Who evacuates a sinking ship first? Does the chivalrous rule of “women and children first” bear any resemblance to Jewish attitudes? With the horrifying vision in our minds of the sinking Costa Concordia ship last Friday, we can take the opportunity of this tragedy to soberly review what halakhah says about the order of evacuation
The Mishnah in Horayos (13a) states:
A man comes before a woman in matters of life (le-hachayos) and to return a lost item, and a woman comes before a man for clothing and redemption from captivity.
The apparent meaning of the first item is that if a man and woman are drowning, one should save the man first and then the woman. This has practical implications in triage situations. When, for example, EMTs are called for two emergencies at the same time and have to decide which one to pursue, should they always take the call for the man over the woman? Or when evacuating a boat, should the men leave before the women? Two great recent halakhic authorities address this issue in different ways: R. Moshe Feinstein answers by limiting the rule in the Mishnah while R. Eliezer Waldenberg rejects it entirely.
R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, vol. 7 Choshen Mishpat no. 75) writes that the rule of the Mishnah only applies when all other things are equal. Thus, only if both emergency calls are of equal distance, and both diseases are equally treatable, etc., only then, in that rare case in which all things are equal, does the rule of the Mishnah apply.
R. Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 18:1) notes that the rule of the Mishnah is not mentioned in Mishneh Torah, Tur and Shulchan Arukh. Why was it omitted? To answer this, he proposes a new interpretation of the Mishnah. He suggests that “matters of life (le-hachayos)” refers to feeding from charitable funds. Of course, he writes, when there is a literal case of life and death then we do not differentiate between people. However, when prioritizing limited charity funds and there is only enough food for one person, then according to the Mishnah the man receives priority over the woman.
This ruling of the Mishnah is contradicted by a baraisa in Kesuvos (67b) which states that, when there are limited funds for food, women are given priority over men. Thus, R. Waldenberg suggests, the posekim followed the conclusion in Kesuvos which contradicts the ruling in the Mishnah. Despite this approach being contrary to a Shakh (Yoreh De’ah 251:11) and Taz (ibid., 252:6), R. Waldenberg felt sufficiently confident in his ruling to utilize it in practical situations.
According to the above, it would seem that a sinking boat qualifies for R. Feinstein’s example of equal illness but not equal distance. If I understand his position correctly, he would advocate that evacuation should proceed according to proximity to lifeboats. In other words, everyone has to get on line and enter lifeboats in the order of that line. Similarly, R. Waldenberg would argue that the rules of priority do not apply and some other rule — perhaps also first come, first served — should apply.