by R. Moshe Kurtz
Lomdus on the Parsha: Pekudei
Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon
Q: Is a body with two heads considered one person or two people in Jewish law?
A half-shekel a head, half a shekel by the sanctuary weight, for each one who was entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, 603,550 men. (Exodus 38:26)
Each man was obligated to contribute a half-shekel for the census. However, what if there was a being that had one body but possessed two heads – would the requirement be a half-shekel or double the amount to account for the additional head? While this may seem whimsical, we should note that the very same inquiry was made by the Talmud (Menachos 37a-37b) in the context of Pidyon HaBen, the commandment to monetarily redeem one’s first-born son by paying five shekel (Num. 18:16):
Peleimu raised a dilemma before Rabbi [Yehuda HaNasi]: One who has two heads, on which of them does he don Tefillin (phylacteries)? [Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi] said to him: Either get up and exile [yourself from here] or accept upon yourself excommunication [for asking such a ridiculous question]. In the meantime, a certain man arrived and said to him: A [firstborn] child has been born to me who has two heads. How much must I give to the priest? A certain elder came and taught him: You are obligated to give him ten sela, [the requisite five for each head]. Is that so? But Rami bar Chama teaches: Since it is stated: “The firstborn of man you shall redeem” (Num. 18:15), I would derive that even if he was ravaged within thirty [days of his birth, one should redeem him. To counter this,] the verse states: “Yet” to differentiate? (A child with two heads is like one that was ravaged, as he will certainly not live.) Here it is different, as the Merciful One makes [the redemption of the firstborn] dependent on his skull, as it is stated: “You shall take five shekels apiece, by the skull” (Num. 3:47).
In the same way God commanded that we base the amount due for Pidyon HaBen on the literal head-count, so too we assess how many half-shekel must be contributed by the amount of heads, as explicitly stated by the verse. However, unlike the mitzvah of Pidyon HaBen, the half-shekel contribution was used to gain an accurate number of Jewish men. If so, why would it make sense to use the number of heads instead of actual people as our metric?
(A) One answer forces us to reckon with the nature of such an entity. Is a body with two heads fundamentally one person or two separate individuals fused together? R. Mordechai Carlebach cites the Megillas Sefer and Aveni Nezer (Y.D. no. 399) who espouse the perspective that two heads equals two distinct individuals. If that is the case, then it is indeed fully comprehensible why the Torah mandated an additional payment per head, as each person requires their own half-shekel or Pidyon HaBen.
However, commentaries such as Tosafos (Menachos 37a, s.v. O Galu) and the Shitah Mekubetzes (ad loc, no. 18) cite a Medresh in which King Shlomo experimented with a two-headed human and discovered that when one head was harmed the other one felt pain as well, thus proving that they are actually just a single entity. How then can we understand why the Torah still insists on utilizing a literal head-count in light of this?
(B) R. Shimon Shkop (Sha’arei Yosher 5:25) offers a dichotomy in how to understand the mitzvah of Pidyon HaBen. There are two broad goals: (1) Paying a sum of money that is due to the kohanim (priests) and (2) performing the ritual of redemption. While both of these goals are generally satisfied concurrently, there are instances in which one might be lacking the fulfillment of one of them: (1) If the child, God forbid, passes away, while there would no longer be a mitzvah of redemption there would still exist a monetary obligation vis-a-vis the kohanim. (2) From the opposite angle, if a kohen waives the fee, while there would be no further monetary obligation one would still not have neglected to fulfill the ritual requirement of the Pidyon HaBen. (3) This would also be the case if someone forced the money into the hands of the kohen – while his debt has technically been paid, he has still not performed the formal ritual of Pidyon HaBen.
With this framework, we can make sense of when and why the Torah chooses to use head-count instead of person-count for certain evaluations. In terms of the ritual requirements of Pidyon HaBen and the half-shekel census, there would be no need to pay more per head, as a two-headed being is still considered to be one man. However, regarding the monetary obligation to the kohen or Tabernacle, the Torah opts to use a head-count, as from a financial standpoint the two-headed man is regarded as having higher worth than a single head (see Kisvei HaGrach, no. 339).
Thus, this would support the adage that two heads are better than one. Or, to return to King Shlomo: And if a man prevail against him that is alone, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken (Ecclesiastes 4:12).
There are many other ramifications that result from whether one conceptualizes a two-headed human as one or two individuals such as marriage and inheritance laws.. For further reading on this topic, see Responsa Shevus Yaakov (1:4) and R. Reuven Chaim Klein’s article: “Till Death Do Us Part: The Halachic Prospects of Marriage for Conjoined (Siamese) Twins” published in Hakirah Journal (Vol. 26, Spring 2019, p. 259). See also my rebbe, R. Dr. Moshe Dovid Tendler’s elucidation of his father-in-law, R. Moshe Feinstein’s ruling on separating the conjoined twins in Mesivta Tiferes Yerushalayim’s L’Torah V’Hora’ah publication (p. 116).
Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth of the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from Sefaria, Chabad.org, Mechon Mamre, and my own. Contact: [email protected]