Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher, Dean of Students and Senior Lecturer at Diaspora Yeshiva, is not only a popular speaker and teacher, but also a dynamic thinker and writer. A student of Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky and Harav Gedalia Schorr, Rabbi Sprecher was granted smicha (rabbinical ordination) by Torah Vodaath Yeshiva. Prior to his current position, Rabbi Sprecher was a professor of Judaic studies at Touro College in New York. In addition to his duties at Diaspora Yeshiva, Rabbi Sprecher writes a regular column on various Judaic topics in the Jewish Press, and lectures regularly at the OU Israel Center in Jerusalem.
Yona's Sailors Dilemma: Kill One to Save Many?
Published: Sunday, September 4, 2011 06:11:25 PM
Number of views: 3681

Was throwing Yona into the sea to save the sailors on the boat in accordance with Halachah or not?

Sanhedrin 74b teaches: Regarding any of the sins in the Torah, if a person is told "Violate it and you will not be killed, " he should violate it. The only exceptions are idolatry, sexual sin and murder…And how do we know that this applies to murder? It stands to reason… Can one say, "My own blood is redder"? Perhaps the blood of the next person is redder."

Rashi comments, "Does anyone know that his own blood is more beloved to G-D than the blood of his fellow man? The person placed in this dilemma cannot say here, "One must live by the commandments (see Leviticus 18:5) and not die by them." Scripture allowed sinning to save one's life only because Jewish lives are precious to G-D. Here, however, another Jew is going to be killed. G-D's commandment against murder cannot be nullified."

Rashi makes clear that it is forbidden to kill one person in order to save another. Seemingly, according to this, we have a question against Yona who said, "Pick me up and throw me into the sea" (Yona 1:12). How can the sailors save themselves by throwing Yona overboard. Who says that their blood is redder than his? Yona's having allowed them to throw him into the sea is of no significance because one is forbidden to commit suicide.

In the Jerusalem Talmud, Terumot, Chapter 8, we find:

"If a caravan was traveling along the way and they encountered non-Jews who told them, "Turn over one of your group and we will kill him. Otherwise, we shall kill you all'" then even if it means them all getting killed, they mustn't turn over one Jewish soul. If the non-Jews singled out one of them, such as Sheva ben Bichri, they can hand him over and avoid being killed. Resh Lakish (Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish) said' "This only applies where the person singled out had incurred a death penalty like Sheva ben Bichri." Rabbi Yochanan said, "It applies even if he did not incur a death penalty like Sheva ben Bichri."

According to the principle that "in a Halachic dispute between Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan, the Halacha follows Rabbi Yochanan," we can understand why it was permissible to turn someone over to be killed if he was singled out, even if he hadn't incurred a death penalty. Since Yona's presence on the boat endangered everyone, throwing him into the sea was in accordance with the law.

Yet Rambam (Yesodei Hatorah 5:5) ruled like Resh Lakish and wrote, "If they singled out someone and said, "Hand him over or we will kill you all," if he had incurred a death penalty like Sheva ben Bichri, he must be turned over. All the same, we do not instruct them, to do so. Moreover, if he has incurred no death penalty, all of them must be killed rather than handing over a Jewish soul."

According to this Rambam, we can ask why, the sailors, who were G-d fearing individuals, had the right to cast Yona into the sea.  It is true that Rambam ruled (Yesodei HaTorah 9:3), "If someone  represses his prophecy (like Yona), he incurs a death sentence from heaven." Yet the Talmud stressed that the person to be handed over had to have incurred a death penalty like Sheva ben Bichri, i.e. a human death penalty, unlike Yona who only incurred a heavenly death penalty. Thus, his blood is no less red than that of the sailors.

Perhaps the two cases are different. In the Jerusalem Talmud, the person in question had performed no act for which the non-Jews were threatening to kill them all. Thus, having incurred no death penalty, there was no license for handing him over in order to save others. By contrast, in the case of Yona, since he knew he had incurred a heavenly death sentence, having run away and suppressed his prophecy, why did he come to their boat, thereby endangering all the people on it? In that case, therefore, it was certainly permissible for them to save themselves through his death, in the framework of , "If someone attacks you to kill you, kill him first." Yona thus had a din of Rodef.  Therefore, the sailors had the right to protect and save themselves.

We can bring proof for our thesis from the case of Samson (Judges 15). After he killed the Philistines and fled to Yehuda, the people of Yehuda, after arguing the case, tied him up and turned him ov er to the Philistines because Samson came to hide out by them.  Ohr Sameach explains their having handed over Samson, despite his having incurred no death sentence, was due to his having endangered the public, because the Philistines were looking to take revenge on Samson and those who harbored him. In this he was referring to Rama (Choshen Mishpat 425:1): "Whoever endangers the public, such as one who makes counterfeit money in a place where the government objects to that, his law is that of a "rodef", one who pursues with intent to kill, and he can be handed over to the authorities.

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