Tuesday, November 17, 2015


I teach Ethics at Framingham State University. At every session we take an ethical problem and discuss it. Recently I presented a rabbinic dilemma to my students that is very popular in the Jewish sources. Here is the case: 

Two individuals, A and B, are traveling together through the desert, and between them they have only one flask of water. If A alone were to drink the whole bottle, he would be able to reach the town at the end of the road, but if they were to share the bottle, the two of them would die. What should they do?

One ancient rabbinic commentator by the name of Ben Peturah (“the Son of Petura,” an otherwise unknown figure in Rabbinic literature) argued that both should drink and die, rather than A should live and witness the death of B. He based his argument on the Biblical text that reads: That your brother may live with you, (Lev. 25: 35), stressing the word, “live.” However, Rabbi Akiva, a 2nd cent. scholar, said to him: The word to be emphasized  is “with you” and not “life.” This clearly implies that your life takes precedence over the life of your of your friend. (See text in Sifra, Lev. 25:36 and BM 62a). And that is the Jewish law on the subject.

Examples from modern life are plentiful. Here is one:  On the plane, before taking-off, an announcement is usually made: “In case the level of oxygen falls, a mask will come down from the ceiling. Please put it on you before you place it on the face of your companion.” The rationale is that if you cannot take care of yourself, you will not be able to help another.

However, as we discussed in class, the situation may change depending on who B is. There are at least three different scenarios:

 1) If B is someone you do not know or barely know, one can easily argue that A’s life comes first. Why should A give up his life for a stranger?

 2) But what happens if B is your child?  Your boy/girlfriend or husband/wife? My guess is that here, many people would give up the bottle, and let the other drink alone.

 3) But what if you were traveling with your good friend, or your parents, or even with some elderly relatives? Whose life comes first in these cases? For me, the determining factor is who has a better chance to survive? At the end, the survivor may suffer from a guilty conscience, but he/she will live after all.

What do you think?

Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Nov. 2015