Talmud pages

Nedarim 80

Save yourself first.

If you’ve ever seen an airplane in-flight safety video, you have probably seen the part where passengers are told what to do if the cabin loses pressure and oxygen masks deploy. As these videos tell us, if you are traveling with someone who needs assistance to put on an oxygen mask, put on your own mask first before helping those around you.  

These instructions raise questions about the relationship between helping yourself and helping others that are echoed in beraita (an earlier tradition) on today’s daf: 

A spring belonging to the residents of a city, (if the water was needed) for their lives and the lives of others, their lives take precedence over the lives of others; their animals and the animals of others, their animals take precedence over the animals of others; their laundry and the laundry of others, their laundry takes precedence over the laundry of others. 

If a city’s water is a limited resource, how should it be apportioned? The beraita states that the lives of the residents of the city take priority over the lives of others, and so too the lives of their animals and their laundry needs take priority over others’ animals and laundry needs. But this prioritization is not absolute: 

The lives of others and their laundry, the lives of others take precedence over their laundry. 

Local prioritization only takes effect if the needs are equal. If we are portioning out the water to feed animals or do laundry, local needs take priority. But if the locals need water to do laundry, and outsiders need water to live, then in fact the outsiders take priority. The Gemara is silent on whether outsiders’ animals take priority over local laundry,  but it does record a surprising dissent to the rule about weighing the prioritization of human life and laundry.

Rabbi Yosei says: Their laundry takes precedence over the lives of others.

I hate wearing dirty clothes as much as the next person, but is it really a case of life or death? The Gemara explains that Rabbi Yosei thought that wearing dirty clothing could indeed cause serious health problems. But the halakhah doesn’t follow Rabbi Yosei. Instead, the Gemara insists that even if you own a limited and life-giving resource, other people’s right to live overrides your desire for comfort. Outsiders have a greater claim to your water than you do, if your needs are already met.  

And yet, all things being equal, if everyone needs the water to drink, or everyone needs it to feed their animals, or everyone needs it to do their laundry, then yes, the local owners take priority. But here’s where juxtaposing the Gemara with in-flight safety videos may offer us a helpful perspective. 

In a world where we value helping others, especially those who cannot help themselves, these instructions can feel a little weird. But in fact, this practice makes sense — after all, if you pass out from a lack of oxygen, you will be unable to help those around you. Having the ultimate right to your own water doesn’t erase the mitzvot of pikuach nefesh (saving a life) and tzedakah (sustaining the poor). Use the resources you need to live — and then help others. 

Read all of Nedarim 80 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 13th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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