During centuries of exile and wandering, the Jewish people has, sadly, accumulated immense experience with extortion and abductions. Wherever they went, Jews tended to excel but, unfortunately, often lacked the means to defend the fruits of their labor. Too often they became easy prey for kidnappers.

Jews’ strong emphasis on the value of life, their belief that they share a common fate and their strong feeling of mutual responsibility led them to go to extreme measures to free hostages. And this was ruthlessly exploited by their enemies.

Throughout the ages, Jewish communities have been forced to face the inherent dilemmas that characterize any prisoner release. A rich rabbinic literature developed to grapple with the moral and legal aspects of what was referred to as “redeeming hostages” [pidyon shvuim].

The founders of the State of Israel hoped to change the course of Jewish history and eradicate the endemic vulnerability of the Jewish condition in the Diaspora. And they largely succeeded.

However, with all their accomplishments and impressive military might, the Jewish people in Israel have been unable to shake off some old challenges.

Israelis, like their ancestors, continue to value life immensely and believe strongly in the concept of mutual responsibility [areyvut]. And since IDF service is mandatory, lines are blurred between soldier and citizen. Israel’s many enemies do everything in their power to take advantage of these “weaknesses.” (Other cultures, such as in the US, lack this Achilles’ heel, because they see POWs as a necessary price to pay for fighting wars.)

Many of the moral deliberations surrounding the prisoner exchange deal to release Sgt. Gilad Schalit have been agonized over by Jewish sages for ages. And there are no easy answers. The Mishna, written in the first centuries of the first millennium when many Jews lived under the Roman Empire, already prohibits redeeming captives “for more than their monetary value” to foster “society’s welfare” [tikkun olam]. Payment of exorbitant ransoms, explains the Talmud, might bankrupt the community. Also, it notes, the knowledge that Jews are willing to pay dearly to release hostages might encourage future kidnappings.

Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (1215-1293), who was kidnapped in Germany, famously issued a ruling from jail prohibiting his followers to pay his ransom. He died in captivity. Indeed, this no-dealing-with-extortionists approach is eminently logical. Hamas has already indicated that Schalit “will not be the last soldier kidnapped.”

The release of 1,150 Palestinian terrorists, including Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin – in the May 1985 Ahmed Jibril deal – helped spark the First Intifada. Of 238 terrorists freed in the Jibril deal who reached Judea and Samaria, 48 percent returned to terrorism and were recaptured by the IDF, according to the Almagor Terror Victims Association. And since 2000, it says, some 180 Israelis have been killed in attacks planned by Palestinian terrorists released in prisoner exchange deals.

Then again, Maimonides (1135-1204) states: “There is no commandment as great as the redemption of captives.”

And Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), in his Shulhan Arukh, notes: “Each instant that one fails to redeem captives when it is possible to do so, it is as though one has shed blood.”

Some contemporary rabbis have extrapolated from these rulings to support prison swaps.

For instance, Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has argued that in cases such as Schalit’s, the clear and present danger to the life of the hostage outweighs the potential danger to Israelis who might become the future targets of the freed terrorists.


Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli (1910-1995), a leading national religious Halachic authority, ruled that an unwritten agreement exists between the State of Israel and the soldier that no efforts will be spared to secure a release in the case of kidnapping.

This obviously serves to bolster the soldier’s morale and is a reassuring message for the soldier’s family and loved ones.

Sadly, the Jewish people’s trials and tribulations have not ended with the creation of the State of Israel. And while our rich tradition offers no definitive decision on the Schalit deal, it does provide unique insight into the many facets of an age-old dilemma with no easy answers.

Click for full JPost coverage of Gilad Schalit

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