Shooting Down a Friendly Aircraft - TABC Model Beis Din 2015 Championship Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter



Last week, we began our discussion of the following situation: A pilot in the Israeli air force is sent on a mission to destroy an enemy platoon. As he is en route and outside the range of communications, the air force learns that the intelligence was flawed and the target is actually an area populated by its own soldiers. According to Halacha, is Tzahal permitted—or even obligated—to shoot down its own plane, sacrificing the pilot for the sake of the soldiers?

This question, based on a tragic, real-life scenario, was put to students from eight U.S. high schools who squared off in the second annual Beis Medrash L’Talmud-Lander College for Men Model Beis Din competition. The cutting-edge tournament invited teams to the Kew Gardens Hills campus to match wits on the ramifications of this complex Halachic quandary. The winning team in 2015, for the second straight year, was the Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC) in Teaneck, New Jersey.

Since the teams were expected to present arguments both for and against shooting down the plane, we present both sides of the argument. Last week we presented eight arguments against the shooting and this week we present seven arguments in favor of the shooting.

Arguments Permitting/Requiring Shooting Down the Plane

1.       Pesachim 25b – The Gemara presents the Sevara (reason) why one cannot kill another to save his own life. The Gemara explains, in a very widely known idea, “how does one know if his own blood is redder than the other individual’s blood (“Mai Chazit”). One could argue that this line of reasoning applies only to killing one individual to save the life of only one other individual. However, one could argue that it is permissible to kill one individual to save many others since the blood of many people is indeed redder (“Sumak Tefei”) than the blood of only one individual.

2.       Sanhedrin 72b – This passage in the Gemara regards a Katan (minor) as a Rodeif[1], despite having no Da’at (competent and mature decision making ability). This tragically occurs in the Israeli army as, sadly, Arab children fire weapons such as hand-held rockets. The fact that a Katan is regarded as a Rodeif despite his lack of Da’at demonstrates that one could be classified as a Rodeif even if he is a Rodef B’Oness (with no intention to harm others). Actions of a Katan are regarded as Oness (e.g. Pitui Ketanah Oness Hu, statutory rape).

3.       Shmuel II Chapter 20 – the case of Sheva ben Bichri who was killed to save an entire town, shows that the rule of Ein Dochin Nefesh Mipnei Nefesh (one may not kill to save another) has exceptions.

4.       Rambam (Hilchot Rotzei’ach U’Shemirat Nefesh 1:9) classifies a fetus as a Rodeif, showing that even a Rodeif B’Oness is regarded as a Rodeif. The Rambam (Hilchot Choveil UMazzik 8:15) even compares heavy baggage on a ship that is danger of sinking to a Rodeif. Rav Zilberstein (Shut VeHa’arev Na Cheilek 3:337) even raises the possibility of electricity being a Rodeif in a case of an electrician in danger of being electrocuted to death if he does not turn off the electricity (which in turn will kill someone in the building attached to a breathing machine).

5a. The Chazon Ish (Choshen Mishpat Sanhedrin, no. 25, s.v. VeZeh LeAyein) describes a situation in which a bystander witnesses the release of an arrow aimed at a large group of people. The bystander has the ability to rescue the intended victims by deflecting the arrow; however, if he does so, the arrow will claim a single victim who heretofore was endangered in no way whatsoever. The Chazon Ish raises the possibility that the bystander should deflect the arrow and cause the death of the one individual in order to save the lives of the many. He writes “perhaps we should make every effort to reduce the loss of Yisrael life as much as possible.” The Chazon Ish explains that one might consider the act of the bystander as fundamentally an act of rescue and not an act of murder. Thus, according to the Chazon Ish it might be permitted to kill the pilot to save many lives as an act of Hatzalah.

5b. The Chazon Ish argues that the Yerushalmi (cited in last week’s discussion) forbids handing over the one individual for death even to save a large number of Jews, since it is a cruel act to send someone to his death. The act of deflecting the arrow, on the other hand, is a “Ma’aseh Hatzalah”.

5c. The Chazon Ish cites the Gemara’s evaluation of the actions of Lulinus and Papus as possible proof that we should make efforts to limit the loss of life as much as possible. Rashi to Bava Batra 10b (s.v. Harugei Lod) cites a remarkable story about a wicked Roman leader named Turinus who found his daughter dead in the city of Lod. He immediately accused the Jews of killing her and decreed that all the Jews of Lod be slain in revenge. In order to save the town from the terrible decree, two holy Jewish brothers, Lulinus and Papus, pretended that they had killed the girl and they were executed. The Gemara states that Lulinus and Papus received the highest possible reward in Olam HaBa (heaven). Roi Klein is another example of a heroic Jew who went beyond Lulinus and Papus who gave themselves up to the Romans to save the lives of many Jews. Roi Klein jumped on a grenade in the Second Lebanon War in July 2006 to save the lives of the soldiers he commanded. Rav Osher Weiss, one of the leading contemporary Poskim, compared (in a speech at Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck in August 2006) Roi Klein to Lulinus and Papus and said that his action represented the highest level of Kiddush Hashem.

5d. The Chazon Ish’s suggestion goes even a step further and suggests that a third party may kill an individual in order to save the many.

5e. Text of the Tekes Hashba’ah of Tzahal Soldiers –

"הנני נשבע(ת) ומתחייב(ת) בהן צדקי לשמור אמונים למדינת ישראל לחוקיה ולשלטונותיה המוסמכים, לקבל על עצמי ללא תנאי וללא סייג עול משמעתו של צבא הגנה לישראל,לציית לכל הפקודות וההוראות הניתנות על ידי המפקדים המוסמכים ולהקדיש את כל כוחותיי ואף להקריב את חיי להגנת המולדת ולחירות ישראל."

"I swear and commit to maintain allegiance to the State of Israel, its laws, and its authorities, to accept upon myself unconditionally the discipline of the Israel Defense Forces, to obey all the orders and instructions given by authorized commanders, and to devote all my energies, and even sacrifice my life, for the protection of the homeland and the liberty of Israel."

Tzahal soldiers agree to sacrifice their lives for the benefit of the community. Thus, the pilot has agreed to sacrifice his life if necessary to save more lives as in the case of Lulinus and Papus. Thus, even the Chazon Ish, who forbids coercing someone to sacrifice his life or even to submit to a lottery to see who should be handed over to enemies, might permit shooting down the plane.

6.       Rav Akiva Eiger (to Ohalot 7:6 no. 16) raises the question as to the permissibility of killing a baby emerging from its mother’s womb in order to save the life of its mother when, otherwise, both mother and baby would die absent intervention. Although he leaves his question unresolved, Rav Akiva Eiger does however cite Teshuvot Panim Me’irot, III, no. 8, who rules that such a course of action is permissible. Tiferet Yisra’el (Ohalot 7:6, Bo’az, number 10) similarly comments that, “perhaps it is permissible to sacrifice the infant in such circumstances in order to rescue the mother.” We see that the principle of Ein Dochin Nefesh Mipnei Nefesh is not absolute.

7.       Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein (ad. loc.) argues that even according to Rav Eliashiv, it is permissible for the soldiers themselves to shoot down the plane based on the “Chachmei HaDorot SheLifaneinu” cited in the Meiri to Sanhedrin 72b. This opinion permits those in danger (as opposed to a third party) to kill someone who is attacking him even if the attacker is not categorized as a Rodeif. Rav Zilberstein cites as a possible proof the Gemara (Sanhedrin 82a) which states that Zimri (but not a third party) would have been permitted to kill Pinchas since Pinchas was attempting to kill Zimri.


We thank Lander College for providing an outstanding opportunity for TABC and other high school students to experience the richness and eternal relevance of applied Halacha. It is a most gratifying to see youngsters confidently and competently quoting and applying Torah sources to real life situations. We look forward to sharing the rich discussions conducted at the Lander Model Beis Din competition iyH for many years to come.  

[1] Halacha sanctions and even obligates killing a Rodeif, one who attempts to kill another. 

Creating a Mikveh with Snow, Natural and Artificial Ice by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Shooting Down a Friendly Aircraft - TABC Model Beis Din 2015 Championship: Part One by Rabbi Chaim Jachter