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An Explosion In The Trench
“With A Glowing Hot Knife”
(Yevamos 120b)

 

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The Gemara cites a debate between R’ Shimon ben Elazar and the Chachomim, regarding a person who was mortally wounded by sword or knife wounds. The Chachomim maintain that seeing a person severely wounded, even if not the actual death, allows one to testify that the person died, in order to allow his wife to remarry. R’ Shimon ben Elazar argues that one may not testify to this. Perhaps the victim managed to apply heat to his wounds, which causes healing. Rava adds that if the knife was extremely hot, even the Chachomim agree that one may not testify to his death, since the heat of the knife itself helps to heal the wound. This opinion is accepted in halacha (Taz, E.H. 17 s.k. 44. See Atzei Arazim, s.k. 158).

Prior to and during the American Civil War (1861-1865), when medical knowledge was greatly enhanced, body wounds were considered fatal. Seriously wounded limbs were almost automatically amputated. With the advancement of medical knowledge, as well as the ability to deal with and fight infection, potential healing was advanced.

 

Location of Wound

The Rishonim and Poskim discuss whether even a person who has been wounded in a vital organ, and is thus classified as a “treifa,” can also be healed by applying heat to the wounds. Or perhaps our sugya refers to people who were wounded in so many places that their condition is critical, but they are not considered treifos.

 

Severity of the Risk

The concern that a heated blade might help a mortal wound to heal seems somewhat far-fetched. The Chiddushei Harim of Gur, zt”l (1799-1866), explains that according to the normal standards of halacha, we would not be concerned about such a remote possibility. However, allowing a woman whose husband might still be alive to remarry is so severe that we cannot take any risks.

 

Wounds from Bullets or Bombs

This sugya has become more relevant since the advent of modern warfare, wherein wounds from bullets, bombs, or grenades are common. Since bullets and shrapnel scattered from bombs and grenades are heated by the force of the blast, contemporary poskim question whether they have the status of a heated blade, whose wounds tend to heal. Perhaps, if a person was seen mortally wounded by bullets or bombs, we cannot testify that he died.

 

Testimony of Gentile Medics

One sad case was brought before Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Teitelbaum, zt”l (1879-1926), Sigheter Rav and author of Atzei Chaim, regarding two Jewish soldiers on a combat mission (E.H. 25). One of them was hiding in a trench, while his friend waited nearby. Suddenly, the friend saw two grenades hurled into the trench and explode. He saw that the Jew in the trench was wounded in the head, but did not have time to investigate, as he was immediately called into battle. Later, two gentile medics told him that his friend died and they had buried his body.

Since the testimony of the gentile medics is not sufficient to allow a woman to remarry, the question was raised whether witnessing a severe grenade wound is enough to testify that a person died. Does a grenade have the status of a heated blade which tends to heal? In a similar teshuvah, the author of Tzur Yaakov (1:103) rules that it does. However, Rabbi Aaron Walkin, zt”l (1865-1942), author of Zakein Aharon rules that it does not (1:73). He reasons that weapon are developed in a way that maximizes their destructive capability. It is unlikely that their own heat would heal their victims. Therefore, he investigated the matter and discovered that they do not reach a high enough temperature to be compared to the “heated blades” discussed in our Gemara. The contemporaneous Otzar Haposkim (17: s.k. 257:8) cites experts in the field, who say that bullets and shrapnel generally do not rise above 80 degrees centigrade. They cannot be compared to “heated blades,” and one may therefore offer testimony that a person mortally wounded by them has died.

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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.