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Staying Alive Underwater
‘She Has Already Ascended’
(Bava Kamma 50a)

 

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Throughout the generations, amongst the most sensitive halachic questions have been those relating to igun, the sorry outcome when husbands disappear while fleeing from an enemy, during wartime, or even while traveling or through other circumstances, leaving their wives agunos (i.e., chained and unable to remarry). Authoritative poskim were consulted to decide whether the man in question was still to be considered alive. The decision was often difficult even in the event where witnesses were found who saw the husband fall into the sea or sink into a river, but did not see him subsequently emerge from the water. Such cases invariably involve a plethora of halachic issues, and in the cited instance specifically, the question is how long a person can survive under water. At what point would he be pronounced halachically dead?

 

A Miracle

Our daf mentions a certain man named Nechunya who was known as “the Ditch Digger” because he used to dig large, deep pits where water would collect to provide pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem for the Festivals with a regular supply of water to quench their thirst.

Once it happened that Nechunya’s daughter fell into a large pit. A crowd of people ran to R. Chanina ben Dosa to ask him to pray for her. The Gemara (see Rashi, ibid.) relates that during the “first hour,” he said she was all right; i.e., even if she was still in the pit, she was not dead. During the “second hour,” he again told them she was all right. During the “third hour,” however, he said, “She has already ascended (to heaven).”

Yet she subsequently emerged alive! Too much time had passed for her to remain alive in the water; indisputably, she had been saved by a miracle. Indeed, the girl later reported that an elderly man (Avraham Avinu himself, see Rashi, s.v. vezakein,) had come to her rescue. This seems to be clear evidence that a person can only be pronounced dead after remaining underwater for three hours. Indeed, many Acharonim (Toras Emes 1, Eliyahu Rabbah 12) explain that the Rivash (Responsa 377), who rules accordingly, relies on this Gemara.

 

One-Two-Three

However, the Maharit (Responsa, Even HaEzer 26) asks the obvious question: Is it physically possible for a human to remain alive more than two hours without oxygen? The Maharit concludes, therefore, that when the Gemara records how long Nechunya’s daughter was in the pit, “first hour,” “second hour,” “third hour,” it is not referring to sixty-minute periods, but is rather enumerating the occasions on which people came to R. Chanina ben Dosa to ask him to pray. It actually means “first time,” “second time,” “third time.”

As an alternative explanation, the Maharit suggests that Nechunya’s daughter may not have actually fallen into the water, but clung with all her might to stakes projecting from the sides of the pit. If she had been underwater for so long, she could not possibly have survived.

 

How Long is an Hour?

The Maharit quotes Tosafos (Sotah 11a, S.V. Miriam), who bring a proof that a “sha’ah” is not always used to indicate a time period equal to one twenty-fourth of a day. The Mishna (Sotah 9b) relates that Miriam anxiously waited on the banks of the Nile for a sha’ah to see what would transpire with her infant brother Moshe. The Tosefta (Sotah 4:1) teaches us that the measure of Divine benefit is five hundred times greater than the measure of Divine punishment. That means that a person’s reward for the performance of a good deed is 500 times that of what would be meted out for a single transgression. A simple calculation shows that if Miriam waited an hour for Moshe, the Israelites would have needed to wait five hundred hours. In actuality, the Israelites only waited for her for a week, i.e., 168 hours (Bamidbar 12:15), before they continued on their journey.

Thus, the concept of a “sha’ah” is not always used to indicate a set period of time. Nonetheless, Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Responsa, Second Edition, 47) notes that we should not disregard the Rivash’s opinion and rely on this leniency. The correct practice is based on his simple interpretation of the “sha’ah shlishis,” that only after a period of three hours has lapsed, where the husband was seen to go underwater and did not emerge, is he halachically presumed to be dead.

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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.