What does it mean to be someone's brother or sister, beyond a biological fact? In Genesis, the answer seems to be: not much. Every story involving brothers is one of violence, discord, enmity, or deceit. Cain murders Abel; Ham shames his father and is doomed to serve his brothers. Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers—we all know how those relationships played out. Even the moments of reconciliation are poisoned sooner or later by fear and distrust. Jacob promises to follow his brother to Edom but in fact remains in Canaan. After Jacob breathes his last breath, Joseph's brothers invoke their father's dying words—possibly the product of fabrication—to ward off any murderous act of vengeance by Joseph.
In fact, the only brother who comes to his brother's aid is not actually his brother: it is Abraham—then Abram—who rides to the rescue of his nephew Lot: "When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he mustered his retainers, born into his household, numbering three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan" (Gen. 14:14). Employing a clever military maneuver, he catches the superior forces of the four kings by surprise and is able to return Lot and his fellow captives to the safety of their homes.
It is noteworthy that Abraham risks life and limb to save his nephew. The midrash emphasizes this by imagining a conversation between Abraham and his men, who argue, "The five kings [of Sodom and its sister cities] could not defeat [the five kings] and [yet you believe that] we will prevail against them?!" Abraham replies, "I will go forth and [if necessary] fall in battle in sanctification of God's name (Genesis Rabbah 42:14).
What had been a spontaneous act of bravery on Abraham's part was transformed by the Sages into a universal obligation, the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim. Over the generations, Jews have frequently been held hostage or forced into slavery by pirates and thieves, dukes and kings. In response, Jewish communities the world over have expended time, money, and energy to free their coreligionists from captivity. It is impossible to document each and every instance of pidyon shevuyim; a few examples will have to suffice.
According to the famous legend of the four captives, four prominent 10th-century rabbinic scholars set sail together from Italy and were taken captive by pirates. Jewish communities in Spain, North Africa, and Egypt each redeemed one of the scholars (the fate of the fourth is said to be unknown). In each community, the scholar it had redeemed became one of its greatest rabbis and teachers. Frequently when Jews were taken captive, rabbinic leaders wrote open letters to the communities exhorting them to contribute funds. Maimonides, in several letters discovered in the Cairo Genizah, called on Jews of Egypt to help redeem Jews taken captive in Eretz Yisra'el and elsewhere. R. Nosson Noteh of Hanover, in his Yeven Metzulah, a chronicle of the 17th-century Khmelnitsky massacres, speaks of the redemption of some 20,000 Polish Jews by Jewish communities in Constantinople, Salonika, and Venice; many Italian Jewish communities contributed toward this cause as well. Even a 12th-century Jewish apostate of Prague, who was imprisoned for repudiating his conversion to Christianity, was apparently redeemed for the enormous sum of 3000 pounds of silver and 100 pounds of gold by his coreligionists.
Two aspects of this practice deserve mention. The first is that in frequently ransoming their fellow Jews at exorbitant prices—in effect these Jewish captives were regarded as slaves who were being sold—these Jewish communities largely ignored the Mishnah's teaching: "We do not redeem captives for more than their market price" (Gittin 4:6). The wisdom behind this teaching was that to do so would encourage future captors to ask for even larger sums. But it seems that Jews could not accept the notion that a price could be put on human life. Each life was invaluable, and every Jew was entitled to the best efforts of his fellow Jews to redeem him.
This principle is already inherent in the Abraham narrative. When Abraham returns to Sodom, its king proposes that Abraham surrender the captives to him—presumably rather than keeping them as slaves—while the booty would remain in Abraham's possession. Abraham responds by taking an oath that he will not take even one item, so that "you shall not say, 'It is I who made Abram rich'" (Gen. 14:23). What is it exactly that elicits Abraham's aggressive response? Some commentators suggest that because God had promised to grant him wealth it would be wrong for him to seek enrichment from flesh and blood. However, perhaps what animates Abraham's response, as Nahum Sarna suggests, is his aversion to being seen as a mercenary who saved the captives mainly out of the desire for personal gain. Moreover, accepting money in exchange for having returned the captives would amount to regarding them as commodities to be bought and sold rather than as human beings.
Second, in helping Jews wherever and whenever they were in distress, the redeemers not only emulated Abraham's example but also broadened its application. In many of the requests for funds, the captives are referred to as ahenu bene Yisra'el, which translates roughly as "our Jewish brothers." Those who worked for the captives' release saw all Jews as their brothers and sisters. Consequently, it was not only duty that motivated them, it was also love and concern for the members of their extended family. Their actions, like Abraham's, were an unspoken declaration: "Yes, I am my brother's keeper."
One final reflection: in redeeming captives, we are not only following in the footsteps of Abraham, we are walking in the ways of the One who first spoke to him in Haran. The greatest Redeemer in our history loosened the bonds of slavery that held us captive and led us out of Egypt. The People of Israel were born through a divine act of pidyon shevuyim; we ought to do no less a mitzvah for our fellow Jews—in fact, for all of humanity—whenever and wherever they call out from their places of bondage.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.