Thursday, February 18, 2021

safeik sakana b'makom mitzvah

Eiruvin 21b:

 מעשה בר"ע שהיה חבוש בבית האסורין והיה ר' יהושע הגרסי משרתו בכל יום ויום היו מכניסין לו מים במדה יום אחד מצאו שומר בית האסורין אמר לו היום מימך מרובין שמא לחתור בית האסורין אתה צריך שפך חציין ונתן לו חציין כשבא אצל ר"ע אמר לו יהושע אין אתה יודע שזקן אני וחיי תלויין בחייך סח לו כל אותו המאורע אמר לו תן לי מים שאטול ידי אמר לו לשתות אין מגיעין ליטול ידיך מגיעין אמר לו מה אעשה שחייבים עליהן מיתה מוטב אמות מיתת עצמי ולא אעבור על דעת חבירי אמרו לא טעם כלום עד שהביא לו מים ונטל ידיו כששמעו חכמים בדבר אמרו מה בזקנותו כך בילדותו על אחת כמה וכמה ומה בבית האסורין כך שלא בבית האסורין על אחת כמה וכמה

The gemara relates that when R' Akiva was in prison, one day the guard took away half of his ration of water.  R' Akiva refused to eat without washing netilas yadayim, even though doing so placed him at risk of death.  "Better that I should die my own death [by hunger], rather than violate the takanas Chachamim and be chayav misa because of that."   

How could R' Akiva do this?  Except in the case of the three cardinal aveiros of murder, arayos, and avodah zarah, according to the Rambam not only are you not required to give up your life to avoid an issur, you are not allowed to give up your life.  How then could R' Akiva put his life in danger just to avoid eating without netilas yadayim?

When we speak of danger, there is a difference between someone putting a gun to your head and saying, "Eat without washing your hands or I shoot," and being forced to skip food and drink due to a lack of water (see Maharatz Chiyus).  Even though in the story R' Akiva put himself in danger, there was not an absolute certainty that he would die.  Conditions can change -- as we see from the story, they did, as R' Akiva did not die that day in prison -- and there are avenues of possible escape.   

What we see from R' Akiva's example is that where there is merely a safeik sakana and the odds are in your favor, even according to the shitas haRambam one is permitted to put oneself in the path of danger l'tzorech mitzvah.


  1. I would have said that this was shaas hashmad, as he was imprisoned for teaching torah, so even arkesa demisaana is yehareg veal yaavor. Although the lashon of the gemara doesn't really sound like that is the rationale.

    1. And R' Yehoshua sitting there in the same prison did not know it was a shaas shmad ?

      And what was the kal v'chomer -- this is a shaas hashmad so anyone would have done the same, it's not a midas chassidus of R' Akiva?

      Some Rishonim hold that an adam gadol can be moseir nefesh even for smaller things since he serves as an example and maybe you can explain the gemara that way, but the Ramabm does not adopt that view.

  2. -- "'Better that I should die my own death...rather than violate the takanas Chachamim'"

    rather than violate the takanas of >my colleagues< ("21b").

    when R' Akiva heard the prison guard's 'chetzyan chetzyan' from R' Yehoshua, he understood the judgement of Heaven. his 'mayim mayim' advice to >his colleagues< at the entrance to pardes (Chagigah 14b), 'could have been better! (look what befell the three of them)'.

    Now he would do his very utmost to respect [the ruling of] colleagues, those who enacted "netilas yadayim" before eating...