If you’ve not watched Squid Game, chances are you’ve heard of it. In mere weeks, the Korean drama shot to the number 1 spot among Netflix’s most watched content, was parodied on SNL, and the ominous masked uniforms made popular by the show were banned at many grade school halloween events. However, if you’re still not familiar, the gist of the show is that contestants, South Korean citizens who are struggling with crushing debt, compete for prize money by playing school yard games. Winners continue onto the next game while the losers… die. Think of it as Hunger Games meets recess.
Though the contestants don’t know the life or death stakes at the outset, the reveal turns the fun and games turn into horror. As I sat watching each high tension episode, I couldn’t help wondering, “what I would do in these characters’ places?” But as I have become observant in my Judaism, I am also aware that there are certain scenarios that Torah mandates a Jew should die rather than transgress. The most applicable of which is the prohibition of killing someone in order to save your own life. Now there are some technicalities and nuances to the this area of Torah law. Which of those would apply to the characters competing in the Squid Game?
MAJOR SPOILER WARNING – If you’ve not seen Squid Game and have any interest in watching it, stop now.
The First Game – Red Light, Green Light
Contestants have five minutes to cross a field once the announcer (represented by a creepy oversized little girl statue) declares “green light.” However, once “red light” is announced, if any motion is detected, the contestants are eliminated. And by eliminated, I mean shot dead by sniper fire. This is the first time the contestants are made aware of the deadly nature of the games.
Since the contestants didn’t know their lives were on the lines, surviving the game, even by hiding behind other players so as not to be detected by the motion sensors (which some characters do) wouldn’t transgress Torah law.
The Third Game – Tug of War
Up until this point, survival was the only factor of the contestants’ trials. Starting with the third game however, contestants are pitted against each other. Now, one person’s survival comes at the price of another’s demise. This complicates things.
According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 74a-b) there are three mitzvahs that a Jew is obligated to die for rather than transgress. Those are; 1) idol worship, 2) illicit sexual relations 3) murder. The third mitzvah is expounded upon in the following story;
[Rabba was asked] “The ruler of my village came to me and said ‘kill that person, and if you do not then I will kill you.’ Can I follow his order so that I will be able to save myself?” Rabba responded: “Allow yourself to be killed, but you may not kill another. Who says that your blood is redder than his? Perhaps his blood is redder than yours.”
With this mitzvah, I believe you would have to forfeit your life rather than play the game. Sorry game over. As far as the games themselves go from this point on, it’s always contestant vs contestant (except game 5). So I think from a Torah perspective, this is as far as you could play. But there are other dilemmas the contestants are put through outside the official six games.
Intermediate Game – Snack Lunch
Between games, the contestants have to eat. However, soon after one of the games, the supply runs out and some contestants are left without a meal. Is it okay for you to sit there and watch them starve while you finish your lunch? Or are you obligated to share your portion?
The Gemara in Bava Metzia (62a) debates a similar circumstance. “If two people were walking on a desolate path and there was a jug of water in the possession of one of them, and the situation was such that if both drink from the jug, both will die, as there is not enough water, but if only one of them drinks, he will reach a settled area…
One Rabbi, Ben Petora taught that it was better that both drink and die so neither one of them has to experience seeing the death of his fellow. However, Rabbi Akiva says that because of the verse, “And your brother shall live with you” (Vayikra 25:36) with you means that you need to be living in order that your brother can live with you. So Rabbi Akiva holds that your life takes precedence over the life of another (in a situation where the resources are already in your hand. You can’t take his water to live.)
So according to Rabbi Akiva, the Squid Game contestants need not give up their resources for the sake of the other contestants.
Intermediate Game 2 – A Bad Night’s Sleep
The lack of food causes a fight and a contestant ends up getting killed. Rather than disqualifying the attacker, the game makers count the death as if it had happened during one of the games. This introduces a chilling turning point, as now the element of danger is a constant. During the night, contestants start to attack each other, leading to chaos and more dead contestants.
Clearly you’d be allowed to defend yourself. But if you know someone is targeting you specifically, do you just have to wait? Or does the Torah allow you to make a preemptive strike? Based on a verse in Shemos (22:1) about a robber tunneling into your home, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 72a) identifies a classification of an attacker known as a rodef (or pursuer). “If someone comes to kill you, rise and kill him first.” The Gemara goes further establishing that if you know someone is attempting to kill another person, or even plans to rape another person, a Jew is obligated to kill that attacker (assuming there are no options available.)
Now while you’re in the midst of a desperate and fragile situation on the verge of chaos, I don’t know if it is the best idea to make the first strike. But if you knew specifically that contestant #101 was coming after you in the night, the Torah would be okay with a first strike.
When Games Become Reality
As unrealistic as morbid media like Squid Game, The Purge, Battle Royale, The Hunger Games, and The Hunt may seem, there have been times in history where this fiction wasn’t terribly far from fact. Gladiatorial matches during the Roman Empire and human sacrifices of the ancient world remind us that the sanctity of human life wasn’t always a given. And if you think such institutionalized horrors are something humanity has evolved beyond, look to less than just a century ago at the impossible situations Jews and other minorities experienced during the Holocaust. So while thinking, “What would I do in this situation?” may be an intellectual exercise, the Torah reminds us that not only may we actually face such impossible choices, there is a guide to stop you from sinking to the level of the monsters that created the situation in the first place.