The Pollard Affair – To Free a
Captive is to Free G-d
by Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher, Dean of Students, Diaspora
“The sword is worse
than death, / famine is worse than the sword, / captivity is worst of all”
(Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 8a).
Jews have gone to remarkable lengths to retrieve their brethren from hostile
hands. This mitzvah referred to in rabbinic literature as pidyon shvuyim
(“redemption of captives”), is the only precept designated by the Talmud as a
mitzvah rabbah (great mitzvah). Its special status in Jewish law goes to the
heart of defining the moral and material dimensions of the “value” of human
Oddly, however, given
its unique standing in Jewish law, no specific directive to redeem captives
is found anywhere in the Bible. Maimonides and other authorities do list a
series of Biblical precepts that are violated if one is remiss in fulfilling
this duty. One – the obligation not to “rule over him (your fellow man)
ruthlessly” (Leviticus 25:43) – is found in the Torah portion Behar. Yet this
verse actually refers to the proper treatment of Jewish slaves owned by other
Jews, not to the rescue of Jews from non-Jewish hands. In fact, none of the
verses cited by Maimonides in his major halakhic work “Yad Hazakah” refers
directly to the rescue of captives. This duty, he explains, falls under the
general rule of mandated assistance to the hungry, the naked and the
The absence of a
distinct legal imperative to rescue captives is offset by the high profile
afforded this subject in the Biblical narrative. Abraham, the first redeemer
of captives, risks everything going to war against the great regional powers
to rescue his captured kinsman Lot (Genesis 14). In Numbers 21, the nation of
Israel inititates a war to retrieve (according to rabbinic tradition) a
single captive of non-Jewish origin whom the Canaanites had taken in battle.
And King David responds similarly when Jewish captives are taken by the
Amalekites (I Samuel 30). In all of these cases, the mode of response is
uncompromising, even in the absence of an explicit divine command.
How are we to
understand this absence of an explicit order to fulfill the “great mitzvah”?
The answer may lie in Rabbi Bahya ben Asher’s “Kad Hakmah”, which refers us
to the Ten Commandments. In the First Commandment, which many halakhic
authorities understood as the precept to believe in G-d, the Almighty
presents Himself as the Great Redeemer, “I am the Lord your G-d, who has
taken you out of Egypt”, Rabbi Bahya, like other commentators, is perplexed
by the verse’s reference to the Exodus. If any feat were to be highlighted in
this identifying statement, surely the creation of universe is the most
obvious choice. Why settle for a more “local” and less extraordinary miracle?
Rabbi Bahya concludes that the verse describes G-d as the redeemer of
captives as an exhortation to become like Him.
Thus it would appear
that the rescue of captives is so cardinal a principle that it merits
implicit mention in the fundamental Jewish tenet: to believe in G-d. How can
we explain this? Jewish sources state that there is more than one type of
captive. The Talmud (Berakhot 8a) describes G-d Himself as a “captive” who
can be redeemed only through our observance of mitzvot and study of Torah.
Kabala teaches that
the redemption of captives is a symbol of the entire 613 commandments. While
G-d in Himself is infinite, His hidden presence in the world – the Shekhinah-
is perceived as being in exile and can be redeemed from its “imprisonment”
through our good deeds. Thus the fulfillment of all commandments is an act of
redeeming captives that releases the spiritual potential latent in all
corporeal (physical) reality.
Finally, the very term
“redemption of captives” suggests that even the liberation of flesh-and-blood
prisoners involves something larger than the restoration of their freedom. In
rabbinic sources, the term is always given in the plural, suggesting that
there’s no such thing as a single captive, for the Jewish nation is
understood as an organic spiritual whole that acts as a vehicle for the
revelation of G-d. This wholeness is viewed as a prerequisite for the
revelation at Mount Sinai, the messianic era and the ultimate fulfillment of
Jewish destiny. Thus, as long as Jonathan Pollard is in captivity, all of us
are in captivity as well.