, and then his father (Hor. 13a; comp. Precedence).
When a man and his wife were taken captive the court might sell the man's property, even against his will, for the purpose of redeeming his wife. The court might sell also a captive's property for his own redemption, in spite of the captive's protest. If a man voluntarily sold himself into slavery, or was taken captive for debts he owed, the community was obliged to pay his ransom the first and second times, but not the third time, unless his life was in danger. His children, however, were in any case to be redeemed after his death (Giṭ. 46b). The community was not obliged to liberate a convert from Judaism, even when his apostasy consisted in the fact that he gave up only one of the laws of the Jewish religion. A slave who had gone through the ceremony of the ritual bath and had lived as a Jew was to be liberated at the expense of the community ("Yad," l.c. viii. 14).Provisions Against Excessive Ransom.
In the tannaitic period it had already been found necessary to make provision against paying too high a ransom for Jewish captives, so as not to encourage pirates in their nefarious practises. The ransom-money might not exceed the value of thecaptive, if sold as a slave, or the price usually placed on captives (Giṭ. 45a; "Yad," l.c. viii. 12; Yoreh De'ah, 252, 4). This law was relaxed in later times. A man might give all he possessed for his own release, or for that of his wife (see Husband and Wife). The community was required to pay all that was demanded for the ransom of a learned man or of a promising youth (comp. Giṭ. 45a; Tos. s.v. "Delo"; ROSH ad loc. § 44; comp. Grätz, "Gesch." 3d ed., vii. 175, where it is related that R. Meïr of Rothenburg refused to be released for the large sum of 20,000 marks, which the German Jews were willing to pay for his ransom, lest similar captures should be encouraged thereby). The Rabbis forbade the assistance of captives in their attempts to escape, lest the treatment of captives generally should in consequence become more cruel (Giṭ. 45a). See Captives.
- Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, pp. 96, 335, Philadelphia, 1896;
- Hamburger. R. B. T. ii. 82;
- Kol Bo, § 82, Fürth, 1782.