Talmud pages

Bava Metzia 62

Share and share alike.

As part of its discussion about charging interest, the Gemara turns its attention to the biblical source for these laws, Leviticus 25:36, which reads: “If your kin, being in straits, come under your authority, and are held by you as though resident aliens, let them live by your side: do not exact advance or accrued interest, but fear your God. Let your kin live by your side as such.” On today’s daf, the rabbis zero in on that last phrase. 

And Rabbi Yohanan, what does he do with this: “Let your kin live with you”? He requires it for that which is taught: If two were walking on a path and there was a jug of water in the possession of one of them, if both drink, both die, but if only one of them drinks, he will reach a settled area. 

Consider this situation: Two people are walking in the wilderness and one has enough water to save himself, but not his friend. If they share it, both will die. What do you do? Do you keep it for yourself and live? Share it so you both die? Give it to the other person in its entirety? The rabbis disagree. 

Ben Petora taught: It is preferable that both of them drink and die, and let neither one of them see the death of the other. 

(This was the accepted opinion) until Rabbi Akiva came and taught: “And your brother shall live with you,” indicating that your life takes precedence over the life of the other.

In reaching his conclusion, Ben Petora leans heavily into the phrase “with you,” reasoning that you and your companion should share the same fate. But Rabbi Akiva disagrees. He reads “live with you” to mean all together. If there isn’t enough water for both of you to live, it’s impossible to fulfill the verse’s direction for both of you, so the water stays with you.

Uncomfortable with this friction, Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, a 20th-century rabbi known as the Hazon Ish, attempts to harmonize the two perspectives. He suggests that Ben Petora intended to limit his teaching that the two should share to situations where there’s a possibility that prolonging the lives of both individuals would enable them to reach another source of water, thereby enabling both of them to live. If we accept this interpretation, we can conclude that any obligation to share one’s water extends only so far as it enables both people to survive. 

Situations like this are pretty rare. Most of us are unlikely to be in the desert and forced to choose between our own lives and the lives of our companions. But this scenario prompts us to consider how we share scarce resources: Do we have an obligation to share? Or are we permitted to keep them for ourselves? And when do we choose each path?

Read all of Bava Metzia 62 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 30th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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