Kiddushin 29a ~ Swimming and Drowning

קידושין כט, א

האב חייב בבנו למולו ולפדותו וללמדו תורה ולהשיאו אשה וללמדו אומנות וי"א אף להשיטו במים רבי יהודה אומר כל שאינו מלמד את בנו אומנות מלמדו ליסטות ליסטות ס"ד אלא כאילו מלמדו ליסטות

With respect to his son, a father is obligated to circumcise him, to redeem him [if he is a firstborn], to teach him Torah, to marry him off, and to teach him a craft.  Some say, he is also obligated to teach him to swim...(Kiddushin 29a)

 

Every year, according to The World Health Organization, more than 5,000 children drown in Europe. And for every child who drowns (the majority of whom are under five years of age) at least two others suffer lifelong neurological disability.  

Average standardized mortality rates for drowning in children aged 0–19 years in the WHO European Region, 2003–2005 or most recent three years. From The European Report on Child Injury Prevention. World Health Organization 2008.

Average standardized mortality rates for drowning in children aged 0–19 years in the WHO European Region, 2003–2005 or most recent three years. From The European Report on Child Injury Prevention. World Health Organization 2008.

In the United States, there are an average of ten drowning deaths each day. Of the more than 3,500 people who drown each year in the US, about a fifth are children under the age of 14.  And here are some other facts that may surprise you about drowning in the US, courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control:

  • Nearly 80% of people who die from drowning are male.
  • Children ages 1-4 have the highest drowning rates. In 2009, among children 1-4 years old who died from an unintentional injury, more than 30% died from drowning.
  • Among children ages 1-4, most drownings occur in home swimming pools.
  • Drowning is responsible for more deaths among children 1-4 than any other cause except congenital anomalies (birth defects).
  • Between 2005 and 2009, the fatal unintentional drowning rate for African Americans was significantly higher than that of whites across all ages.  The disparity is widest among children 5-14 years old. The fatal drowning rate of African American children ages 5-14 is almost three times that of white children in the same age range.
  • The disparity is most pronounced in swimming pools; African American children drown in swimming pools at rates 5.5 times higher than those of whites.  

How We Drown

Unlike the movie depiction of a person loudly flailing as he tries to stay afloat, the process of drowning is actually very quiet; there is usually no noise and little to see.

 

Once the victim disappears under the surface, the oxygen content of the blood rapidly decreases and unconsciousness follows quickly. In most cases water enters the lungs and results in wet drowning: This causes constriction of the blood vessels in the lungs (and for the medically curious among you, hypertension with a ventilation/perfusion mismatch, aggravated by surfactant destruction and washout, decreased lung compliance and atelectasis. Acute respiratory failure is common.There. Now you know.)  But in 10–20% of deaths from drowning, a small amount of water entering the larynx causes persistent spasm, which results in chocking and an immediate outpouring of thick mucus, froth and foam, but without significant aspiration; this is called dry drowning.

What's more Dangerous - a swimming pool or a gun?

The dangers of children drowning is real. So real that it turns out that owning a pool is more dangerous that owning a gun. (Notice to readers outside the US: you can own a gun here...) Dunber and Levitt, in their wildly popular 2005 book Freakonomics (p135-6) explained why this is so:

Consider the parents of an eight-year-old girl named, say, Molly. Her two best friends, Amy and Imani, each live nearby. Molly's parents know that Amy's parents keep a gun in their house, so they have forbidden Molly to play there. Instead,Molly spends a lot of time at Imani's house,which has a swimming pool in the backyard. Molly's parents feel good about having made such a smart choice to protect their daughter.
But according to the data, their choice isn't smart at all. In a given year,there is one drowning of a child for every  11,000 residential pools in the United States. In a country with 6 million pools, this means that roughly 550 children under the age of ten drown each year.) Meanwhile, there is 1 child killed by a gun for every1 million-plus guns. In a country with an estimated 200 million guns, this means that roughly 175 children under ten die each year from guns.The likelihood of death by pool (1 in 11,000) versus death by gun (1 in 1 million - plus ) isn't even close: Molly is far more likely to die in a swimming accident at Imani's house than in gunplay at Amy's.

A Common Sense Halacha?

In his commentary on the Mishnah, Maimonides counts the command to teach a child to swim as one of the duties incumbent on a parent (or, more precisely on a father). 

פירוש המשנה לרמב"ם מסכת קידושין פרק א משנה ז 

 מצות הבן על האב שש מצות ואלו הן, למולו ולפדותו וללמדו תורה ולהשיאו אשה וללמדו אומנות ולהושיטו בנהר. ולמדו לכולם מן הכתובים בראיות שיארך ביאורם כאן ואין תועלת מרובה בכך, כל אלו חייב האב לעשותם לבן, ואין האם חייבת לעשותם לבנה והוא ענין אמרם האנשים חייבין והנשים פטורות

There are six duties incumbent on a father towards his son: 1) to circumcise him; 2) to redeem him [from a Cohen if he is a firstborn]; 3) to teach him Torah; 4) to marry him to a woman; 5) to teach him a trade and 6) to teach him to swim...A father is required to do each of these things, but a mother is not required to teach them to her daughter, for this is one of those things that fall into the category of "men are obligated and women are exempted"... 

However in his Mishnah Torah, Maimonides did not include the obligation to teach swimming, and this obligation is also omitted in the sixteenth century normative Shulchan Aruch. There is no obvious reason for this omission, though this question would make a great topic of conversion at your Shabbat table tonight. But not everything that makes sense needs to be part of the code of Jewish Law. It can just be...a sensible thing to do.  Perhaps there is no better example of this than a parent, (mother or father) teaching their child, (son or daughter,) to swim.  

As a father who has lost a son, I know first-hand the unbearable pain that comes with a child’s death. Amidst my grief, I am able to take some small solace in the fact that everything possible was done to fight the disease that took my son’s life. If my son had died in a backyard pool due to my own negligence, I would not even have that to cling to. Parents who have lost children would do anything to get their babies back. Safeguard your pool so you don’t become one of us.
— Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics. "Pools more dangerous than guns". Chicago Sun-Times 7/28/2001
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