Does donating money to cover legal fees of Jews who are being charged with crimes which carry a prison term count as pidyon shvuyim? Does it matter if the country is western (US/Canada/UK) or not (Japan/Turkey/etc)?

Answer:

The concept of modern imprisonment would not fall under the category of pidyon shvuyim, because it does not pose a threat to the captive’s life, which was the case in Chazal’s conception of pidyon shvuyim. This makes a practical difference for the order in which tzedakah should be allocated, in which pidyon shvuyim tops the list. However, it still remains an important mitzvah to help Jews in such dire need, both after their guilt is proven and the more so certainly before, and in particular in regimes where prison sentences are not geared towards rehabilitation and involve sometimes cruel and excessive punishment.

Sources: See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 252:1, which is based on Gemara, Bava Basra 8. Marcheshes (1:43) writes that pidyon shvuyim does not necessarily involve a definite risk to a person’s life, but it must involve at least a possible risk to his life.

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2 Responses to “Modern-day Pidyon Shvuyim”

  1. so any ad or poster or advertisment asking to help a Yid with such legal issues…they are misusing the word “pidyon shevuim”, is that halachaically misleading? what about the fact that rabbonim’s signatures are on the bottom, does that mean these rabbonim deem the situation as pidyon shevuim?

    • Although the “halachic” pidyon shvuyim would not apply to most cases, helping a fellow Jew who is imprisoned or under threat of imprisonment is a modern, “toned-down” form of pidyon shvuyim, and this is what the advertisements refer to. The rabbis are not confirming that this is “halachic” pidyon shvuyim, but only that it is a worthy cause for making contributions to.

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