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“You shall not go about spreading slander among your people; nor shall you stand by idly when your neighbor’s life is at stake” (Leviticus 19:16). 

This verse comes from Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, or Old Testament. 

Leviticus means “of the Levites,” one of the tribes of Israel, says the website Bible Study Tools. While the Book of Exodus provided instruction for building the tabernacle, “Leviticus gives the laws and regulations for worship there, including instructions on ceremonial cleanness, moral laws, holy days, the sabbath year, and the Year of Jubilee,” says the same source. 

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The lessons from Leviticus can be applied to situations today, said Jonathan Greenberg, an ordained Reform rabbi from Chicago. He’s also an advisor to a private family charitable foundation.

“Throughout Jewish history, our communities — almost always small in number and without the ability to defend ourselves — have been targeted for kidnapping and ransom by surrounding populations,” said Greenberg.

The most notable example of this, he said, was the kidnapping of Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, who was imprisoned in Alsace in the late 13th century. 

Rabbi Meir “refused to allow the Jewish community to pay an exorbitant price for his freedom,” said Greenberg. “Fourteen years later, Rabbi Meir’s body was returned to the Jewish community for burial after a ransom was paid. We value life and the vessel in which it resides.” 

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“Pidyon shvuyim” or the release of captives is “a religious obligation of the highest priority,” said Greenberg. 

The directive to not “stand by idly” when life is at stake is clear in Leviticus, he stressed, and even more so in the Talmud, the main source of Jewish law.

The Talmud “says that captivity is worse than death and anyone who delays in paying ransom for captives is like a murderer.”

Ofri Bibas Levy holds posters depicting her missing brother Yarden who was kidnapped by Hamas along with his wife and two children

“Today, there are some 130 Israeli and dual-nationality hostages remaining in Gaza, including six Americans. Dozens of them are believed to be dead,” said Greenberg.

With the clear directive in Leviticus and the Talmud to rescue captives, one could wonder “why has Israel not opened its prisons and bank accounts to make a trade happen,” he said.  

The Talmud “says that captivity is worse than death and anyone who delays in paying ransom for captives is like a murderer.”

The painful lessons of the past — including a 2011 prisoner exchange for the release of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and the death of Rabbi Meir — still hold true today. 

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“[Shalit] had been held in Gaza for more than five years and the Israeli public was largely, if reluctantly, in favor of the deal,” said Greenberg. “Among those released was Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas mastermind of the Oct. 7 massacres.” 

Demonstrators attend an

In the late 1200s, “Rabbi Meir refused to allow the community to pay the price for his release because he knew it would incentivize the seizure of others,” said Greenberg. 

“This exception is codified in Jewish law.” 

The desperation to rescue the hostages must be balanced with “the likelihood that our payment will redound to our eventual detriment,” he said. 

“And the Jewish state exists, in no small part, so that Jews are never again so powerless that our loved ones can be stolen away from us consequence-free by hostile neighbors while we and our co-religionists are left to scrounge together enough of a ransom to release them,” he also said.

With the lessons of history in mind, “the world should not doubt the commitment of Israelis — indeed, of all Jews — to see our hostages returned to us from the clutches of Hamas,” said Greenberg.

“But not at any price.” 

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