This week's Parsha begins with the story of Yehudah's attempt to redeem Binyamin from slavery. Yehudah offers himself to Yosef as a slave in place of Binyamin. Although we have the concept of Maaseh Avot Siman Lebanim (that actions of our sages are examples for us to follow), the halacha never requires one to offer himself as a slave in place of another person. Since the Parshat Hashavua relates the story of Yehudah's endeavors to redeem Binyamin, it is appropriate this week to discuss the laws of Pidyon Shevuyim.
In יורה דעה סימן רנב סעיף א it is written that the mitzvah of Pidyon Shevuyim is of such importance that it takes precedence even over the highly regarded mitzvah of giving Parnasah to the poor. It further states that there is in fact no mitzvah as great as Pidyon Shevuyim, and therefore if you had designated funds for another Mitzvah, even if it was to build a Shul, you should instead use the money to free a captive. The Shulchan Aruch goes so far as to say that even if you had bought timber and other materials for the purpose of building a shul, you are allowed to sell them to obtain funds for Pidyon Shevuyim (even though we usually say אין משנין מצדקה לצדקה, one may not take money designated for one צדקה for the use of another צדקה). The Ramah, however, rules that if one took a נדר to give an amount of money to Tzedakah, this money cannot be used for Pidyon Shevuyin. The Rambam, in פרק ח הלכה י of hilchot Matanot Aniyim, reasons that Pidyon Shevuyim is such a great Mitzvah because the captives are worse off than the poor since they are not only starving, thirsty, and ערומים, but also in immediate danger for their lives. Hence he concludes אין לך מצוה רבה כפדיון שבוין, "there is no other Mitzvah that is as great as the Mitzvah of Pidyon Shevuyim. Tosafot (בבא בתרא ח: ד"ה פדיון שבויין) even raises that possibility that one may sell a Sefer torah to raise funds for Pidyon Shevuyim (see ש"ך יורה דעה רנב:א for a discussion of this issue). The Shulchan Aruch emphasizes the enormous importance of Pidyon Shevuyim by stating that every moment that one wastes when one has the chance to do Pidyon Shevuyim is as if he were committing the crime of שפיכת דמים (סעיף ג).
One halacha regarding Pidyon Shevuyim is particularly relevant to today's situation in Israel. The Mishna on .דף מה of Gittin states that one is not allowed to ransom captives for more than they are worth משום תיקון עולם (for the benefit of society). The Gemarah questions what the Mishna means when it says that the reason you are not allowed to ransom a captive for more than his worth is because of תיקון עולם (for the benefit of society). One possibility is that we don't want to cause an enormous financial burden on the community, that the community would suffer fiscally because of the high cost of the ransom (and later be unable to meet vital communal needs). The second possibility is that kidnappers shouldn't be encouraged to capture people for ransom. The גמרא does not resolve this question, but it is the opinion of both the Shulchan Aruch and Rambam that one is not allowed to redeem a captive for more than their worth as a preventive measure against further kidnapping. The פתחי תשובה (סעיף קטן ה) quotes the מהר"ם מלובלין who states that when the Shulchan Aruch refers to a person's worth it is referring to how much a person would sell for, as a slave, in the marketplace. He states that although it's not the practice these days to sell slaves in the marketplace one still has to evaluate the worth of a captive by this means. The פתחי תשובה quotes the dissenting opinion of the רדב"ז who says that the way to figure out the captive's worth is to look at how much people would pay in ransom for an Israelite captive.
The Shulchan Aruch adds that although אין פודים את השבויין יותר מכדי דמיהן is the general rule, there are some exceptions. First, one is allowed to give any amount of ransom for oneself, and therefore it would seem to follow that since אשתו כגופו, it is true for his wife as well. The מחבר (אבן העזר עח:ב), however, rules in accordance with the Rambam and Rif that a wife cannot be redeemed for more than her worth. רמ"א (שם) rules like the Tur and the Rosh who permit one to redeem his wife for a sum greater than her worth. Ashkenazim follow the ruling of the Rema; however, two Ashkenazic authorities disagree about whether these exceptions apply to close relatives. The Shach (ס"ק ד) infers from the שולחן ערוך that one isn't allowed to pay more than the relative's worth in order to redeem him. However, he cites the Bach who disagrees and says that you are allowed to redeem one of the שבע קרובים for more than they are worth. The Bach writes that common practice is to permit relatives to expend great sums to redeem close family relatives.
Tosafot in גיטין נח: (in the first answer) suggest that one may pay any amount in ransom for a Talmid Chacham or even a potential Talmid Chacham. The Gemara in גיטין דף נח. serves as the basis for this exception. The Gemara tells the story of Rabbi Yehoshua who, while visiting a major city in Rome, heard of the plight of a young Jewish captive. After interviewing and questioning the boy, Rabbi Yehoshua realized that the young captive had the potential of being a Talmid Chacham. Rabbi Yehoshua then paid more than the boy was worth to redeem him. Commenting on the Gemara, Tosafot (בדיבור המתחיל לכל ממון) state that Rabbi Yehoshua paid more than the boy's worth because this was either a case of סכנת נפשות or because the boy had potential to be a Talmid Chacham. Accordingly Tosafot believe that in a case of סכנת נפשות one is allowed to pay more than one's worth in order to redeem the endangered captive. The Ramban, however, disagrees and says that even in a case of danger to life, it is forbidden to redeem captives for more than their worth. See פתחי תשובה (ס"ק ד) who cite differing opinions among the Acharonim regarding this issue. Rabbi Howard Jachter reports that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik זצ"ל told him that the halacha is in accordance with Tosafot, that an exception is made in case of סכנת נפשות. Rabbi Soloveitchik defended (in July 5891) the Israeli government's exchanging one thousand Arab terrorists for three Israeli soldiers, by stating that the lives of the Israeli soldiers were in danger.
The Shulchan Aruch continues and deals with the case of a man who willfully sells himself into slavery. The Mechaber writes (following גיטין מו:) that the first and second time that a man sells himself into slavery you are allowed to redeem him. After the third time, however, you may not redeem him. The exception to this rule is when the slave's life is in danger, in which case you are allowed to redeem him no matter how many times that he has sold himself into slavery. Furthermore, in the event that this man is a father and he dies, you are allowed to redeem his sons. The Gemara explains that this is allowed because if these sons do not have their father to guard them they might follow in the way of their captors. The Remah writes, however, that if the captive committed even one עבירה להכעיס you are not allowed to redeem him.
Another issue that the Shulchan Aruch deals with is the dilemma of whom to redeem first when there are many captives. One rule given is that women take precedence over men, unless the captors are suspected of engaging in משכב זכר in which a man is redeemed first. Similarly, if a man and his wife are both captured, the Bet Din will sell the man's possessions and redeem the wife first. Another case is if an individual, his father and his rebbe are all captives, then the Halacha requires that the individual redeem himself first, then his rebbe and then his father. The Shach (סעיף קטן ח) comments that when one's father is a Talmid Chacham, even if a lesser Talmid Chacham than one's rebbe, the father is redeemed before the rebbe.
These halachot have critical relevance for us today since there are (רחמנא ליצלן) captured Israeli soldiers (chayalim). Rav Meir Goldwicht (a visiting Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University who also served as a Captain in the Israeli army), in his article on Pidyon Shevuyim in the ספר זכרון הרב explains that he is of the opinion that there are two cases of captured chayalim. In the first case, when a soldier is captured during a war, Rav Goldwicht writes that exchanging soldiers with the enemy after hostilities cease does not constitute redeeming soldiers for more than their worth, since it is well known that after wars, both sides engage in exchange of prisoners. However, in the second case, where the chayal is captured during a time of "peace", Rav Goldwicht is of the opinion that the Halacha is not clear, since the price that is so often demanded is that of release of an exceedingly large number of captured terrorists. Both the decision to release and not to release the terrorists are in accordance with the Halacha. The decision to release terrorists is within the boundaries of Halacha because the captured soldier's life is in jeopardy, and in a case of סכנת נפשות, Tosafot allows one to pay more than a person's worth to redeem him. So too, the decision not to release terrorists is also acceptable because by releasing terrorists, one creates a case of סכנת נפשות for the people living in Israel. Rabbi Goldwicht concludes that it is for the Ministry of Defense to decide this issue. They must decide which course of action is in the best interest of the country.
Tragically, today there are too many Israeli soldiers who are still being held captive in Arab countries. Therefore it is imperative that we know these Halachot so that we realize the significance of redeeming a captive and know how to deal with the situation in a Halachic fashion. May it be Hashem's will that the chayalim will be released soon to their families and homes, and that we will be זוכה to have no more שבויים from among עם ישראל, - ופדויי ה' ישובון ובאו ציון ברנה.