| Second Thoughts |

Rejoice in Trembling

This classic debate has only intensified today with the Hamas captive deal



The hidden meaning of that mysterious, heavily laden phrase in Tehillim 2:11, gilu bir’adah, “rejoice in trembling,” has always eluded me.

Until now. With the hostage exchange, I am beginning to perceive a glimmer of understanding. We are joyous at the release of some hostages, while simultaneously trembling with worry about the price we paid, and fearful of the long-term consequences of this pact with the devil.

For Israel, where the value of human life is paramount, there was little choice, even though the pause was totally to Hamas’s advantage, destroying our momentum and enabling them to regroup and rearm. And everyone knows that the freeing of terrorist murderers from Israeli jails will come back to haunt us, as was true of previous exchanges.

Among the more painful aspects of all this is that not only has much of the world forgotten about the hideous slaughter of October 7, but in their eyes there is an equivalency in this exchange: “your prisoners for my prisoners.” World leaders and media, either maliciously or ignorantly, seem unaware that the trade involves “my innocent women and children who were brutally tortured and kidnapped against international law, for your convicted terrorists and murderers.”

Of course, kidnapping and subsequent dickering about ransom has a long history and has always been a lucrative gold mine for tyrannical authorities and unscrupulous criminals. Jewish history being what it is, negotiations with captors, a process known as pidyon shevuyim, the redemption of captives, is nothing new. It is a major topic in halachic literature, and, in fact, the Talmud (Bava Basra 7b) refers to it as one of the greatest mitzvos. The major decisors codify it in great detail, and Maimonides in his monumental code clearly says that that “anyone who averts his eyes from [i.e., tries to avoid] pidyon shevuyim is guilty of violating several Torah commandments” (Matnos Aniyim 8:10). And Taz and Shach, the classic interpreters of the Shulchan Aruch, write that we must even sell a sefer Torah if needed to raise the ransom money (Yoreh Deiah 252).

But halachah has a famous caveat: The Talmud in Gittin 45, warns that “we should not ransom captives for more than their value, mipnei tikun ha’olam, for the sake of the public good” (literally, “for the repair of the world”). That is, we are warned against meeting extortionist demands by the kidnappers, because this will only encourage further kidnapping and more extortion.

Fast-forward to November 2023, when a freed terrorist called for more kidnapping of Jews, “so that more terrorist ‘heroes’ might be released from Israeli jails.”

The famous story of Rav Meir of Rothenburg (1215–1293) is instructive. The celebrated German Talmudist and halachic decisor was arbitrarily imprisoned by the ruling authorities, and was held for an exorbitant ransom. The Jewish community was prepared to raise the money and pay the ransom for their revered leader, but Rav Meir refused to allow it, on the grounds of tikkun olam — i.e., not to encourage the kidnapping of other Torah scholars. As a result, he was never released from captivity and died there many years later, in 1293. (His captors even refused to relinquish his body until a new extortionist sum was paid.)

For the last 700 years, rabbinic scholars have grappled with this episode. Was Rav Meir, the leading scholar of his generation, justified in risking his life in order to maintain the principle of tikkun olam, or should he have relented in order to continue his invaluable teaching and guidance? Is not the presence of a great teacher also a matter of the public good that might override the fear of future extortions?

This classic debate has only intensified today with the Hamas captive deal. Even though this hostage deal certainly strengthens Hamas and encourages future kidnappings, do we have the right to condemn fellow Jews to life in captivity or worse, when we have the opportunity to redeem them?

This is both an ethical and a strategic dilemma, a zero-option situation that leads only to anguish whichever way we turn, a struggle between the mind and the heart, an issue which only a Sanhedrin or prophet of G-d can resolve.

In the interim, with open joy and hidden trembling, we warmly welcome home the freed captives. And in the merit of Chanukah we earnestly pray that just as the issue of ransoming captives has not changed in a thousand years, so also may G-d’s relationship to His people not change, and may He Who “asah nissim la’avoseinu bayamim haheim — Who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days” also perform miracles for us “bizman hazeh — in this season.”

We can certainly use one or two — even hidden, unseen ones.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 990)

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