Redeeming captives and organ donation

Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the youth as a servant to my lord, and let the youth go up with his brothers. (Genesis 44:33)

The Torah commands us to help those in need: ‘Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow (Leviticus 19:16). Binyamin (Benjamin) is about to be taken captive by Joseph after being framed for the theft of the goblet. Yehudah (Judah) steps up and begs to take his place.

The Talmud describes being held in captivity as worse than death (Bava Basra 8b). There is a positive commandment to rescue captives (ibid.) and Maimonides (d. 1204) declares that the ransoming of captives takes precedence over the feeding and clothing of the poor (Hilchot Matanot Aniyim 8:10). From Yehudah’s perspective, Binyamin is currently in grave danger, not to mention the effect his capture will have of Yaakov (Jacob) their father.

The question is to what extent we are obligated to use our resources or put ourselves in danger to save others.

It is evident that since the rescue of others is a Torah obligation, it would include using one’s financial resources apparently without limit although according to the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) one may be entitled to compensation for the expenditure (Choshen Mishpat 267:26).

The Gemara indicates that it is forbidden to take action to save another if it will result in one’s own death (Bava Mezia 62a). However, if someone was commanded to murder another person or face their own death, the Gemara rules that inaction is necessary; it would be forbidden to murder another to save your own life (Sanhedrin 74a).

The more complex question is to what extent the bystander is obligated to risk their life in saving another person. Extensive rabbinic literature concludes that that there is no obligation to risk one’s life to save another, although to do so is considered an act of extreme piety beyond the call of duty. Modern examples include live organ donations (such as donating a kidney) which carry a very minor risk. Therefore, while there is no obligation to donate the act of doing so is highly praiseworthy.