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Say a Jewish person gets pulled out to sea while rescuing someone from drowning and goes missing, lost at sea. And then a search for him or his body by the Jewish community, supplementing official efforts, becomes very lengthy, extensive and persistent. What does halacha say about when you should stop searching in such cases and how much effort you should expend?

Clearly there must be limits. I am sure halacha spells them out, especially considering how many Jews went missing in wars or persecution. As an example of limits, halacha says a community is not obligated to pay a ransom bigger than what the captive would bring in the slave market.

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    It would seem the answer would be to always keep searching no? Hopefully to find the person as alive, but rachmana l'tzlan should that not be the case- to find the person's body so their wife won't be an agunah and so that they can have a Kevuras Yisroel – alicht Jul 15 at 18:38
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    @alicht In any situation where his wife is an agunah R"l, it represents a halachic chashash that he's alive. That being the case, I would think kal vachomer we should be chosheish that he's alive for search purposes too. (Unless the chashash is that he's alive and well and out of danger and we just don't know about it yet, but that would seem to be technology dependent, because communications are much better than they used to be.) – Heshy Jul 15 at 20:19
  • Mourning starts, for example, "at the point that all hopes of recovery are lost." That statement takes for granted that people will reach such a point ... I suspect those details aren't really halachically dictated. – Shalom Aug 15 at 10:09
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This answer discusses the obligation when we presume him dead.

Burial obligation:

אמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי שמעון בן יוחי, רמז לקבורה מן התורה מנין, תלמוד לומר ׳כי קבור תקברנו׳ - (סנהדרין מ״ו)

The Rambam (Sefer Hamitzvos 231, see also P12 Hil. Avel) codifies burial as a mitzvas asei. [The Poskim deal with the usage of the term 'רמז' if it is actually min hatorah.]

היא שצונו לקבור הרוגי בית דין ביום שנהרגו, והוא אמרו יתעלה כי ״קבור תקברנו ביום ההוא״. לשון ספרי "כי קבור תקברנו" מצות עשה והוא הדין בשאר מתים, רוצה לומר שנקבור כל מתי ישראל ביום מותם. ולכן המת שאין לו מי שיתעסק בקבורתו נקרא מת מצוה, כלומר המת שמצוה על כל אדם לקברו באמרו קבור תקברנו - רמב״ם ספר המצות, עשה רל״א

When the body is missing but still retrievable, it would constitute a mes mitzvah.

How much one money must be spent to perform a mitzvah: For a personal mitzvah, the halachah is that one must spend up to a fifth of his possessions to fulfill his obligation. The reason for this amount is 'כדי שלא יבא לידי עוני ויפיל עצמו על הציבור'. I have not yet found a source which discusses this, but I wonder whether this limitation applies to obligations which fall upon the tzibbur collectively.

[Interestingly, the Ramban (quoted in Kesef Mishna Hilchos Avel 12:1) calls this ספק איסורא, implying that he treats this as a negative commandment rather than a positive commandment, in which case there would be no ceiling to how much one is obligated to spend.]

How much effort must be spent:Rashi writes on the words 'לא בשמים היא' that 'שאילו היתה בשמים היית צריך לעלות אחריה וללמדה', implying that there is no limit for how much effort must be expended performing a mitzvah.


If we have suspicion he may still be alive and there is a possibility of saving him, we enter a new question - the parameters of לא תעמוד על דם רעך. By a negative commandment, one is obligated to spend 'כל ממונו', not just one fifth. Nevertheless, there are indicators that by this specific mitzvah, this will not apply (beyond the scope of this answer, due to lack of both time and clarity)

  • There is a limit for redeeming the captive, even though it's a mitzvah. – Maurice Mizrahi Jul 15 at 21:28
  • True. I didn't address that, because I am not familiar with that sugya. But if my memory serves me correctly, (a) this is because we don't want to encourage gentiles to capture us, and (b) pidyon shivuyin is potentially drabbanan (according to the Rambam?) – chortkov2 Jul 15 at 21:30
  • @MauriceMizrahi - this goes into the last part of my answer. Pidyon Shivuyim is in situations of pikuach nefesh according to the Gemara Baba Basra 8a (IIRC) and rambam, yet one is not obligated to spend all money. I don't have a clear reconciliation. I am equally bothered that we are not obligated to spend all our money to provide for dialysis machines and other life support equipment to better equip hospitals who deal with Jewish patients. – chortkov2 Jul 15 at 21:31
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    @maurice would letting the guy drown at sea prevent the sea from grabbing more people and holding them ransom? – Double AA Jul 15 at 22:07
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    WADR, it might just be me, I can’t get past the first sentence. What’s the answer discussing, “...the obligation when we presume”? head-scratch – Oliver Jul 16 at 0:21
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Judaism values life immensely and one must even trangress all Torah prohibitions (except murder, incest and idol worship) if that would save the life of one Jew, or even just extend it slightly.

As such, no effort is considered too much when it comes to finding a missing Jew who might still be alive but in danger.

Of course there are Halachic guidelines also as to how much to spend on finding the body of someone who is certainly dead in order to give him a proper Jewish burial. For example, one should not retrieve a dead body for burial at the risk of human life.

Hence the important question here is what happens when we don't actually know if the person is alive or dead - which of the above situations would apply then? As long as there's still a chance that the person is alive, we must do all we can to try to save him/her.

But what about when the chances of the person still being alive are practically zero, eg. if the person was swept out to sea many days ago and there are no islands nearby and all beaches have been searched?

That is a difficult and painful question.

The tragic situation you describe is made even more tragic when the missing man has a wife. Jewish law forbids a married woman from having sexual relations with anyone but her husband, and if her husband goes missing and there's even a slight chance he might have survived and is still alive, the woman is considered an Agunah and is not allowed to ever remarry or have sexual relations with any man, ever.

Thus, the plight of this woman necessitates that we do absolutely everything possible in order to find conclusive evidence as to what happened to her husband. It is no longer just about being able to bury him properly (which is a grwat Mitzva in its own right) but also about the fact that proof of the husband's death would free his wife from a lifetime of imprisonment in a marriage which is no longer and would enable her to build an intimate relationship with another man.

We should leave no stone unturned in order to help this woman by finding her husband, even if it is almost certain that her husband is no longer alive.

I would like to use this opportunity to raise awareness to this very painful issue and to urge all Jewish couples to arrange a Halachically valid prenuptial agreement whereby if the husband is missing for a certain amount of time (eg. a year) and his whereabouts are not known, the marriage should become void.

This arrangement would save so much pain and heartache of so many Jews! It's easy to think it would never happen to us, but the above situation of a man being swept out to sea, for example, can happen to anyone.

Please arrange for such an agreement, and please raise awareness of the very painful issue.

A similar arrangement can be made also by couples who are already married. Please speak to a reliable rabbi regarding how to proceed.

  • The leaders of yiddishkeit for the last hundred years have vehemently opposed such an agreement for a number of reasons, both halachic and hashkafic. – chortkov2 Jul 16 at 11:25
  • I would up-vote this answer, IF you deleted the irrelevant part about prenuptial agreements. If you feel that the issue should be discussed, you can formulate it as a question, and post it separately. – IsraelReader Jul 16 at 19:31

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