Safeguarding Life

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?

(ה) עֻבָּרָה שֶׁהֵרִיחָה, מַאֲכִילִין אוֹתָהּ עַד שֶׁתָּשִׁיב נַפְשָׁהּ. חוֹלֶה מַאֲכִילִין אוֹתוֹ עַל פִּי בְקִיאִין. וְאִם אֵין שָׁם בְּקִיאִין, מַאֲכִילִין אוֹתוֹ עַל פִּי עַצְמוֹ, עַד שֶׁיֹּאמַר דָּי:

(ו) מִי שֶׁאֲחָזוֹ בֻלְמוּס, מַאֲכִילִין אוֹתוֹ אֲפִלּוּ דְבָרִים טְמֵאִים, עַד שֶׁיֵּאוֹרוּ עֵינָיו. מִי שֶׁנְּשָׁכוֹ כֶלֶב שׁוֹטֶה, אֵין מַאֲכִילִין אוֹתוֹ מֵחֲצַר כָּבֵד שֶׁלוֹ, וְרַבִּי מַתְיָא בֶן חָרָשׁ מַתִּיר. וְעוֹד אָמַר רַבִּי מַתְיָא בֶן חָרָשׁ, הַחוֹשֵׁשׁ בִּגְרוֹנוֹ, מַטִּילִין לוֹ סַם בְּתוֹךְ פִּיו בְּשַׁבָּת, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהוּא סְפֵק נְפָשׁוֹת, וְכָל סְפֵק נְפָשׁוֹת דּוֹחֶה אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת:

(5) If a pregnant woman smelled [food on Yom Kippur], they feed her until she feels restored.

A sick person is fed at the word of experts. And if no experts are there, they feed him upon his own request until he says: enough.

(6) If one is seized by a ravenous hunger, they feed him even unclean things until his eyes light up.

If one was bit by a mad dog, they do not feed him the lobe of its liver. But Rabbi Matia ben Harash permits it. Moreover Rabbi Matia ben Harash said: if one has pain in his throat, they may drop medicine into his mouth on Shabbat, because it is a possibility of danger to human life and every potential danger to human life overrides Shabbat.

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?

ת"ר מפקחין פקוח נפש בשבת והזריז ה"ז משובח ואין צריך ליטול רשות מב"ד

הא כיצד

ראה תינוק שנפל לים פורש מצודה ומעלהו והזריז ה"ז משובח ואין צריך ליטול רשות מב"ד ואע"ג דקא צייד כוורי

ראה תינוק שנפל לבור עוקר חוליא ומעלהו והזריז ה"ז משובח ואין צריך ליטול רשות מב"ד אע"ג דמתקן דרגא

ראה שננעלה דלת בפני תינוק שוברה ומוציאו והזריז ה"ז משובח ואין צריך ליטול רשות מב"ד ואע"ג דקא מיכוין למיתבר בשיפי

מכבין ומפסיקין מפני הדליקה בשבת והזריז ה"ז משובח ואין צריך ליטול רשות מב"ד ואע"ג דקא ממכיך מכוכי

וצריכא דאי אשמועינן ים משום דאדהכי והכי אזל ליה אבל בור דקא יתיב אימא לא צריכא

ואי אשמועינן בור משום דקא מיבעית אבל ננעלה דלת אפשר דיתיב בהאי גיסא ומשביש ליה באמגוזי צריכא

מכבין ומפיקים למה לי

דאפילו לחצר אחרת

§ The Sages taught: One acts to save a life (pikuakh nefesh) on Shabbat, and one who is quick to do so is praiseworthy, and one need not get permission from a court.

How so?

If one sees a child fall into the sea, he spreads a net and raises him, and one who is quick is praiseworthy, and one need not seek permission from a court, even though he catches a fish.

If one sees a child fall into a pit, he digs part of the ground out and raises him out, and one who is quick is praiseworthy, and one need not seek permission from a court, even though he constructs a step.

If one sees that a door is locked before a child, he breaks the door and takes the child out, and one who is quick is praiseworthy, and one need not seek permission from a court, even though he intends to break the door into boards.

One may extinguish a fire or block it on Shabbat, and one who is quick is praiseworthy, and one need not seek permission from a court, even though it makes coals.

And it is necessary [to provide all these examples] since if we only knew about the sea, we would think it is because the child would wash away, and would think it is different with a pit where the child stays there, but no--this is why we need this case.

And if we only knew about the pit, we might think it was only because it is urgent, but in the case of a locked door we would think we could sit on the other side and distract the child with treats. [But we would be wrong.] So it is needed.

Why do I need the case of extinguishing and blocking a fire? So I know that that it extends EVEN to preventing a fire in another yard.

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?

א"ר יוחנן משום ר"ש בן יהוצדק נימנו וגמרו בעליית בית נתזה בלוד

כל עבירות שבתורה אם אומרין לאדם עבור ואל תהרג יעבור ואל יהרג חוץ מעבודת כוכבים וגילוי עריות ושפיכות דמים

Rabbi Yokhanan says in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzadak: The Sages voted and concluded in the upper story of the house of Nitza in the city of Lod:

With regard to all transgressions in the Torah, if a person is told, "Transgress this prohibition and you will not be killed," let him transgress so as not to be and not be killed, except for idol worship, forbidden sexual relations, and bloodshed. [Concerning these three transgressions, one allows oneself to be killed rather than transgressing.]

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?

וכבר היה ר' ישמעאל ורבי עקיבא ורבי אלעזר בן עזריה מהלכין בדרך ולוי הסדר ורבי ישמעאל בנו של רבי אלעזר בן עזריה מהלכין אחריהן

נשאלה שאלה זו בפניהם מניין לפקוח נפש שדוחה את השבת

נענה ר' ישמעאל ואמר (שמות כב, א) אם במחתרת ימצא הגנב ומה זה שספק על ממון בא ספק על נפשות בא ושפיכות דמים מטמא את הארץ וגורם לשכינה שתסתלק מישראל ניתן להצילו בנפשו ק"ו לפקוח נפש שדוחה את השבת נענה

ר"ע ואמר (שמות כא, יד) וכי יזיד איש על רעהו וגו' מעם מזבחי תקחנו למות מעם מזבחי ולא מעל מזבחי

ואמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר רבי יוחנן לא שנו אלא להמית

It once happened that Rabbi Yishmael, and Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya were walking on the road, and Levi HaSadar and Rabbi Yishmael, son of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, were walking behind them.

This question was asked:

From where [in the Torah do we learn] that saving a life overrides Shabbat?

Rabbi Yishmael answered and said: “If a thief be found tunneling in and be struck so that he dies, there shall be no blood-guilt” (Exodus 22:1). [Now, if it is the case that one may transgress the prohibition against bloodshed to save oneself in this case of a thief], where there is uncertainty about whether he comes to take money or to take lives--and it is known that bloodshed renders the land impure and causes the Divine Presence to depart from the Jewish people--and even so it is permitted to save oneself at the cost of a life, then how much the more so does saving a life (pikuakh nefesh) override Shabbat.

Rabbi Akiva answered and said: “And if a man comes purposefully upon his neighbor to slay him with guile, you shall take him from My altar, that he may die” (Exodus 21:14). It says “take him from My altar” [implying that even if a priest who has committed murder stands ready to serve at the altar, you nonetheless take him to be executed immediately] but not "from atop my altar" [so if he is already in the midst of his service atop the altar, then wait for him to finish.]

But [commenting on Rabbi Akiva's answer, the later authority] Rabba bar bar Hana said that Rabbi Yokhanan said: [On this question of whether the priestly service is to be disrupted in the case of a capital crime] They taught [that a priest is not removed from the altar] only when it is for the purpose of putting him to death,

אבל להחיות אפילו מעל מזבחי

ומה זה שספק יש ממש בדבריו ספק אין ממש בדבריו ועבודה דוחה שבת קל וחומר לפקוח נפש שדוחה את השבת

נענה רבי אלעזר ואמר ומה מילה שהיא אחד ממאתים וארבעים ושמונה איברים שבאדם דוחה את השבת קל וחומר לכל גופו שדוחה את השבת

רבי יוסי בר' יהודה אומר (שמות לא, יג) את שבתותי תשמורו יכול לכל ת"ל אך חלק

רבי יונתן בן יוסף אומר (שמות לא, יד) כי קודש היא לכם

היא מסורה בידכם ולא אתם מסורים בידה

ר' שמעון בן מנסיא אומר (שמות לא, טז) ושמרו בני ישראל את השבת אמרה תורה חלל עליו שבת אחת כדי שישמור שבתות הרבה

א"ר יהודה אמר שמואל אי הואי התם הוה אמינא דידי עדיפא מדידהו (ויקרא יח, ה) וחי בהם ולא שימות בהם

but to sustain a life, [if a priest has testimony that can make a difference in exonerating another suspected murderer from execution, it is necessary to take him from his service] even from atop God's altar. Just as in this case where there is uncertainty whether there is substance to the priest's words of testimony or not, is taken from the Temple service in order to save a life, and the priestly service overrides Shabbat, how much the more so does saving a life overrides Shabbat.

Rabbi Elazar answered and said: Just as the mitzva of circumcision, which relates to one of the 248 limbs of the body, overrides Shabbat, how much the more so does [saving] one’s whole body override Shabbat.

Rabbi Yosi, son of Rabbi Yehuda says:

“. . . just keep my Sabbaths” (Exodus 31:13). One might have thought that this applies to all sabbaths, but the word “just,” limits the commandment to just a portion. [Implying that there are times when one must not observe the Sabbath, when life is in danger.]

Rabbi Yonatan ben Yosef says: “For it [the Sabbath] is sacred to you” (Exodus 31:14). It is given over into your hands, and you are not given over into its hands.

Rabbi Shimon ben Menasya said: “And the children of Israel shall keep Shabbat [making Shabbat throughout all their generations as an eternal covenant]" (Exodus 31:16).The Torah said: Desecrate one Sabbath for [the sake of saving] him so he will observe many Sabbaths.

Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: If I would have been there among those Sages who debated this question, I would have said that my proof is preferable to theirs, as it states: “You shall keep My statutes and My ordinances, which a person shall do and live by them” (Leviticus 18:5)-- and not that one should die by them.

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?
(א) וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ (ב) דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃ (ג) כְּמַעֲשֵׂ֧ה אֶֽרֶץ־מִצְרַ֛יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְשַׁבְתֶּם־בָּ֖הּ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֑וּ וּכְמַעֲשֵׂ֣ה אֶֽרֶץ־כְּנַ֡עַן אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֲנִי֩ מֵבִ֨יא אֶתְכֶ֥ם שָׁ֙מָּה֙ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֔וּ וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶ֖ם לֹ֥א תֵלֵֽכוּ׃ (ד) אֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַ֧י תַּעֲשׂ֛וּ וְאֶת־חֻקֹּתַ֥י תִּשְׁמְר֖וּ לָלֶ֣כֶת בָּהֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃ (ה) וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֤ם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי֙ וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֨ר יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה אֹתָ֛ם הָאָדָ֖ם וָחַ֣י בָּהֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃ (ס)

(1) The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: (2) Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: I the LORD am your God. (3) You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws. (4) My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws: I the LORD am your God. (5) You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which a human shall live: I am the LORD.

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?