Superheroes in Jewish Thought and Law Part II

June 22, 2015

(This is the second part of a three-part series. To read the first part of Rabbi Student’s discussion of the halachas of superpowers, click here.)

III. Super Murder

250px-Star_Wars_Logo.svgAs a thought experiment, I was wondering what Jewish law would say about specific super powers. For example, if a Jedi or Sith kills someone with a force choke, is he liable for execution? On the one hand, he directly caused a death and should be punished. On the other, I assume that any hand motions of a Jedi are unnecessary and that really Darth Vader can perform a force choke with his hands tied behind his back. If so, he technically committed no action. Can someone be executed for merely thinking about murder?

There is precedent for this question in halakhic literature. Authorities have discussed whether someone who kills by invoking God’s name is liable for murder. Tradition teaches that when Moshe saved an Israelite slave’s life by murdering the Egyptian taskmaster, he did so by invoking God’s name. If someone did that in a different situation that did not involve saving someone, would the murderer be held liable? The author of Responsa Halakhos Ketanos (vol. 2, no. 98) argues that he is liable.

The Chida (Devash Le-Fi, mem, no. 5) distinguishes between types of murders. The Gemara (Shabbos 33b) tells the story of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s (Rashbi) exit from the cave in which he hid for many years. After all that time of constant Torah study, he was shocked to see a Jew work. In his disappointment, Rashbi looked at the man with a devastating stare, causing him to die. Not everyone reads that story literally but the Chida does. He suggests that killing someone by looking at him–without saying anything–is different than invoking God’s name for murder. Someone who does the former is exempt from human punishment while someone who does the latter is liable.

Rav Chaim Palaggi (Responsa Lev Chaim, vol. 2 Orach Chaim no. 188) argues that no one who kills in a supernatural way is liable for punishment. In such cases, God kills; not the person. Murder is the cessation of a life within natural means. A miraculous murder is out of human hands.

If a force choke is comparable to killing silently, then perhaps theHalakhos Ketanos would hold a Jedi liable for such a super murder. The Chida would seem to exempt him, as would Rav Chaim Palaggi. They would let Darth Vader get away with murder but that is not surprising because Jewish law has a very high bar for execution. Presumably, he would get punished by divine hands instead, in this world or the next.

IV. Super Stretch

Mr. Fantastic is remarkably elastic. What would happen if he stretched his hand outside of his domain on Shabbos while carrying something? If, in his Brooklyn home, Mr. Fantastic picks up an apple, stretches his hand across Manhattan and over the Hudson River into New Jersey, and places the apple down in Teaneck, does he violate the Shabbos rule against carrying across domains?

This question is directly answered in the first Mishnah of Shabbos (2a) but if we add one twist, the issue gets more complicated. The Mishnah describes transferring objects from domain to another with an example from everyday life: a poor man comes to your door and you want to give him money. You are in your house, one domain. He is outside the house, another domain (assume there is no eruv to combine the domains). There is no way in which you can transfer an object into the poor man’s hands–whether him putting his hand into your house and you placing the object in his hand or his taking it, or you sticking your hand out the doorway, etc. This would effectively forbid Mr. Fantastic from moving anything from Brooklyn to New Jersey.

But what if Mr. Fantastic doesn’t put anything down? Maybe he just wants to show his new toy to a friend in Teaneck and then pull it back. What if, while standing in Brooklyn, Mr. Fantastic holds an object in his hand, stretches the hand to New Jersey, and then returns the hand and places the object back down in Brooklyn?

The Gemara (Shabbos 3b) addresses a similar case. If your hand is full of fruits and you remove it from the domain, can you bring your hand back with the fruits or must you stand like that–body in one domain and hand outside it–until Shabbos is over? The Gemara quotes a disagreement about it but then tries to delineate exactly which case is debated. One suggestion is that the debate is only about movement within ten tefachim (roughly 35 inches) of the ground. Above that, which includes normal arm height, there are no domains.

Tosafos (ad loc., sv. kan) ask how there can even be discussion, albeit agreement, of someone who sticks his hand outside the domain while holding fruit above ten tefachim and wants to return the hand. This is perfectly acceptable behavior. You are allowed to stand at the side of the eruv and carry things in and out all Shabbos long if you keep everything above ten tefachim! Tosafos offers an explanation of the Gemara that need not concern is now. According to Tosafos, Mr. Fantastic may carry fruit and toys across state lines as much as he wants, as long as he keeps his hand above ten tefachim from the ground.

However, the Rashba disagrees with Tosafos and argues that you may not intentionally carry things outside the domain, even without putting it down and above ten tefachim from the ground. Among recent codes, the Arukh Ha-Shulchan (Orach Chaim 348:1) rules like Tosafos and the Mishnah Berurah (Bi’ur Halakhah 348 sv. be-sokh) follows the Rashba. Therefore, Mr. Fantastic has to ask his rabbi whether he should follow the Arukh Ha-Shulchan or the Mishnah Berurah.

To be continued…

(This is the second part of a three-part series.)

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.