When a person is being held for ransom, what obligation does the community – or her husband, in the case of a married woman – have to redeem them?
One of the basic obligations written into the ketuba is that a husband accepts upon himself the responsibility to redeem his wife in the event that she is taken captive. The Mishna (51a) makes clear that he cannot announce “I am divorcing her and am willing to pay ketuba;” the beit din will insist that he work to arrange for her release.
In a baraita quoted in our Gemara, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel teaches that although a husband is obligated to redeem his wife from captivity – even if the amount she is being held for is greater than the value of her ketuba – nevertheless, Ein podin et ha-shevuyin yeter al keday dimehem: captives are not redeemed for more than their actual value. He explains that this is because of tikkun ha-olam.
The source for this halakha is in Massekhet Gittin (45a), where the Gemara discusses what exactly the term tikkun ha-olam means in this context. One explanation is that it should not be done because of the burden that it will impose on the community, which cannot afford to pay such a large amount of money. Another approach that is suggested argues that paying ridiculously large sums of money will simply encourage evildoers to kidnap more Jewish people in order to exact such payments.
The Gemara in Gittin does not come to a clear conclusion on this question. The Ramban and Rashba, among others, suggest that the fact that Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel’s reasoning is brought in our Gemara, where the case is an individual husband who is to pay, makes it clear that the issue is one of future concerns, rather than the difficulty of the community to pay. The Ritva quotes Rabbeinu Tam as arguing that we cannot bring a proof from our Gemara, since here we are discussing an out-of-the-ordinary case, where a husband would be willing to pay more than was ordinarily necessary in order to save his wife – much as a person who pays extra to save himself.
Unfortunately, in today’s world these questions are not merely academic; discussions of how to negotiate the fate of Israeli prisoners of war revolve around these age-old questions.