This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Ransom Notes*

News Item:

October 1997 - January 1998. Calgarian oil company executive Norbert Reinhart offered himself as a hostage in place of an employee who had been capture by Columbian leftist guerillas. Government officials in Canada and Columbia expressed their misgivings at Reinhart's independent negotiations with his captors leading to his eventual release.

The recent release of local hero Norbert Reinhart, who volunteered to take the place of one of his employees and submit himself to captivity at the hands of Colombian kidnappers, has served to draw our attention to the frequency of hostage-taking as a widespread commercial enterprise in many countries of the world.

Such indeed was the norm through much of the world's history, a situation that is amply reflected in Jewish law and literature.

In the days of the Talmud, which were often characterized by economic instability and political unrest, many individuals were forced into criminal pursuits as a result of expropriation from their land, extortionate taxation or discharge from the army. Bands of such ruffians, usually identified in rabbinic texts by the Greek word "leistes" --bandits-- roamed the highways in search of plunder. Seizing hostages for ransom was a relatively easy way to ensure quick profits, and the compassionate Jews had a reputation for being soft touches always ready to buy back the victims.

Matters reached such a crisis that the rabbis were moved to issue ordinances that discouraged efforts towards their release. The Mishnah tried to set strict limits to the sums that could be paid to the outlaws.

The reasoning behind this rule was sound: Giving in to the kidnappers' exorbitant demands would, in the long run, confirm the lucrativeness of the practice; whereas, if the victims refused solidly to pay the ransoms, then the bandits would eventually have to turn their energies to more remunerative pursuits.

Although it would cause anguish to many individual hostages, the policy, if followed consistently, would provide long-term benefits.

As we know well from other instances where the authorities proclaimed their solemn refusal to negotiate with terrorists or to capitulate to illicit demands, it proved next to impossible to maintain solidarity in the face of the imminent suffering of the captives and the tearful pleading of their families.

A distinguished exception was the thirteenth-century Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, who was imprisoned by the Emperor Rudoph when he attempted to emigrate to the Holy Land in escape the rapacious monarch's oppressive regime. Rabbi Meir issued strict orders that the Jewish community should not pay extortionate sums that were demanded for his release. As a result, the sage passed the remainder of his days imprisoned in the fortresses of Ensisheim and Wasserberg.

In spite of his frequent apologies for not having access to a library, Rabbi Meir's encyclopedic erudition allowed him to continue his prolific literary output of responsa and commentaries.

It must also have been difficult to enforce another enactment that is recorded in the Mishnah, one that prohibited all attempts to rescue the hostages. Though this rule was introduced in order that the captors would not be required to impose excessively restrictive conditions on their victims, it is hard to imagine anyone who would pass up an opportunity for hastening the escape of a prisoner.

Charitable collections earmarked for the redemption of captives continued to be a major expense on community budgets in virtually every time and locality.

For example, the records of the Cairo Genizah tell of a girl who was redeemed for an exorbitant sum from a Crusader in the Holy Land, and subsequently brought to Egypt to try to recoup the expenses from charitable donations. In 1533, the Jewish community of Candia voted to sell synagogue equipment to finance the release of captives.

A medieval legend traces the founding of the prominent centres of rabbinic scholarship to the exploits of a group of captives who had been seized by pirates, and subsequently ransomed by coreligionists in Spain, Tunisia and Egypt.

If forced confinement was an intrinsically unpleasant fate, it had considerably more severe implications for women. Jewish law, basing itself on sad experience, presumes that all female hostages have been sexually violated by the captors, unless the contrary can be proven. For this reason, the Ketubbah, the mandatory marriage contract, had to include clauses that affirmed the husband's obligation to ransom his wife, and afterwards to continue the marriage without attaching any stigma to her.

However it appears that not all Jewish women were completely adverse to the possibility of being taken captive. In comparison to their humdrum daily routines, some housewives might have dreamed of being abducted by a romantic Valentino from out of the desert. The Talmud mentions one such brigand-king named Papa bar Naser. Some historians identify with him with Odenathus, fabled ruler of desert kingdom of Palmyra.

In a noteworthy passage from the Babylonian Talmud, when Rav Judah insisted categorically that all kidnapped women are to be treated as helpless victims, his colleagues countered by telling about certain ladies who were accustomed to providing food to the bandits, and even supplying them with arrows. Rav Judah nonetheless insisted that all these incriminating acts might have been motivated by fear of reprisal, and should not be regarded as proof of real sympathy for the brigands.

In the end, even Rav Judah conceded that he must draw the line at cases where the women chose to remain with their captors after they had been rescued.

Another Talmudic authority went so far as to give the benefit of the doubt to a woman who gave explicit instructions to leave her captor alone, and declared that she would have voluntarily paid for his attentions. After all, argued the rabbi, the unfortunate lady was not in control of her emotions at the time.

As with many peculiar Talmudic discussions, it is difficult to decide how much of it is purely academic, and how much reflects actual events.

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University of Calgary Press

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press,February 4 1999, pp. 8, 9.

  • Bibliography:

    • Agus, I. A. (1970). Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg : his life and his works as sources for the religious, legal, and social history of the Jews of Germany inthe thirteenth century / by Irving A. Agus . New York, Ktav.
    • Abrahams, I. (1969). Jewish life in the Middle Ages. New York, Atheneum.
    • Baron, S. W. (1977). The Jewish community : its history and structure to the American revolution. Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press.
    • Goitein, S. D., P. Sanders, et al. (1967). A Mediterranean society; the Jewish communities of the Arab world as portrayed in the documents of the Cairo Geniza. Berkeley,, University of California Press.