newsIsrael at War

‘Pikuach nefesh’: Violating Shabbat to redeem the captives

JNS spoke with several rabbis who all stressed the importance of erring on the side of caution—namely, life.

Women outside the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv call on the government to do more for the release of hostages being kept in the Gaza Strip, Feb. 1, 2024. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.
Women outside the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv call on the government to do more for the release of hostages being kept in the Gaza Strip, Feb. 1, 2024. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.

Shas Party leader Aryeh Deri sparked controversy over the weekend by reportedly asking members of the War Cabinet to delay the departure of an Israeli delegation for hostage negotiations in Qatar until after Shabbat.

In response, opposition and Yesh Atid Party leader Yair Lapid tweeted a link to a Hebrew media report of Deri’s alleged demand along with the caption: “If this isn’t pikuach nefesh, then what is?”

Pikuach nefesh, or “saving a soul,” is the principle in halachah (Jewish law) that the preservation of human life overrides almost all other religious rules and obligations. 

For his part, Yisrael Beiteinu Party chief Avigdor Liberman tweeted: “Deri, what is more pikuach nefesh than returning the kidnapped?”

Liberman included a quote from the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 252:3: “Every moment that one delays unnecessarily the ransoming of a captive, it is as if he were to shed blood.”

The backlash prompted a vehement denial from Deri, who accused his opponents of trying to score political points at the expense of the captives held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Former Shas lawmaker Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a rabbi, told JNS that if the negotiations have a realistic chance of succeeding, then “violating Shabbat can be done and should be done by the highest religious authorities. Delaying it is a very serious offense. 

“Once those involved confirm the urgency of the situation, we must enforce halachah,” said Amsalem, while qualifying that he could not himself make a determination on this specific issue because he is not privy to the details of the talks.

“Just like how a rabbi can’t assess whether a person is fit to fast on Yom Kippur [and only a doctor can],” he noted.

JNS spoke with several rabbis who all stressed the importance of erring on the side of caution—namely, life—when determining when pikuach nefesh applies.

Pidyon shvuyim [redeeming captives] is a very high principle and value in Jewish tradition and Jewish thought, especially when we know that the lives of the hostages are at great risk and they are potentially undergoing terrible torture,” former Knesset member Rabbi Dov Lipman told JNS. 

“There is no doubt in my mind that the law that requires violating Shabbat as part of getting them released applies to the negotiations as well,” he added.

Rabbi David Stav, chair of the Tzohar organization, invoked “Operation Thunderbolt,” Israel’s daring 1976 hostage recovery raid in Entebbe, Uganda, as a precedent.

“Preparations for the Entebbe operation began on Shabbat. Granted, these were very intensive actions that happened close to the timing of the operation itself,” Stav explained to JNS.

Noting the counter-argument that hostage talks have been stalled for weeks and will likely take several more for the parties to reach any agreement, if at all, Stav emphasized that as long as the motivation is to save a life, it is necessary to act.

“If negotiating on Shabbat can help even just a few if not all of the hostages, it should lead to doing so. The question is: Does even just a day make a difference, and I believe it does. Even if it’s a small difference,” he said.

Beyond the outcome of being present at the negotiation table in Qatar, Stav said Israeli leaders must also consider the impact of the alternative on the captives.

“If postponing the talks could send the message that Israel is not serious and lead Hamas to hurt or murder them, then this risk should be understood as reason enough to fly to Doha even on Shabbat,” he said.

In any case, Mossad Director David Barnea was expected to lead an Israeli delegation to the Qatari capital on Monday, after the War Cabinet approved the trip the previous night.

The framework for a deal is reportedly a six-week (42-day) pause in fighting for the release of 40 hostages in the first stage, during which Israeli forces would withdraw from Gaza’s two main roads, allowing displaced Gazans to return north and aid to flow freely.

In the second stage, a “permanent ceasefire” would be established including Hamas releasing the remaining living hostages in exchange for more Palestinian terrorists.

The third and final phase would involve Hamas handing over the bodies of slain hostages in exchange for Israel lifting the Gaza blockade and allowing reconstruction to begin.

On Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the latest Hamas demands “absurd,” yet still agreed to send negotiators to Qatar.

Rabbi Ari Shvat from Kokhav Hashahar in the Binyamin region of Samaria told JNS that the mitzvah [commandment] of redeeming prisoners “has been deep in our Jewish consciousness since Abraham went into battle to rescue his kidnapped nephew, through 2,000 years of bloody kidnappings in exile, to Entebbe, on the one hand, and the ‘exaggerated’ 2011 deal [to free IDF soldier] Gilad Shalit [in exchange for releasing 1,027 Palestinian terrorists], on the other.

“But because we love each and every individual, we are told explicitly in the Shulchan Aruch (YD 281) not to redeem Jews ‘more than their worth’ (generally, the ratio is one to one),” continued Shvat.

“Rabbi Meir ben Baruch (the Maharam) of Rothenburg himself died in prison because he didn’t allow the Jews to pay the exorbitant ransom the Gentiles demanded,” he said. “It’s immoral for Am Yisrael [the nation of Israel] to allow its enemies to know and play on its weak spot, for they will continue kidnapping time and again.”

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