The imperative to protect human life--pikuakh nefesh--overrides almost every other obligation. In recent weeks, Jewish communities enacted this value by closing synagogues, suspending communal prayer, and refraining from acts of hospitality, from visiting the sick, comforting mourners and celebrating weddings--all with the goal of preventing the spread of Covid 19.
Pikuakh nefesh dictates suspending required practices when lives are threatened, even if the risk is not certain. Early rabbinic sources emphasize the importance of putting health and life first, but they do not all agree on the implications of this foundational principle, or on where it is expressed in the Torah. How do the rulings and teachings below speak to the threat to human lives we are facing right now?
In what circumstances does the principle of Pikuakh Nefesh apply?
This passage of the Mishnah enumerates diverse cases in which concerns of life and health override religious laws.
- What are the various situations in which religious laws are suspended? What do these various case have in common? How are they different from each other? Can you account for why these particular circumstances are identified? Do any of them surprise you?
- What are the different religious laws that are suspended? Can you account for why these particular laws are specified?
- What is the role of experts, according to Mishnah Yoma 8:5? Who do you think these experts are and what do they know? How does the presence of experts influence decision-making? In what ways might this relate to our reliance on health experts during our current health crisis?
- Why do you think the majority of Rabbis do not agree with Rabbi Matia ben Harash?
- From these collection of cases, can you derive any general principles about how to determine when to suspend normal activities for the sake of safeguarding lives?
In this long passage from the Babylonian Talmud, there are four examples of life-saving activities that override the religious restrictions that normally govern Shabbat observances.
- What are the fours cases that are listed here? What are the differences among them? Can you explain why the Talmudic editor thinks that they are all necessary? Do you agree?
- How are the four cases that are listed here different from the cases that are listed in the Mishna above? Are there principles or ideas that are conveyed in the Talmud that we did not see in the Mishna?
- Which of these cases is most useful for thinking about safeguarding life during pandemic?
This Rabbinic tradition sets the limits for the applications of the principle of Pikuakh Nefesh. According the Sages, there are three obligations that one should not override, even at the cost of one's life. It is important to note, however, that in the various historical moments in which Jews have suffered persecution, rabbinic authorities have not penalized or denigrated those who acted to save their own lives under duress. For example, rabbinic authorities took a lenient view on those who converted out of Judaism during the time of Inquisition. In a sense, this tradition functions as an articulation of values rather than as a statement of law.
- How would you categorize the three exceptions that are listed here?
- If you were charged with setting limits to the principle of Pikuakh Nefesh, where would you draw the line? Why?
Where is the principle of Pikuakh Nefesh expressed in the Torah?
In this extended Talmudic discussion, there are no less than seven separate suggestions about where in the Torah one can find the foundation for principle that saving a life overrides the commandment to observe the Sabbath. (We are only given a little snippet of Rabbi Akiva's answer, which the editor then strengthened by adding later Sages' comments). The passage begins with a story in which two disciples ask their teachers to account for the well-known principle. Following the answers by the three ancient Sages in the story, the Talmud provides other answers. The final proposal by the Babylonian sage known as Shmuel, is from the latest period of time.
Whether or not you have time to tease out the reasoning in each of these answers, there are lessons to be learned from the passage as a whole.
- While there is no clear consensus on how the principle of Pikuakh Nefesh is rooted in the Torah, none of the Sages ever questions the principle itself. What do the many interpretations collected here suggest to you about how the Rabbis make ethical judgments?
- Which of the answers collected here speak to you the most? Why?
- Do you agree with Shmuel that his answer is the strongest?
- All of these rabbinic interpretations come to demonstrate that the obligation to save lives overrides commandments in the Torah--the priestly sacrifices, biblical rules of execution and testimony, shabbat. To what degree can this reasoning be applied to other obligations as well?
This extended passage contains the verse--Leviticus 18:5-- that the Babylonian Rabbi Shmuel identifies as the foundation for the principle that saving lives overrides all other commandments. In this passage, the Torah emphasizes the importance of following God's laws.
- According to this passage, what are some of the reasons for observing God's laws?
- What does God seem most concerned about in these verses?
- How do you understand the relationship between the Torah's commandments and life in this verse? In your own life?
For the earliest Rabbis, the obligation to safeguard life was imperative. Even when they did not agree on where and how the Torah taught about Pikuakh Nefesh, they did not question that the value of life overrides most every other religious obligation.
The examples of Pikuakh Nefesh in Rabbinic sources all focus on threats to individual lives, from illness, accidents, or human conflict. Today, a pandemic means that millions of lives are threatened. How can you apply these teachings about the importance of saving individual lives to a public health emergency?
The Rabbis make clear that saving a life is so important that it supersedes other responsibilities even in situations of uncertainty, when the risk to life is questionable. In a pandemic, the risk to human lives is certain, the only question is which lives are in danger. How can we express the ultimate value of safeguarding life in our individual and communal decisions? How do we ensure that even when our own lives are not in immediate danger, we are guided by the imperative to safeguard the lives of others?