How does R. Yochanan interpret that your kinsman may live with you (Leviticus 25:36)? He uses it for that which was taught: If two people are traveling together and one of them possesses a canteen of water such that, if both of them drink, both will die; but if [only] one of them drinks, he will reach civilization [and live]. This was the view of Ben Petora: It were better for both of them to drink and both of them to die, so that one of them does not see his friend die—until R. Akiba came and taught: that your kinsman may live with you (Leviticus 25:36) [implies that] your life takes precedence over your friend’s life.
The context for this breathtaking passage is a discussion of the laws of interest and usury, in which R. Yochanan and R. Nachman b. Yitzhak have a disagreement concerning whether the courts should compel a person to return interest. The latter quotes R. Elazar as teaching that usury is a violation of Leviticus 25:36: Do not exact from [your kinsman] advance or accrued interest, but fear your God, that your kinsman may live with you. This certainly sounds decisive, so the Gemara asks how R. Yochanan understands the same verse because unless he finds in it a different meaning altogether, then R. Nachman’s argument will prevail.
R. Yochanan’s interpretation of Leviticus 25:36 is illustrated in a gut-wrenching situation prompting two halakhic opinions concerning “Who has a right to the water?” We are told that the opinion of Ben Petora prevailed until R. Akiba came and overturned it with his interpretation of Leviticus 25:36.
Perhaps you’re wondering: How would we know the water in the canteen is sufficient for only one person? What if they pass a stream or a well, or other people who can give them water? Why do they not consider other solutions? The failure of the text to address these questions alerts us that this is a contrived scenario meant to serve as a hypothetical thought experiment. The passage appears to be a digression from the general discussion about interest, but perhaps meant to suggest that Person X is not required to lend money to Person Y, even if Y is in dire straits, if X is poor and doing so would endanger X’s family. (Otherwise, X is expected to do so.)
Consider the scene: Two people are traveling together in the desert. Civilization—a settlement where water and food are available—is not nearby. One of the travelers possesses a canteen of water sufficient to enable only one person to make it to the settlement alive. If, however, the two travelers share the water in the canteen, neither will survive.
Two opinions concerning whether the one who owns the canteen of water must share it with the other are articulated. The first is that of ben Petora (we know him only as “the son of Petora”). We are told that his view was accepted halakhah until R. Akiba subsequently articulated an opinion grounded in a verse of Torah—Leviticus 25:36—that became accepted halakhah.
Ben Petora ruled that the owner of the canteen is obligated to share his water. His reasoning does not depend upon a Torah verse or halakhic principle, but rather on an emotional argument: Who would want to live having witnessed their companion dying and knowing that he died because the owner did not share his water?
R. Akiba, however, offers an opinion grounded in Torah: When Torah says that your kinsman may live with you, it implies the owner of the canteen can claim all the water (if, indeed, he needs all of it to live) because the kinsman cannot “live with” him unless he himself remains alive. Hence the owner of the canteen should prioritize himself over his companion.
Is it possible that ben Petora seeks to release both travelers from “playing God”
by choosing who lives and who dies?
But isn’t sharing the water a choice concerning who lives and dies?
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Ben Petora chooses “we” over “I”—but following his opinion, how many survive? Following R. Akiba’s opinion, how many survive? Is it fair to say that ben Petora chooses death over life, but R. Akiba chooses one life over two deaths? Do you think that maximizing the number of survivors justifies R. Akiba’s ruling? Following ben Petora’s opinion, the owner of the canteen will die with a clear conscience. According to R. Akiba’s opinion, the owner of the canteen will survive—with whatever pain and guilt that entails. Which would you choose?
- How does R. Akiba’s ruling that one should save oneself first compare with the familiar instructions on an airplane to put on one’s own air mask first, and only afterward to assist a child? Can you envision another situation in which one might need to prioritize saving oneself before saving another person’s life? Is there an application of this hypothetical case to how self-driving cars should be programmed? (Imagine a pedestrian stepping in front of a car. If the car swerves to miss the pedestrian, it will hit a wall or another car, killing the passenger.)
- This text was one of several Talmudic texts instrumental in deciding an excruciatingly difficult case in 1977 of conjoined twins (let’s call them Baby A and Baby B) born to a Jewish couple. The babies were joined at the torso and shared a single, 6-chambered heart, which was insufficient to sustain them both for more than a few months. If the twins were separated, for anatomical reasons the heart could only be given to Baby B. The chief surgeon at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, Dr. C. Everett Koop (later Surgeon General of the United States) determined that the heart was Baby A’s underdeveloped 2-chamber heart and Baby B’s fully developed 4-chamber heart. When asked whether the heart could be given to Baby A and thereby save her life, Dr. Koop replied, “There is no way to save Baby A. The issue is only should both die, or should Baby B be saved.” If you were called upon to decide whether the twins be separated and Baby B given the heart, how would you decide and why?