“Noah built an altar to the Lord, and he took from every pure animal and from every pure bird, and sacrificed burnt offerings on the altar.” (Bereishit 8:20)

What was the purpose of the offerings that Noah brought on his altar after leaving the ark? The Chizkuni (Rabbi Chezekiah ben Manoah, 13th century France) offers this explanation: “[Noah brought offerings] in the same way that those who travel in ships do [at the end of a voyage], as it states (Tehillim 107:22), “Let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices and tell of His deeds with joyful singing. Those going to sea on ships, who do their work in the mighty waters.” Noah was also beset by a great storm, the world was destroyed and he was saved.” According to Chizkuni, Noah’s sacrifices were a primitive form of the korban todah, the thanksgiving offering which is described in Vayikrah (7:11-15). Rashi notes that there are four individuals who are required to bring a thanksgiving offering, and each is mentioned in Tehillim chapter 107: one who crossed the ocean; one who travelled through the wilderness; a prisoner who was released and a sick person who recovered. In each case, the Psalmist writes that when they are delivered from danger, “Let them give thanks to the Lord for His kindness and His wonders on behalf of man.” In the absence of the Temple, Jews recite birkat hagomel, the thanksgiving blessing, when they have been saved from a life-threatening event (see Orach Chaim 219).

I would like to focus on the prisoner, in light of the terror attack in Israel during which some one hundred and fifty Israelis were taken prisoner by Hamas, may its evil name be erased. The plight of the captive is described by King David in the aforementioned Psalm (verses 10-16), “Dwellers in darkness and the shadow of death, fettered with affliction and iron… They cried out to the Lord in their trouble; He redeemed them from their distress. He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death and He severed their chains.  Let them give thanks to the Lord for His kindness and His wonders on behalf of man. For He shattered doors of bronze and sundered iron bolts.” A captive is in a terrible situation. He is at the mercy of his captor and must depend on him for all his needs. More often than not, the captor is cruel and afflicts his prisoner by locking him in chains and denying him food and water. The captive dwells in the “shadow of death” because he never knows what the captor will do next – release him, torture him or kill him.

The Sages were acutely aware of the precarious situation a captive finds himself in. This knowledge was acquired through bitter experience. Unfortunately, Jewish history is replete with stories of captivity, many of which did not have a happy ending. Jews were seen as easy targets and their captors would demand hefty ransoms. In the section dealing with the laws of charity, the Code of Jewish Law dedicates an entire chapter (Yoreh Deah 252) to the great mitzvah of pidyon sh’vuyim, redeeming captives. The opening paragraph sets the tone for the chapter: “Redeeming captives takes priority over feeding and clothing the poor and there is no greater mitzvah than redeeming captives. Therefore, if funds were raised for any mitzvah, the administrators of the funds are permitted to allocate the funds to redeeming captives. And even if funds were raised for the purposes of building a shul and even if they had already purchased wood and stones and set them aside for the building, which, under normal circumstances may not be sold for another mitzvah, it is permitted to sell them for the purposes of redeeming captives.” The source for this law is a passage in the Talmud (Bava Batra 8) where Rova asked Raba bar Mari why the Sages refer to redeeming captives as “a great mitzvah.” Raba cited a verse from the prophet Jeremiah (15:2), “It shall be when they [your audience] say to you: Where shall we go? You shall say to them: So said the Lord: Those who are doomed to death, will go to death; and those who are doomed to the sword, will go to the sword, and those who are to famine, to famine and those who are to captivity, to captivity.” The Talmud explains that each punishment mentioned in the verse is worse than the one before it. Death by sword is more degrading and painful than a sudden painless death; death by famine, which is protracted and agonising, is worse than death by the sword. And captivity is worse than all of them, “for it contains elements of them all.” Rashi explains: “It is in the hands of the idolater [captor] to do whatever he wishes, be it death, sword or famine.”

The second paragraph minces no words in its condemnation of someone who fails to participate in this mitzvah: “One who turns a blind eye to redeeming captives transgresses the prohibition of “do not harden your heart” (Devarim 15:7); and the prohibition of “do not tighten your fist” (ibid); and the prohibition of “do not stand by idly on the blood of your brother” (Vayikrah 19:16); and the prohibition of “do not allow him [the slave owner] to persecute him [the slave] before your eyes” and he annuls the mitzvah of “you shall surely open your hand to him” (Devarim 15:8); and the mitzvah of  “your brother shall live with you” (Vayikrah 25:36); and the mitzvah of “you shall love your fellow like yourself” (Ibid 19:18) and the precept of “deliver those who are being taken to death” (Mishlei 24:11).” The Code (ibid # 3) then alerts us to the urgency of this mitzvah, “Every moment that one delays in redeeming captives where it is possible to expedite the matter, it is as if he spilled blood.”

The Code then goes into the details of the mitzvah, including certain enactments that were made by our Sages.  For example (ibid # 4), “We do not redeem captives for more than their worth because of tikkun olam (“the rectification of the world”), lest this encourage the captors to abduct further hostages.” If kidnappers or terrorists knew that Jews would redeem captives for any price, this could lead to mass abductions. In practice, this a very difficult halakha to observe because no one wants to leave a captive in a hopeless state in order to achieve a future benefit. There have, however, been famous cases where great people refused to be ransomed for precisely this reason – it would lead to further abductions. One such person was Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg (13th century Germany) who was captured by a duke in Lombardy and held in prison for a large ransom. He forbade the community to ransom him, lest other anti-Semites follow suit and capture other leading personalities in the Jewish community. He languished in jail for seven years and eventually died there. The rabbis (ibid # 5) also discouraged attempts to break out hostages as this would provoke the captors to guard the hostages with more zeal and might also lead to added forms of persecution. If a man and a woman are held captive and there is only enough money to ransom one of them, the woman must be ransomed first because we are concerned that the captors will violate her. Similarly, if  one’s rabbi, father and mother are all being held captive, one must ransom one’s mother before the others (ibid # 9). If a husband and wife are held captive, the wife must be ransomed first and the court has the right to liquidate the husband’s assets to pay for the ransom even if he expressly tells them not to (ibid # 10).

The current hostage crisis in Gaza is unique. It is far more than kidnapping for monetary reward. It is an act of terror, a proclamation of war and an affront to the State of Israel. It requires a decisive response that will leave the enemy with no doubt that such behaviour will not be tolerated. We continue to pray for the swift and safe return of the hostages.    

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Liebenberg

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