Yevamos 121a: Agunah from a Plane Crash

Yevamos 121a: If a man fell into a body of water whose shore can be seen, his wife is permitted to remarry. If the shore cannot be seen, she is forbidden.

יבמות קכא. מים שיש להם סוף אשתו מותרת ושאין להם סוף אשתו אסורה.

Shlomo Anidjar was one of the most respected members of the Chabad community in the French city of Boulogne-Billancourt (a suburb of Paris). At 10:00 PM on June 1, 2009 he was one of the 228 passengers aboard an Air France flight that went missing over the Atlantic Ocean. The Airbus A330-200 plane was last heard from about four hours after taking off from Rio de Janeiro en route to Paris.

Anidjar was 40 years old, and left a wife and 3 children.

The Jewish community planned a memorial ceremony in Paris’s Great Synagogue. Anidjar’s children asked to recite Kaddish for their father, and began sitting shivah together with their mother.

France’s rabbis objected to these signs of mourning expressed soon after the plane went missing, even before the plane’s debris or passengers’ bodies were recovered, and threatened to boycott the ceremony. The rabbis expressed their fear that taking part in the memorial would be perceived as a rabbinical approval that the woman was a widow, while she was in fact considered an agunah.

On June 2, at 3:20 in the afternoon, a Brazilian Air Force jet spotted wreckage and signs of oil, possibly jet fuel, strewn along a 3 mile band 400 miles northeast of Fernando de Noronha Island, near the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago. The sighted wreckage included an aircraft seat, an orange buoy, a barrel, white pieces and electrical conductors. Later more wreckage and some bodies were discovered.

Following the disagreement, Rabbi Yirmiyahu Menachem Cohen, a senior member of the Rabbinical Center of Europe, decided to convene the beis din of Paris to discuss the matter.

The beis din ruled that before sitting shivah, the family should have ensured that the chances of finding survivors were down to zero, but that now that the wreckage had been discovered, they could continue sitting.

The beis din based its ruling on the initial opinion of aviation experts, who ruled that the plane had exploded in the air, based on the radius where the plane’s debris was found.

The halachic ruling also relied on a response written in the past by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer v. 6, Even Haezer 4) in regard to a combat pilot whose plane was hit by a missile and fell into the sea. Rabbi Yosef had said at the time that the explosion of a plane and drowning in the sea were two scenarios from which a person could scarcely escape alive, and that joined together, there was a halachic foundation to release the wife from her agunah status.

Rav Ovadia quotes the Beis Yaakov (9), by the Gaon of Zazmir, who argues that we find similar logic in Kesubos 15a. When a girl was violated in a city in which most people are of good lineage, the Torah would permit her to a kohein, but מעלה עשו ביוחסין – Chazal made an extra stringency and required two majorities: the majority of the city and the majority of the travelers. The two majorities operate similarly to a  ספק ספיקאin which each question has a majority pointing toward leniency – if the man came from the city, chances are he was of good lineage, and even if he was one of the travelers, chances are he was of good lineage.

The Beis Yaakov uses this as a model for the stringency we are discussing – the man who falls into a large body of water where the shore cannot be seen, which is also only a Rabbinic restriction (as evident from the fact that bedieved, if the woman remarried, she is permitted to stay married – Even Hoezer 17:32). Therefore, argues the Beis Yaakov, if there were two majorities – for example, if a man who was very ill and close to death fell into water – his wife is permitted, because probably he died from the illness, and even if not, he probably drowned. Here too, said Rav Ovadia, probably the pilot was killed when his plane exploded, and even if not, he probably drowned in the sea.

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