Whose Blood is Redder?

… what a long, strange trip it’s been…

For those who’ve had an opportunity to open and read from the Talmud, the Babylonian Talmud, specifically, you’ve seen how the Rabbis discuss topics of halacha or law. They often wrestle with words and phrases in order to come to a proper understanding of a text relative to a given situation. They look at a text from one perspective, and then from another, often seemingly contradicting themselves in the process with the use of Devil’s Advocate positions [for example]. While this can be frustrating and confusing for a newcomer to the Semitic Mindset, it is nonetheless, the basis of Law used in Rabbinic Judaism as well as in the United States court system.

Now, if you will indulge me, picture yourself in the company of rabbis as I present a case. We will look at the text in a Rabbinic way and see if we can come up with a ruling based upon the available facts. Are you ready, Rabbis?

In b. Bava Metzia[1], on daf 60b, the Rabbis introduce a Mishnah that focuses on the prohibition of ribit[2]. [Now, I don’t have to explain what ribit is to you, being how you are all learned Rabbis; but for the likes of me, people who look forward to a future smichah, I will explain that “Ribit” is “charging interest.”] In the midst of this discussion on usury or interest, the Rabbis conclude that one must not charge interest to a fellow Jew in order that your brother may live with you[3]. The phrase, that you brother may live with you, is an important piece to the puzzle. The Talmud text says[4]:

What does R’ Yochanan do with the phrase so that your brother may live with you? The phrase is needed in R’ Yochanan’s opinion, for the lesson that was taught in the following baraisa: Two people were traveling along the way and one of these had in his possession a flask of water. If both drink from it, they will both die because there is not enough water to sustain both of them until they reach more water. However, if only one of them drinks, he will be able to reach a settlement, where more water is available. Ben Petura preached concerning the above case: It is better that both should drink and die and one of them should not witness the death of his fellow. Ben Petura’s teaching was accepted until R’ Akiva came along and taught: The Torah states that your brother may live with you. This implies that your own life takes precedence over your fellow’s life. Thus, the owner should hold all the water for himself to ensure his own survival. R’ Yochanan maintains that the phrase that your brother may live with you is necessary to teach R’ Akiva’s point.

Spend a few seconds thinking about the situation presented. How would you handle it if you possessed the water? How would you want the owner of the water to handle it? This is just the beginning of our trip, because in exploring our dilemma, we must see it not only from an emotive perspective but from one of law and logic as well. Emotion can be an invaluable tool to interpret Torah[5].

With the scenario presented before us, we have five possible outcomes:

  1. 1.       The owner shares the water
  2. 2.       The owner gives the water
  3. 3.       The owner keeps the water
  4. 4.       The water is poured out on the spot
  5. 5.       The two face each other like a pair of bulldogs fighting over a chicken bone and to the victor goes the spoils

The last two are, frankly, stupid, trite, and we should be embarrassed if we considered either one of them as a viable option. The other three are possibilities we are now going to explore through the words and opinions of the Rabbis.

I played with this idea two ways. One was compiling all the opinions for each perspective together into a single argument, and the other involved using the “On One Hand… On The Other Hand” arguments. I chose to assemble the information into two batches to alleviate opportunity for additional confusion. We will now explore the idea that the water is to either be shared or given to our companion at the expense of our life.

#1 & #2: The Owner Shares or Gives the Water

[I lump these two together because they both involve the death of the owner of the water.]

On May 16 in Chicago, 15-year-old Christopher Sercye was shot twice in the chest while playing basketball. His friends brought him to a ramp 35 feet away from the emergency room. The friends and two police officers asked the emergency room personnel to come out and bring Sercye inside. They refused, citing hospital policy that prevented them from leaving the facility. While precious time elapsed, the police went out to drag the dying boy inside. The hospital staff pronounced Sercye dead an hour later[6].

Ben Petura, in our Mishnah, contends that the owner of the water is obligated to share the water with his companion, using “Your brother shall live with you,[7]” as a source text. Sefer Minchat Chinuch[8], a Halachic commentary by Rabbeinu Yosef, states that if the companion is a child, the adult is obligated to give over all the water to the child. In the question that shows up repeatedly in this study, “Whose blood is redder: mine, or my companion,” Ben Petura seems to answer that no one’s blood is redder. In the case of Christyopher Sercye, someone made the decision that Christopher’s blood wasn’t as red as their own and he died.

The belief in the sacredness of the human personality not only governs the relations of one individual to another, it defines the individual’s relationship to society as a whole[9]. Sanhedrin 4:5 in the Mishnah states that G-d originally created the human being singly to teach that he who destroys one person’s life is as if he destroyed a whole world, and whosoever rescues a single soul from the children of man, Scripture credits him as though he had saved an entire world. In fact, someone who puts himself under great risk or accepts hardship for the sake of observing the religious law of Judaism without sacrificing his life is considered especially righteous. This figurative self-sacrifice is called mesirat nefesh[10]. However, our example is not mesirat nefesh. This is self-sacrifice.

Since Hashem gave each person the divine right to life, Leviticus 19.17 and Hilchot Rotzeach 2:3 obligate us to come to the aid of another when they are threatened. In Rotzeach 1:14, the text portrays the opinion that it is obligatory for the bystander to place himself in uncertain danger in order to save a victim from certain danger. Based upon this opinion, some Halachic authorities forbid a donor from giving a kidney to a dying patient as it will place the donor is some danger. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, however, takes a more middle-of-the-road approach saying that it’s not obligatory to place yourself in questionable danger to save another person’s life, however, you may choose to take this risk to save a life. Therefore, R’ Feinstein permits the donation of a kidney even if it puts the donor into an element of danger.

Torah states, “You shall not stand by the blood of your fellow.[11]” In fact, Tosefta Yevamot and b. Sanhedrin 73a state that rather than to be party to murder, we should be willing to suffer martyrdom because our blood is not redder than our fellow’s, even if this involves violation of one or more of the mitzvot. We have an obligation to save people from danger. If the life of a non-Jew or apostate Jew is in danger, the law is a bit unclear and is a matter of debate; however it is certainly within the spirit of the law, if not the letter[12]. Tosefta Terumot carries this concept even further and states that if oppressors threaten to kill a whole village or group of people unless they turn over one to be killed, they must all suffer martyrdom rather than be party to the murder of that one person.

While these opinions begin to create a vivid picture in our heads on the importance of the Human Life, the Rabbis understand that there’s a limitation to the argument that life must be preserved at all costs. it also says, “R’ Yochanan said in the name of R’ Shimon ben Yehotzadak: ‘It was decided by a vote in the loft of the house of Nitezeh in Lod: For all the sins in the Torah, if a person is told, ‘Transgress and you will not be killed,’ they should transgress and not be killed, except for idol worship, sexual relations, and bloodshed.’” Rabbi said, “For as when a man rises against his neighbor [in murder], and slays him, even so is this matter[13] [incest].” However, what do we learn from this analogy of a murderer? This comes to throw light and is itself illumined[14]. The case of the murderer is compared to that of a betrothed maiden: just as a betrothed maiden must be saved from dishonor at the cost of the ravisher’s life[15], so in the case of a murderer, the victim must be saved at the cost of the attacker’s life. Conversely, the betrothed maiden is compared to the murderer: just as one must rather be slain than commit murder, so also must the betrothed maiden rather be slain than allow her violation[16]. And how do we know this of murder itself? — According to the Talmud, “it’s common sense. Someone came before Raba and said to him, “The governor of my town has ordered me, ‘Go and kill so and so; if not, I will kill you’”. Raba answered, ‘Let him slay you than that you should commit murder; who knows that your blood is redder? Perhaps his blood is redder[17]![18]’” One of the greatest stories in the Hanukkah repertoire is the tragedy Hannah and Her Seven Sons. I read this to the family every year, and it’s a great example of the requirement for the sake of Kiddush Hashem… death for the sake of G-d’s holiness.

Christopher Sercye died because there is no law obligating anyone to help him. Jewish Halacha, on the other hand, requires bystanders to expend time, money, and effort to save someone in danger, and does not allow us to ignore someone who is 35 feet away.

That is one look at the Talmud passage from the perspective of Ben Petura, who suggests that hoarding the water for one’s self is akin to passive murder and rules against such an outcome. Could it be that Yeshua agrees with Ben Petura when He said, “No greater love is this than one who lays down his life for friend?[19]” The Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Hart Zion, R’ Aharon Lichtenstein, makes a similar essential point. “According to Jewish law, to do no more than what the letter of the law requires is itself a violation of this law; to do within the line of the law [i.e., the spirit of the law] is [an integral] part of the fabric of halacha.” We need to ask, “Did not He who made me in the womb make him also?”

Now, let’s return to our original baraisa and look at it from the eyes of R’ Akiva.

#3: The Owner Keeps the Water

Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 says man stamps many coins with one die and they are all alike, but the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, has stamped all mankind with the die of the first man and yet not one of them is like his fellow[20]. Therefore, everyone is duty bound to say, “For my sake was the universe created.[21] This provides one of the basis for support that we should not throw our life away in favor of someone else. I think we can all agree that Torah-based obligations toward our fellow humans are rooted in the ideal that all people are created in the Image of G-d, we must understand how far we can or must take this concept. Are we to sacrifice our own well being in order to save another, or do we hold back in order to preserve our own life? Our brother has the divine and sacred right to life, freedom, and dignity, but so do we. In view of this concept, we will now explore R’ Akiva’s ruling that we keep the water in order to save our own life at the expense of our companion’s life. After all, who’s to say our companion’s blood is redder; perhaps our blood is redder?

Generally, we’re taught we must violate Biblically and Rabbinically mandated laws in order to preserve human life. We call this principle Ya’vor v’al ye’hareg[22]. This principle includes the laws of Shabbat, kashrut, circumcision, chametz during Passover, and even fasting on Yom Kippur[23]. Torah and its interpretation assert that pikuach nefesh[24] is paramount over all but a handful of mitzvot found in Torah. These are murder, sexual misconduct, and idolatry. The governing principle regarding these three “cardinal sins” is called ye’hareg v’al ya’avar[25]. This thought is based upon the Scripture, which reads, “You shall keep My decrees and My laws that a person will do and live by them.[26]” In fact, the opening verse of this week’s Parashah also reminds us that the Exodus and our entrance into the Land was to provide us life and a living[27]. The Rabbis deduced from Leviticus 18:5 that one should not die for the sake of fulfilling a mitzvah. Therefore, one should not place him or herself in mortal risk in order to keep a command.

Earlier, I mentioned that Leviticus 19.17 and Hilchot Rotzeach 2:3 instruct us to come to the aid of others who are threatened; other passages require us to preserve our own life[28]. In our Mishnah, Ben Petura seems to ignore the moral and Halachic directive to protect one’s own life as it states, “You shall watch over yourselves carefully.[29]” There is a well-known precedent to Ben Petura’s position: one whose only way of saving his life is through the killing of another is mentioned in the statement, “Who says that your blood is redder[30]? Maybe your friend’s blood is redder[31].” The value and mitzvah of saving one’s own life does not stand in the face of the position of murder. Therefore, in a case where either a man or his friend will end up being killed, Rashi explains, “the King’s decree forbidding murder should not be set aside.” While this seems to be a precedent for Ben Petura’s ruling, what happens with the Halachic imperative to protect one’s self? This problem only arises if we give up our life to save another or to prolong another’s life temporarily. The King commands us to take care of the bodies He gave us, so why does Ben Petura instruct us to protect a friend at the expense of our life?

R’ Akiva agrees that Torah’s approach to Kiddush Hashem and the principle of ve-chai bahem[32] allos one to agree with Ben Petura. Tosefot in b. Sanhedrin 60a teaches the ve-chai bahem is specifically talking about the 613 Mitzvot of the Torah. Akiva learns from this and from Bava Metzia that one’s life takes precedence over another, and Ben Petura’s line of logic falters. Likewise, R. Akiva comes to the conclusion that if by saving one life another is lost, the mitzvah to save a life does not apply because it isn’t actually hatzala[33]!

Conclusionary Note

While we explored this topic, I neglected to bring to mind the Mishnah, which prompted a Talmudic discussion on the prohibition of ribit – charging interest. Perhaps asking a simple question will help shed light on our discussion. What is a teaching on a general rule like this [saving one’s self over that of a companion, that is ] doing in the midst of the Talmud’s discussion of ribit? As is common practice in the Talmud, we explore how the laws and commandments are used elsewhere in the Biblical text and elsewhere in the Talmud. This, in turn, provides us the tools necessary to answer our dilemma. This technique, then, provides us a possible answer: Just as a man is not required to mortally sacrifice himself for a companion if he doesn’t have enough water for both of them, likewise, if he doesn’t have enough money for his own needs he should not feel an obligation to lend money to his friend who is in need as well.

What a long, strange trip it’s been. We explored three viable options: [1] the owner of the water can save himself at the expense of his companion, [2] the owner can share the water, dooming them both to dehydration, or [3] the owner can sacrifice himself for the sake of his companion. Now, there is only one more thing we must do before revealing the answer to our conundrum, before we reveal the Halachic consensus. We take the next few moments in silent reflection.


R’ Akiva looks at the text thusly: Who owns the water has possession of the water and is not required to share or give it away. He is under no obligation to sacrifice his life to save another. Ben Petura could well have viewed the baraisa as both men equally possessed the water and were under obligation to equally share. If both own it and ones takes it for himself, the fundamental rule that one’s blood is not redder than his companion’s is violated [Yoma 2:2, b. Pesachim 25b] and the thief is deserving of death. If one cannot refute R. Lichtenstein’s argument to act beyond the narrowest requirements of Torah, one finds the necessity to share even when in undeniable possession of the water.

[1] b. Bava Metzia 62a

[2] Charging interest; prohibited in Exodus 22.24, Leviticus 25.35-38, and Deuteronomy 23:20-21

[3] Leviticus 25.35

[4] Artscroll’s translation from Volume 42 page 62a[1] is provided herein

[5] Emotion cannot be the sole lens used otherwise Torah is broken.

[6] From the article, At What Cost Saving Lives, by Rabbi Chaim Stenmetz

[7] Leviticus 25.36

[9] Samuel Belkin, In His Image, P.117. Samuel was born in Svislach, Russia [now Belarus]. [1911-1976]. He was ordained as a rabbi at age 17 by Yisrael Meir Kagan, the Chofetz Chaim.

[10] Giving over the soul

[11] Leviticus 19.16

[12] Quotation lost

[13] Deuteronomy 22.26

[14] In other words, while the former casts light upon the latter, the latter ends up shedding light upon the former

[15] Rape is likened by the Torah to murder – and one is required to give one’s life rather than commit murder

[16] Some authorities hold that the requirement to sacrifice one’s life does not apply to passive behavior; therefore, a rape victim is not required to die resisting the attack. According to this thought, the requirement applies to those who would initiate the act

[17] You have no right to murder him to save yourself: his life is no less valuable than your own

[18] b. Sanhedrin 74a, b. Yoma 82b, b. Pesachim 25b

[19] John 15:13

[20] Are uniqueness is expressed physically as well as mentally/spiritually

[21] Each of us has a unique role to play and Hashem’s overall scheme is incomplete without each one of us.

[22] Transgress and do not be killed

[23] This is why the Rabbis have ruled in the past that certain people are exempt from fasting on Yom Kippur

[24] The preservation of human life

[25] Be killed but do not transgress

[26] Leviticus 18.5

[27] Deuteronomy 26.1

[28] B. Sanhedrin 72a, B. Bava Metzia 62a, M. Bava Metzia 2:6

[29] Deuteronomy 4:15

[30] Mai chazit

[31] B. Sanhedrin 74a

[32] Life outweighs other religious considerations; see b. Yoma 85a and

[33] Saving a life

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