Sefer Ha-Hayim Blog
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
The Case of the Poison Sandwich
Moral Issues of the Marketplace in Jewish Law
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The Poison Sandwich

A medical student was not doing well and was picked on by his fellow students. It got to the point that his lunch was secretly stolen on a regular basis. This student then devised a trick to find out who was stealing his lunch: he put poison in his lunch. When one of his fellow students started vomiting violently, it was clear who had been stealing his lunch. The student then heroically saved this poisoned student.

The question is whether this student was halakhically allowed to poison his lunch. In the journal Pa'amei Ya'akov (Kislev 2000; Nisan 2000), R. Yitzhak Zilberstein ruled that this student acted properly. Since the thief was a habitual sinner, he qualified for the following Talmudic judgment:
We mark kerem reva'i [produce from a tree's fourth year] with clods off earth and orlah [produce from a tree's first three years] with pottery shards and graves with limestone that is smoothed and poured. R. Shimon ben Gamliel says: About when is this speaking? Shevi'is [the Sabbatical year]. (Mishnah, Ma'aser Sheni 5:1)

On the Shevi'is year, when the food is ownerless. But on other years, leave it for the wicked person and let him die [hal'itehu le-rasha ve-yamus]. (Gemara, Bava Kamma 69a)
In other words, according to R. Shimon ben Gamliel, on normal years, we are not concerned that a thief might come and steal food that is forbidden to be eaten. Let him eat it, since he is stealing anyway.

Let Him Die

R. Zilberstein rules that the thief in the above case is similar to the thief in the Mishnah. Not only do we not try to help him avoid other prohibitions, but we say that all negative results of his sins are appropriate. Let him rot. Even though we certainly cannot kill him, we can set up traps that, by sinning, he falls into. Therefore, the poisoning is not only not bad, it is good. He dies, or almost dies, due entirely to his sin of theft.

The negative response to R. Zilberstein's ruling was quick to come. A number of articles were published in the journals Pa'amei Ya'akov, Or Yisrael and elsewhere disputing his ruling. R. Aaron Levine discusses this issue in his new book Moral Issues of the Marketplace in Jewish Law, in his chapter on setting booby traps for thiefs on one's property. R. Levine follows the ruling or R. Menashe Klein on this subject, that the student who poisoned his sandwich violated the prohibition of lo sa'amod al dam rei'ekha, the biblical prohibition against standing by idly when one's fellow is in danger.
[I]f M knows that the sandwich the thief stole contains poison, he is duty bound to inform the thief as fast as he can so that the thief will be saved from death or even from sickness. Now, if M must extricate the theif from the danger of the pilfered poisoned sandwich, he certainly should not poison the sandwich in the first place. La ta'amod requires this. (p. 506)
R. Levine analyzes this case at more length.

Three Views

R. Dovid Gottlieb (Ateres Ya'akov ch. 8:2) posits three views on the concept of letting a sinner suffer from his sins:

1. There is no obligation to be concerned for sinners.
2. There is an obligation but it is negated in a limited fashion in the Mishnah's case.
3. One is obligated to be concerned for sinners but only when that does not imply approval of the sinner's deeds.

R. Gottlieb (8:7) argues that we would only want the sinner to suffer according to the first view but not according to the other two. He also points out that nowhere do we see any permission given to perform any action to deepen the suffering of the sinner.

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