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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Save a JEWISH (?!) Life, Save a Whole World

In the Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a, we read:
כל הבאבד נפש אחת מישראל - מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו איבד עולם מלא, רכל המקיים נפש אחת מישראל - מעלה הכתוב כאילו קיים עולם מלא

Whoever destroys a soul from Israel, the Scripture considers it as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life from Israel, the Scripture considers it as if he saved an entire world.


The Gemara's reasoning there is based on the fact that Adam was created as a single human and yet propagated the entire human race; similarly, any human alive today could potentially be the ancestor of all of humanity for the future, and to destroy or save his life is likewise to destroy or save all of humanity. But if so, why should it matter whether the subject saved is a Jew? I say, is this not a non-sequitor?

Indeed.

The Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:1 (22a) omits מישראל "from Israel", reading only נפת אחת "a soul". And according to Rabbi Gil Student, here, the same reading is found in Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer ch. 47, Tanna debe Eliyahu Rabbah 11, and Yalkut Shimoni on Exodus 166.

According to Amitai Halevi (cf. here), Rambam in Hilkhot Sanhedrin 12:3 follows the Yerushalmi's reading. To quote Mechon Mamre's text (there it is 12:7):
לפיכך נברא אדם יחידי בעולם--ללמד שכל המאבד נפש אחת, מעלין עליו כאילו איבד עולם מלא, וכל המקיים נפש אחת, מעלין עליו כאילו קיים עולם מלא.

Therefore man was created individual and unique in the world: to teach that anyone who destroys a single soul, it is considered as if he has destroyed an entire world, and anyone who saves a single soul, it is considered as if he has saved an entire world.


Halevi there also says
Hameiri too bases his commentary on the Yerushalmi version, illustrating "the destruction of a whole world" by pointing out that Cain's murder of Abel eliminated all of his victm's descendents at one fell swoop. Abel, like Adam was not Jewish; he was not even the ancestor of Jews.


And note what Professor Menachem Kellner says (Farteitcht un Farbessert (On “Correcting” Maimonides)), note 16:
Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 [...] states “accordingly, only one man was created, to teach that one who destroys a single [Jewish] person is regarded by Scripture as if he had destroyed the entire world and one who saves a single [Jewish] person is regarded by Scripture as if he had saved the entire world.” As Ephraim Elimelekh Urbach has shown, the word mi-yisra’el (“Jewish”) is a relatively late insertion into the text of the mishnah. See E. E. Urbach, Mei-olamam shel hakhamim: Qovez mehqarim [World of the Sages] (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988), pp. 561-577. Through a series of coincidences, I discovered what is apparently the earliest textual witness to the correct text: Koran 5, 27-32! See my note on the subject, Tarbiz, 75 (2006): 565-566.


I decided to check the Koran's reading. The context of Koran 5:27-32 is Cain's killing Abel (very much like Meiri!); according to the Holy E-Books English translation of 5:32:
On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people. Then although there came to them Our apostles with clear signs, yet, even after that, many of them continued to commit excesses in the land.
(R' Micha Berger, here, points out that the Koran speaks of "as if he slew the whole people", with "the" apparently referring to the Jewish people, like the particularist version of Sanhedrin 4:5. However, it seems to me that given that the Koran is basing itself on Cain's killing Abel, presumably it, like Meiri, universalistically views the victim's Jewishness as inconsequential, since Abel was neither Jewish nor the progenator of Jews. R' Simon Montagu confirmed my guess from the original Arabic: he says alnas `aljamia should be translated as "all of humanity", and adds that this whole passage has been variously translated as "he who saveth a life shall be as though he had saved all mankind alive" (J. M. Rodwell, 1909) and "hamehhaye [nefesh] ke'ilu hehhya et kol ha'adam yahhdav" (Hebrew for "one who saves a life is as if he saved all of humanity collectively", Y. Y. Rivlin 1987).)

12 comments:

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

at some point i saw an additional variant, נפש אחת מבני אדם — which just goes to show that the original was נפש אחת, and later copyists found that too ambiguous.

Anonymous said...

I am muslim---The arabic word translated as "person" in that verse is "nafs" (soul/person) and also has the meaning of soul.

Mikewind Dale said...

The Hebrew is "nefesh"; change a few vowels and the "sh" to "s" (if I'm not mistaken, the Hebrew shin/sin becomes only "s" in Arabic, and the Hebrew samekh has no equivalent at all in Arabic), and apparently, it's the same word.

I remember when I was a member of my high school's Muslim Student Association (there's a story to that - I was an Orthodox Jew then too): two of the other members, both Muslims, ran excitedly to me and asked me to sing the Hebrew alphabet ("Aleph-Bet") to them. They were beside themselves when they heard all the cognates to Arabic.

Anonymous said...

I too find that as a muslim, a "Jewish" understanding/perspective often complements and sometimes enhances the understanding of the Quran---For example, the Concept of Ruach Hakodesh (Ruh-al-Qudus=arabic)or Holy Spirit.----By the way---how do you understand this concept/word? In Islam, it is often equated with Angel Gabriel.

Mikewind Dale said...

I generally just understand it in the basic Talmudic sense of God's inspiring the recipient's subconsconscious with knowledge, or subtly influencing the speaker's thoughts in a certain direction. If prophecy is an explicit message, then Ruah ha-Qodesh would be some sort of subliminal message. (The Talmud doesn't elaborate, or attempt to furnish a metaphysical explanation. It seems to take the concept as self-evident and not needing explanation. Traditional Rabbinic thought was indeed not very concerned with scholastic theology and metaphysics; a look at the Midrash shows the Rabbis were more concerned with conveying the lesson in naive terms understandable to the simple laity, and not with making those teachings philosophically rigorous.)

Of course, prophecy itself is hardly understood. The Talmud says that the prophetic messages were received in such a way that the prophet had to decode them and convert them into human language, and so every prophet prophecied to others in his own signon, with his own signet. The prophetic experience was something beyond ordinary human cognition and understanding; except for Moshe (whom God says He spoke face-to-face, whereas He says He speaks to other prophets in dreams and visions and riddles), speaking to the Creator was not done in ordinary human language and modes of thought!

Various kinds of Jewish philosophy all have their own takes on all this. Rambam (Maimonides), for example, understood prophecy and Ruah ha-Qodesh as being emanations from the Active Intellect. Qabalists have their own understandings, I'm sure, though I'm not privy, probably relying on the Sefirot and Neoplatonism somehow.

For me, metaphysical speculation holds little interest. I'm quite content with the naive and simplistic Talmudic understanding, without having to provide detailed metaphysical underpinnings based entirely on speculation.

In any case, I don't like to rely on concepts like these anyway. Ruah ha-Qodesh cannot be measured or quantified. If someone is a prophet, we can measure this; does he accurately predict the future, for example? But no one can prove whether or not God subliminally affected his thoughts. Sometimes in traditional Jewish literature, a given authority will claim that someone else's book was written with Ruah ha-Qodesh, but such claims fail to impress me. Such claims are not empirically verifiable, and I could myself just as well claim that my blog is written with Ruah ha-Qodesh!

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

shin and samekh are S in Arabic
sin on the other hand is SH

Anonymous said...

Dude.... Seriously....

It says FOR THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL

The koran says " We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole people:"

Clearly that is specific to one group of people no matter how apologetic you are willing to get here and try to link two completely different religions.

In any event, I have trouble understanding what that koranic statement even means. "unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land" ---- HUH?

So if a Jew kills a guy for valid reasons (or is it, if some guy kills a Jew for whatever reason), it's like he killed the whole world... But if it's only for murder or spreading mischief..... ??????

Anonymous said...

Please make sense out of the koran itself before trying to link it to Judaism. Only the koranic scholars/hadith can make sense out of it, since they are the tradition. Juse like only the Oral Torah can make sense out of Torah.

Mikewind Dale said...

Anonymous,

It is fine that the Koran speaks of a law for the Children of Israel. After all Sanhedrin 4:5 is also a law for the Jews!

Our concern is not with what happens when a gentile murders, i.e. whether or not he has killed a whole world. Our concern is rather whether Sanhedrin 4:5 - i.e. a Jew's murdering another person - applies to the murder of a Jew or a human. Sanhedrin 4:5 and the Koran both deal with a Jewish murderer, who murders either a Jew or a generic human (depending on the textual reading), and this is fine for us.

I'll admit that I was also greatly perplexed by the "mischief" clause - I'm innocent if I kill for the sake of fun?? I don't know what this clause means, but it's not important for our present purposes. We can bracket that clause off, and see that the rest of the text still fits with Sanhedrin 4:5.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps "Muhammad," or his playwright, stole it from Sanhedrin. The writer(s) of koran did have some knowledge of midrashic literature and apocrypha... Not sure how this in any way sheds light on what Sanhedrin actually says. Should we consult Muhammad about whether or not we descend from apes and pigs? Because some might say he is authoritative on that issue. I think this whole exercise is ludicrous. Look at their stories of Avraham, Noah etc.... they got them all mixed up!

Mikewind Dale said...

I (not being an observant Muslim) would also imagine that Muhammad simply followed the Midrash.

Now, I wouldn't rely on this Koran passage alone, since the Koran disagrees with Jewish literature in many places. But in our particular case, since it corroborates evidence from other Jewish texts, I see no reason not to use it as weak supporting evidence.

Sjimon said...

"Spreading mischief in the land" is a translation for "fasad fi l-ard"; a typical expression for corrupting society through (open) evil conduct. Not just being naughty or having "fun".

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