Infinite Worth

I have for a while kept a theory that not only do we aggadically consider human life to be of infinite value but that this notion has halachic import.

For example, there is a dispute about what to do when an enemy or criminal gang tell a group of Jews to turn one of their number in to be killed, or else they all will. Consequentally speaking, the logical thing to do is to pick one to be killed, since if you don’t, that person will be killed anyway — along with the rest of the group.

But neither Rav Yochanan nor Reish Laqish tell us to do that. Rather, one may only do so if the enemy says “turn over Sheva ben Bikhri” (to give the example from Shemuel II). According to R’ Yochanan, their naming a particular person is sufficient. But Reish Laqish hold that this was only because David haMelekh knew Sheva ben Bickri was already culpable for the death penalty — their naming a particular victim is not enough to permit handing him over.

This came up in practice during the first Lebanon War. (Story heard from RARakeffetR, but I might be mangling the details.) 5 soldiers went into a building in Beirut to check if it was safe. They make it to the top of the building, and having completed their inspection, gave the all clear. 100 or so soldiers start storming the building when the enemy blows it up.

Does one: Recover the 5 boys at the top of the building in hopes of saving them? But then meanwhile, more of the soldiers who are trapped further down in the rubble will die.

Or: Bulldoze away the top layer of the rubble, killing the 5 boys (some of who are likely dead already, all of whom are going to die without help) in order to save far more boys overall?

(One should preemptively pray that the question never comes up.)

Thinking in terms of transfinite math (doing math with infinities)…

Are there more whole numbers than even numbers? Intuitively, you might say “yes”, because if you have 10 whole numbers, 1 through 10, half of them will be even (2, 4, 6, 8, 10) and the others odd — and so on no matter how big of a collection I pick — 100, 1000, or a google. But not infinity. Because if you take every integer, I can pair it up 1:1 with an integer. Just double it. Pair

1 – 2
2 – 4
3 – 6
613 – 1226
1,000,002 – 2,000,004

So in a very real sense, the numbers are the same. No, it’s not intuitive, but then, neither is the whole concept of taking an infinity of something. 2 * infinity = infinity, 3 * infinity = infinity (by a similar argument), and so on.

So, if each of the captured people have infinite value, then one really can’t say that more value is lost if all 20 are killed than if one. Infinity is infinity no matter what you multiply it by.

Similarly, we violate Shabbos to give them the opportunity to observe another Shabbos. (We violate Shabbos to save a non-Jews for an entirely different reason: darkhei shalom — walking the path of He Who makes peace is a higher value.) This is true even for someone who will die in a short while, nor be capable of doing much in that while, anyway.

One could see this as the flip-side of the previous argument. Just as 20 lives are of the same infinite value as one, a few seconds of Shabbos has the same infinite value as the Shabbos being violated.

What pushed me to post this notion is that I found another use of this infinity theory when learning Yerushalmi Qiddushin 3:1 (32b), although there is a parallel discussion in the Bavli on 60a so in a rare nod to convention, I’ll use that.

If a couple attempt to marry but the woman is already married to someone else, the rite isn’t binding. She doesn’t need a divorce from the second man because there is no marriage.

But, if someone says “You are wed to me from now and after 30 days”, he created a period of limbo. The wedding is performed at one time, but effect a marriage for 30 days.The case Abaye poses is where a second man comes during those 30 days and says “You are wed to me from now and after 20 days” and a third says “You are wed to me from now and after 10 days”… So that each subsequent wedding takes effect before the weddings already performed — first wedding last to take effect, 2nd wedding is 2nd to last, etc…

Abayei says she only needs a gett from the first man and the last man. Either the ineffectiveness of a wedding with a married woman applies based on when the wedding was performed, or when it took effect. So, she might be married to the first groom or the last, but those who neither performed the wedding nor whose as-of date are first are certainly not the husband.

Ula says Rav Yochanan disagreed. (In the Y-mi, Rav Avohu is the one to quote R’ Yochanan, and Abayei and Ula also post-date the JT.) That in such a situation she could be married to any number of men, and since this situation is untenable, each must give her a gett. R Merashia berei deRav Ami explains that this is because Rav Yochanan holds that each man left room for other marriages to take hold to.

The Y-mi continues with variation on the case. What if the second man did a regular wedding, with no delay? Rabbi Leizer (ie R’ Eliezer) says that the third and subsequent men would still be married to her, and she would need gittin from all of them. Rabbi Yitzchaq bar Tavilai asked him why; wouldn’t the second wedding take up all the claim that is left after the first? Isn’t she fully married after two, with none of her single-hood left for the third man’s wedding to connect to? RYbT’s opens “mah nafshach” (literally: what’s your soul?), an idiom that introduces a questioning something’s logic. R’ Leizer’s answers, “Is there a nafshakh when it comes to relations”?

I would like to suggest that R’ Leizer is also appealing to our inability to measure the value of a person. There are two ways to relate to the bride: The first is as an individual, and thus she is married or not as a unit. The second is where that unit was divided, in which case, we’re speaking of something as precious as relations with another human being, and it’s infinite. There is no way to add finite pieces to make up an infinity. And so once the first groom didn’t marry her all-or-nothing at the time of the wedding, any number of weddings would be binding.

2 thoughts on “Infinite Worth

  1. I plan to read this more carefully over Shabbes, but it reminds me of the story the Pnei Yehoshua tells in his introduction. He and his family were in a building that collapsed and burned, and people came to save whoever they could, and they killed more by their attempts than they saved, but, as he says, “ee efshar b’lav hachi.” I’m not sure what he means by that, but I do know that when choosing who to save, several poskim say that you do a goral, i.e., flip a coin.

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