JERUSALEM (Aug. 29)
The excessive visa fees demanded by Soviet authorities from educated Russian Jews wishing to emigrate to Israel has shocked Jewish and world opinion. But there is ample precedent in Jewish history for ransoming individuals and entire communities. In fact, the rescue of Jews by paying ransom was regarded as one of the important mitzvahs (good deeds) according to the Encyclopaedia Judaica.
But to avoid exhorbitant ransom demands or repeated kidnappings, the rabbis of old ruled that captives should be redeemed only at their market value as slaves. One of the most famous Jewish captives, the 13th century scholar. Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, refused to let Jews pay ransom for his release from prison in order to avoid a precedent that would encourage despots to hold rabbis for ransom. Rabbi Meir died in prison.
According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, Jews in both Moslem and Christian lands were often seized and held captive in order to exact ransom from their fellow Jews. The phenomenon was widespread in Russia and was a common occurrence in the Ukraine and Volhynia during the 16th and 17th centuries. During the Cossack massacres of 1648-49, captured Jews were ransomed by Jewish communities in the Ottoman Empire.
In the 20th century the ransom of imperiled Jews has been disguised as a special tax. Such was the case in 1939 when Jews seeking to leave Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia were forced to pay a high levy imposed by the Nazi office in Prague headed by Adolf Eichmann.