T'ruah COVID-19 Hackathon Unplugged: How Much Are We Required to Give Up to Save Lives? (with Fuller Sourcing)

The 2019 coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic has raised profoundly challenging questions of religious and civic responsibility, as mass acceptance of public health measures to prevent spread of the virus have necessitated neglecting many other pillars of individual, communal, and civic life, including livelihood. While Jewish law (halakha) affirms the primacy of saving life over almost every other commitment, this scope of this affirmation becomes less clear with regard to long-term, public measures with no definitive end known. In this study, we will explore which, if any, health risks halakha justifies taking in order to prevent personal or societal loss, whether economic or otherwise.

Jewish law values the preservation of human life to such an extent that one must even violate Shabbat, a capital crime, in order to save a life or even for the possibility of saving a life, for example, digging through rubble of a collapsed building which might be covering a still-living person.

(ז) מִי שֶׁנָּפְלָה עָלָיו מַפֹּלֶת, סָפֵק הוּא שָׁם סָפֵק אֵינוֹ שָׁם, סָפֵק חַי סָפֵק מֵת, סָפֵק נָכְרִי סָפֵק יִשְׂרָאֵל, מְפַקְּחִין עָלָיו אֶת הַגַּל. מְצָאוּהוּ חַי, מְפַקְּחִין עָלָיו. וְאִם מֵת, יַנִּיחוּהוּ:

(7) If an avalanche fell on someone, and it is doubtful whether or not he is there, or whether he is alive or dead, or whether he is an Israelite or a non-Jew, they remove the debris from above him [even on Shabbat]. If they find him alive they remove the debris, but if dead they should leave him there [until Shabbat is over].

The Mishnah teaches, similarly, that other transgressions should also be violated if doing so might save a life. This includes standard transgressions, such as eating meat of a forbidden animal, and the more intense transgression of eating on Yom Kippur, generally punishable by excision.

(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 [and he returns to health]. 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.

The Rambam concisely summarizes this forceful commonplace of Rabbinic law, that preserving life precedes the mitzvot.

(א) דְחוּיָה הִיא שַׁבָּת אֵצֶל סַכָּנַת נְפָשׁוֹת כִּשְׁאָר כָּל הַמִּצְוֹת.

(1) Like all the other commandments, Shabbat is overridden by danger to life.

The earliest history, which is beyond the scope of this project to trace, is actually complicated, but by the middle of the Tannaitic period (mid-2nd Century), the priority of saving life over mitzvot was taken for granted; the Sages disputed only as to the Biblical source and conceptual grounding of this principle.

(ב) כבר היו רבי ישמעאל ורבי אלעזר בן עזריה ורבי עקיבא מהלכין בדרך. ולוי הסדר ורבי ישמעאל בנו של רבי אלעזר בן עזריה מהלכין אחריהם. ונשאלה שאלה זו בפניהם, מנין לפקוח נפש שדוחה את השבת. נענה רבי ישמעאל ואמר, אם במחתרת ימצא הגנב (שמות כ״ב:א׳). [והרי דברים קל וחומר] ומה זה הוא ספק שבא לגנוב ספק שבא להרוג ((והרי דברים קל וחומר) ומה) שפיכות דמים שמטמא את הארץ ומסלקת את השכינה הרי היא (דוחה (שבת) [נפש]). קל וחומר לפקוח נפש שדוחה את השבת. נענה רבי אלעזר בן עזריה ואמר, מה מילה שאינה אלא אחד מאבריו של אדם, דוחה שבת. קל וחומר לשאר כל גופו. (אמרו לו ממקום שבאת, מה להלן בודאי אף כאן בודאי.) רבי עקיבא אומר, אם דוחה (רציחה) את העבודה שהיא דוחה שבת, קל וחומר לפקוח נפש שדוחה שבת. רבי יוסי הגלילי אומר, (כשם שהוא אומר אך) את שבתותי תשמורו. אך חלק, יש שבתות שאתה דוחה ויש שבתות שאתה שובת. רבי שמעון בן מנסיא אומר, הרי הוא אומר ושמרתם את השבת כי קדש היא לכם. לכם שבת מסורה, ואי אתם מסורין לשבת. רבי נתן אומר, ושמרו בני ישראל את השבת לעשות את השבת לדורותם, חלל שבת אחת כדי שתשמור שבתות הרבה.

(2) R. Yishmael and R. Elazar b. Azaryah and R. Akiva were once walking on the road, with Levi Hasadar and R. Yishmael the son of R. Elazar b. Azaryah walking behind them, when this question was asked: Whence is it derived that the saving of a life overrides the Sabbath? R. Yishmael responded: It is written (Ibid. 22:1) "If the thief be found breaking in, etc." — If in such an instance, where it is doubtful whether he is coming to steal or to kill, and the spilling of blood defiles the land and causes the Shechinah to depart, he is permitted to kill the thief to save his life — how much more so does the saving of life override the Sabbath! R. Elazar b. Azaryah responded: If circumcision, which includes only one of a man's organs, overrides the Sabbath, how much more so all of his body! R. Akiva says: If the saving of a life overrides the sacrificial service, which overrides the Sabbath, how much more so does the saving of a life override the Sabbath! R. Yossi Haglili says: "My Sabbaths shall you keep": "but" ("ach," before "My") "divides," i.e., there are Sabbaths that you override, and there are Sabbaths that you rest. R. Shimon b. Menassia says (Ibid. 14) "And you shall keep the Sabbath, for it is holy to you" — Sabbath is given to you and you are not given (i.e., "surrendered") to the Sabbath. R. Nathan says (Ibid. 16) "And the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath to observe the Sabbath for their generations": Desecrate one Sabbath in order to keep many Sabbaths.

The early amora Sh'muel added one more point of Biblical grounding, which has subsequently dominated Rabbinic discourse on the primacy of saving lives: the mitzvot of the Torah are given to be lived, so it is counter to their purpose to die in order to perform them.

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

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 he should die by them. In all circumstances, one must take care not to die as a result of fulfilling the mitzvot.

There are limits to the inviolability of human (or, for some texts, Jewish) life, as we will see throughout this paper. The discussion of martyrdom teaches that preservation of one life may not come at the cost of committing cardinal sins of idolatry, incest, or taking of another person's life. That short list emphasizes through its short list of exceptions -- and some sages had even shorter lists of exceptions -- the centrality to Halakha of the inviolability of life.

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
§ The Gemara now considers which prohibitions are permitted in times of mortal danger. Rabbi Yoḥanan says in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzadak: The Sages who discussed this issue counted the votes of those assembled and concluded in the upper story of the house of Nitza in the city of Lod: With regard to all other transgressions in the Torah, if a person is told: Transgress this prohibition and you will not be killed, he may transgress that prohibition and not be killed, because the preserving of his own life overrides all of the Torah’s prohibitions. This is the halakha concerning all prohibitions except for those of idol worship, forbidden sexual relations, and bloodshed. Concerning those prohibitions, one must allow himself to be killed rather than transgress them.

Similarly, various mitzvot in the Torah mandate actions taken to protect one's own and others' safety. The Rambam summarizes this legal category forcefully.

(ד) אֶחָד הַגַּג וְאֶחָד כָּל דָּבָר שֶׁיֵּשׁ בּוֹ סַכָּנָה וְרָאוּי שֶׁיִּכָּשֵׁל בָּהּ אָדָם וְיָמוּת. כְּגוֹן שֶׁהָיְתָה לוֹ בְּאֵר אוֹ בּוֹר בַּחֲצֵרוֹ בֵּין שֶׁיֵּשׁ בּוֹ מַיִם בֵּין שֶׁאֵין בּוֹ מַיִם חַיָּב לַעֲשׂוֹת חֻלְיָא גְּבוֹהָה עֲשָׂרָה טְפָחִים. אוֹ לַעֲשׂוֹת לָהּ כִּסּוּי כְּדֵי שֶׁלֹּא יִפּל בָּהּ אָדָם וְיָמוּת. וְכֵן כָּל מִכְשׁל שֶׁיֵּשׁ בּוֹ סַכָּנַת נְפָשׁוֹת מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה לַהֲסִירוֹ וּלְהִשָּׁמֵר מִמֶּנּוּ וּלְהִזָּהֵר בַּדָּבָר יָפֶה יָפֶה. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (דברים ד ט) "הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ וּשְׁמֹר נַפְשְׁךָ". וְאִם לֹא הֵסִיר וְהֵנִיחַ הַמִּכְשׁוֹלוֹת הַמְּבִיאִין לִידֵי סַכָּנָה בִּטֵּל מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה וְעָבַר בְּ(דברים כב ח) "לֹא תָשִׂים דָּמִים":

(ה) הַרְבֵּה דְּבָרִים אָסְרוּ חֲכָמִים מִפְּנֵי שֶׁיֵּשׁ בָּהֶם סַכָּנַת נְפָשׁוֹת. וְכָל הָעוֹבֵר עֲלֵיהֶן וְאוֹמֵר הֲרֵינִי מְסַכֵּן בְּעַצְמִי וּמַה לַּאֲחֵרִים עָלַי בְּכָךְ אוֹ אֵינִי מַקְפִּיד בְּכָךְ מַכִּין אוֹתוֹ מַכַּת מַרְדּוּת:

(4) There is no difference between a roof or anything else that is dangerous and likely to cause death to a person who might stumble. If, for instance, one has a well or a pit in his courtyard — — he must build an enclosing ring ten handbreadths high, or put a cover over it, so that a person should not fall into it and die. So too, any obstruction that is a danger to life must be removed as a matter of positive duty and extremely necessary caution.

(5) The sages have prohibited many things because they are dangerous to life. If anyone disregards them and says : "What claim have others on me if I risk my own life?" or: "I do not mind this," he should be lashed for disobedience.

According to the numerous sources from which we have selected just a few examples here, Halakha teaches us that our point of departure when we evaluate potential resumptions of "normal life" -- opening workplaces, schools, places of recreation and travel, etc. -- before the pandemic is eradicated must be keeping people alive. We are required to forgo even our deepest commitments to that end and to take numerous inconvenient measures as individuals and as a body politic to keep ourselves and the masses safe and healthy.


We have seen that Rabbinic literature highlights saving lives as a more powerful responsibility than anything besides avoiding idolatry and incest. Nevertheless, the same literature also highly values the preservation of economic welfare, sometimes in ways that seem even to encroach on the territory of pikuach nefesh, suggesting, in our case, that there may be personal or even public health risks which we should be prepared to accept in order to prevent economic loss.

Rabbi Eli‘ezer teaches that the reason why, in the first paragraph of the Sh’ma, the Torah teaches that we must love God both with all our life and with all our might (ie, our property) is that some people value their body more than their money and some people value their money more than their body, so the Torah needed to speak to both of those types of people, reminding them that love of God must take precedence over whatever is most valuable to them. The passage makes no value judgment, though. Apparently, it is legitimate to value one’s money over one’s body.

״וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת ה׳ אֱלֹהֶיךָ״. תַּנְיָא, רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר: אִם נֶאֱמַר ״בְּכָל נַפְשְׁךָ״, לָמָּה נֶאֱמַר ״בְּכָל מְאֹדֶךָ״?, וְאִם נֶאֱמַר ״בְּכָל מְאֹדֶךָ״, לָמָּה נֶאֱמַר ״בְּכָל נַפְשְׁךָ״? אֶלָּא אִם יֵשׁ לְךָ אָדָם שֶׁגּוּפוֹ חָבִיב עָלָיו מִמָּמוֹנוֹ — לְכָךְ נֶאֱמַר ״בְּכָל נַפְשְׁךָ״. וְאִם יֵשׁ לָךְ אָדָם שֶׁמָּמוֹנוֹ חָבִיב עָלָיו מִגּוּפוֹ — לְכָךְ נֶאֱמַר ״בְּכָל מְאֹדֶךָ״. רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא אוֹמֵר: ״בְּכָל נַפְשְׁךָ״ אֲפִילּוּ נוֹטֵל אֶת נַפְשְׁךָ.

“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). This was elaborated upon when it was taught in a baraita: Rabbi Eliezer says: If it is stated: “With all your soul,” why does it state: “With all your might”? Conversely, if it stated: “With all your might,” why does it state: “With all your soul”? Rather, this means that if one’s body is dearer to him than his property, therefore it is stated: “With all your soul”; one must give his soul in sanctification of God. And if one’s money is dearer to him than his body, therefore it is stated: “With all your might”; with all your assets. Rabbi Akiva says: “With all your soul” means: Even if God takes your soul.

We may see an example of this in the Babylonian amora Rav Hisda, who would willingly experience bodily injury in order to protect his clothing.

ורב חסדא כד הוה מסגי ביני היזמי והגא מדלי להו למאניה אמר זה מעלה ארוכה וזה אינו מעלה ארוכה

Rav Ḥisda, when he would walk among thorns and shrubs, would raise his clothing despite the fact that his skin would get scratched by the thorns. He said in explanation of his actions: This flesh will heal if scratched, but that garment will not heal if torn.

Similarly, Rabbi Yohanan teaches that robbing someone of even a tiny amount of money is like taking their very breath from them, equivalent not only to murdering them, but to murdering their children, and this is so even if the robber compensates the victim for the stolen item, and even if committing the robbery passively, through intermediary forces.

א"ר יוחנן כל הגוזל את חבירו שוה פרוטה כאילו נוטל נשמתו ממנו שנאמר כן ארחות כל בוצע בצע את נפש בעליו יקח ואומר (ירמיהו ה, יז) ואכל קצירך ולחמך בניך ובנותיך ואומר (יואל ד, יט) מחמס בני יהודה אשר שפכו דם נקי בארצם ואומר (שמואל ב כא, א) אל שאול ואל בית הדמים על אשר המית את הגבעונים מאי ואומר וכ"ת נפש דידיה אבל נפש בניו ובנותיו לא ת"ש בשר בניו ובנותיו

Rabbi Yoḥanan says: Anyone who robs another of an item worth one peruta is considered as though he takes his soul from him, as it is stated: “So are the ways of every one that is greedy for profit; it takes away the life of the owner thereof” (Proverbs 1:19). And it states: “And they shall consume your harvest, and your bread, they shall consume your sons and your daughters” (Jeremiah 5:17). Since they will consume the harvest and bread, it is as though they consume one’s children as well because there will be no food to feed them. And it states: “Egypt shall be a desolation, and Edom shall be a desolate wilderness, for the extortion of the children of Judah, because they have shed innocent blood in their land” (Joel 4:19). The verse here considers extortion like the shedding of innocent blood. And it states with regard to a famine: “And the Lord said: It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he put to death the Gibeonites” (II Samuel 21:1). The Gemara asks: Since Rabbi Yoḥanan’s point was proven by the first verse, what was the purpose of adding each subsequent verse by saying: And it states? The Gemara answers: And if you would say that the robber takes only his, i.e., the victim’s, life, but the lives of his sons and daughters are not taken, come and hear the second verse, which mentions the flesh of his sons and daughters.

Perhaps most chillingly, the tanna Rabbi Yose rules that in a time of drought, when our town has more water left than the neighboring town, we may prioritize our animals and even our laundry needs over the lives of the residents of the neighboring town, denying them water, suggesting that preventing economic collapse can be prioritized over human life.

(יד) מעין של בני העיר: הן והן ואחרים, הן קודמים לאחרים.

אחרים ובהמתן: חיי אחרים קודמים לבהמתן. רבי יוסי אומר: בהמתן קודמת לחיי אחרים.

בהמתן ובהמת אחרים: בהמתן קודמת לבהמות אחרים.

אחרים וכביסתן: חיי אחרים קודמין לכביסתן. ורבי יוסי אומר כביסתן קודמת לחיי אחרים.

כביסתן וכביסת אחרים כביסתן קודמת לכביסת אחרים.

בהמת אחרים וכביסתן: בהמת אחרים קודמת לכביסתן.

בית השלחין שלהם ובהמת אחרים: בית השלחין שלהם קודמת לבהמת אחרים. וכולן עולין לחשבון באחרונה.

A well of city-dwellers:

They or others: they take precedence over others.

Others or their own animals: The lives of others take precedence over their own animals. R. Yose says: Their own animals take precedence over the lives of others.

Their animals or others' animals: Their animals take precedence over the animals of others.

Others or their laundry: The lives of others takes precedence over their laundry. But R. Yose says: Their laundry takes precedence over the lives of others.

Their laundry or others' laundry: Their laundry takes precedence over others' laundry.

Others’ animals and their laundry: Others’ animals take precedence over their laundry.

Their irrigated fields and others' animals: Their irrigated fields take precedence over the animals of others.

All of these ultimately get charged with a bill.

The idea that economic needs are equivalent to the preservation of life finds blunt expression in a baraita which teaches that being poor is equivalent to being dead, or, as articulated elsewhere, poverty is like death.

ותניא ארבעה חשובין כמת עני ומצורע וסומא ומי שאין לו בנים עני דכתיב כי מתו כל האנשים מצורע דכתיב (במדבר יב, יב) אל נא תהי כמת וסומא דכתיב (איכה ג, ו) במחשכים הושיבני כמתי עולם ומי שאין לו בנים דכתיב הבה לי בנים ואם אין מתה אנכי

And it was taught in a baraita: Four are considered as if they were dead: A pauper, and a leper, and a blind person, and one who has no children. A pauper, as it is written: “For all the men are dead” (Exodus 4:19). As explained above, they were not actually dead but had descended into poverty, and yet they were considered dead. A leper, as it is written that Aaron said to Moses with regard to Miriam’s leprosy: “Let her not, I pray, be as one dead” (Numbers 12:12). And a blind person, as it is written: “He has made me to dwell in dark places, as those that have been long dead” (Lamentations 3:6). And one who has no children, as it is written: “Give me children, or else I am dead” (Genesis 30:1).

ועניות כמיתה שנאמר (שמות ד יט) כי מתו כל האנשים.

And poverty is so harsh that it is considered like death, as it is stated: “For all the men are dead who sought your life” (Exodus 4:19). The Sages had a tradition that Dathan and Abiram had sought to have Moses killed in Egypt and that they were the men referred to in the quoted verse (see 64b). They were still alive at that time but had become impoverished.

Accordingly, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Pe'ah 8:7/21a) teaches that distribution of welfare should be treated as a capital case, and the only reason welfare distribution is managed by a simple court of three judges, as are civil cases, rather than by a full capital court of 23 judges, is because an unwieldy court that large would inevitably slow down the disbursement process, endangering those who rely on welfare. In principle, though, welfare is a capital matter.

רבי חלבו בשם רבי בא בר זבדי אין מעמידין פרנסין פחות מג' אנא חמי דיני ממונות בג' דיני נפשות לא כ"ש ויהיו עשרים ושלשה עד דהוא מצמית להון הוא מסכן.

Rabbi Helbo in the name of Rabbi Ba bar Zabdi: We appoint no less than than three welfare distributors. I see that "monetary cases are with three" (Mishnah Sanhedrin 1:1); all the more so with capital cases, so there should be 23! By the time one gathers them, one would cause danger.

In our context of COVID-19, some citizens, pundits, and elected officials advocate acceptance of robust risk and significant rates of infection and death in order to keep the economy strong. In light of what we've seen, do they have an halakhic foot on which to stand? That all depends on what is meant by "the economy". The texts we have seen that equate economic sustenance with life itself refer only to conditions of dire penury. It is poverty that is equated with death. R. Yose didn't allow townspeople to use their water for a recreational fountain or swimming pool at the potential cost of other people's lives. He allowed using our water so to feed animals and to do laundry. Keeping our animals alive and healthy is itself a pikuach nefesh concern. If we let our animals, our nutrition source, die, we won't be far behind. What about laundry? Is he talking about something more akin to laundering diapers in the contemporary context or laundering a shirt on which you spilled a little juice? While the Talmud, according to most commentaries, rules in accordance with R. Yose, it does so only along with limiting his position to extreme measures of maintaining a minimally functioning society.

אמרי אין כביסה אלימא לר' יוסי דאמר שמואל האי ערבוביתא דרישא מתיא לידי עוירא ערבוביתא דמאני מתיא לידי שעמומיתא ערבוביתא דגופא מתיא לידי שיחני וכיבי

The Sages say: Yes, the pain of refraining from laundering one’s clothes is stronger, according to Rabbi Yosei. As Shmuel said: Grime on one’s head leads to blindness, and grime on one’s clothes leads to madness, whereas grime on one’s body leads to boils and sores, which are less serious than madness and blindness.

The kind of laundry that R. Yose allows the drought-suffering townspeople to prioritize over giving drinking water to desperate outsiders is the kind of laundry without which a public health crisis will emerge. In other words, where one concern for saving lives of some people in one way may jeopardize the lives of other people, in another way.

דמאני מתיא לידי שעמומיתא - כשיש בבגדיו ערבובית של זוהמא שאינו מכבסן תמיד ולובשן כשהן מזוהמין מביאו לידי שעמום ותמהון לב:

"on one's clothes leads to madness" – When there is on one's garments a mixture of filth due to not regularly washing them, wearing them when they are filthy brings one to madness and faint-heartedness.

A modern halakhic authority, Rav Yekutiel Halberstam, affirmed that the kind of laundry prioritized over life in this text is the kind of laundry without which life is threatened, even if a little further down the road. However, he added from other texts that even the avoidance of mere pain that is not life-threatening may take priority over some people's lives if the pain at issue is the pain of the masses. This enlightens our own COVID question: what kinds of mass pain caused by the economic shutdown might justifiably be avoided even at increased jeopardy to some people's lives? Finally, he affirms that whatever assessment is made to keep drought water for needs less immediate than personal drinking water can get off the ground only if there remains a possibility that the people asking for the water might have another source. Saving human life remains the strong priority; other needs have a high burden of proof to show that this other need is itself well along the road to risk to life.

שו"ת דברי יציב, חו"מ ע"ט

האדמו"ר מסאנז, הרב יקותיאל י. הלברשטאם

תמוז תשמ"ג


כו) ובנדרים דף פ' ע"ב...ומשמע להדיא דלר"י צערו קודם לחיי חבירו....

ומדוייק בלשונו והלכתא כביסה הויא חיותא וכו', אבל לא משום צער גרידא ודו"ק. וי"ל לפ"ז דבמקום צער בלבד פשוט דחיי אחרים קודמין ודו"ק.

וגם לפי פשטות משמעות ש"ס דילן דמשום צער קאמר אפשר דשאני צערא דרבים, עיין שבת מ"ב ע"א מכבין גחלת של מתכת ברה"ר בשביל שלא יזוקו בה רבים, וברמב"ן שם דשמא כל היזק של רבים כסכ"נ חשיב ליה שמואל וכו' עיין שם וברשב"א ובר"ן שם, וי"ל דה"נ בצער של רבים שייך עכ"פ לומר דחייהם קודמין ודו"ק היטב...

שו"מ בשו"ת בית שלמה יו"ד ח"ב סי' צ"ט שכתב דאף לר"י ע[ל] כ[רחך] מיירי ביש אפשרות להביא להם מים לחיי נפש ממקום אחר, אבל בחשש סכנה גמורה אינו עולה על הדעת לומר דצערא דידהו אלים מסכנה דאחריתי, והביא ראיה ממינקת שאסורה להנשא משום סכנת הולד אף דמניעת תשמיש הוי צערא עיין שם ובהג"ה מבן המחבר...

Responsa Divrei Yetziv, Hoshen Mishpat #79

(Rav Yekutiel Y. Halberstam, the Sanser Rebbe, 1905-1994, Galicia & Kiryat Sans, Netanya, Israel)

Tammuz, 5743 (1983)

...And in Nedarim 80b…it sounds explicit that for R. Yose one’s own pain takes precedence over another person’s life.…

And the language [of the She'iltot, which rules according to R. Yose] is precise, and the law [accords with R. Yose] inasmuch as laundry is one’s life, etc., but not on account of mere pain. And one should say that according to this, in a place of pain alone, it’s obvious that the lives of others take precedence.

Also, according to the plain meaning of our Talmud, in which it was said on account of pain, it is possible that pain of the masses is different. See Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 42a, that one may extinguish a burning slab of metal in the public domain in order that the masses not become injured, and the Ramban says there that perhaps Sh’muel considered any damage to the masses as akin to mortal danger to one’s life, etc. Look carefully there and at the Rashba and the Ran there. So we should say that yes, granted, with pain to the masses, it is relevant anyway to say that their lives take precedence…

Later, I found in Responsa Beit Shlomo YD II:99, who wrote that even though you must say that even R. Yose was addressing a situation where there was a possibility to bring them water for staying alive from another place, but where there’s concern for total danger, it doesn’t even occur to the mind to say that their pain is weightier than other people’s danger, and he brought a proof from the case of nursing mothers, who are forbidden to remarry on account of endangerment to the child, even though restricting sexual consort is a kind of pain. Look carefully there and at the gloss by the author’s son.

Similarly, on Rabbi Yohanan's statement from above that robbing someone is like taking their soul, or robbing them of life, Tosafot that this statement refers to situations of dire hunger. That's when losing money is equivalent to losing life.

זה בגופו וזה בממונו - והא דאמרי' פרק הגוזל בתרא (ב"ק ד' קיט.) הגוזל לחבירו שוה פרוטה כאילו גזל נשמתו היינו משום דפעמים רעב כבד ואין לו במה לקנות אבל יש הרבה בני אדם שאינם חסרים כל כך:

"This affects body and that affects money" -- And that which we said on Bava Kamma 119a, "Anyone who robs another of an item worth one peruta is considered as though he takes his soul from him", that is because sometimes there is a hard famine and he has nothing with which to buy anything, but plenty of people are not lacking to that degree.

Feared economic loss is akin to feared loss of life precisely inasmuch as that economic loss becomes itself life-endangering. This is articulated by the Magen Avraham in his explanation of why a person on a journey whose traveling partners refuse to stop for Shabbat may violate Shabbat in order to continue traveling with them.

(טז) יכול ללכת וכו'. ואם מתיירא להתעכב במדבר שמא יפגעו בו לסטים ויגזלו ממנו הבהמ' ולא יוכל ללכת ברגליו או אם יקחו ממונו לא יוכל לחיות עוד או אם יקחו מלבושיו בזמן הקור במעט ימות בקרירות כל א' מאלו מקרי פ"נ ומותר לילך עמה' (רמ"ג סימן ק"ט):

"You may go..." And if you are afraid to be detained in the wilderness lest bandits attack and rob you of your animal and you will not be able to go by foot, or lest they take your money and you won't be able to live any longer, or lest they take your clothing in the cold season, such that you may freeze to death, all of these are called saving a life ("pikuah nefesh") and it is permitted to go with them.

Not all economic loss is equal. Poverty is akin to death because poverty causes death. We may not loosen our COVID protocols and cause death to many people in order to protect or revive the economy, certainly not to the extent that that means a diminished standard of living for people whose survival is not at stake. Where there are hard questions and where it may be justified to loosen COVID restrictions, individually or collectively, is where those unloosened restrictions will plunge people into poverty, since poverty itself is a fatal disease. This distinction was captured poignantly by modern Rabbinic thinker Rav Moshe Sh'muel Glasner (1856-1924, Klausenberg, Hungary).

Introduction to Dor Revi’i on Massekhet Hullin, I, p. 26 , translation by Rabbi Jason Rubenstein

To sum up - this matter requires great study in order to clarify it, and my purpose is only to wake us up to the fact that it is hard to say that a person is obligated to render herself and her family naked and impoverished, rather than saving what they have through violating a prohibition. Consider Tosfot (Ketubbot 33b s.v. ‘Had they whipped Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, they would have worshiped the idol’) who object that the story of R’ Akiva’s martyrdom (Brakhot 61b) teaches that “with all your life” requires undergoing tremendous suffering - so lashes, all the moreseo! And R’ Yaakov Emden wrote in his comments that the combing of flesh is finite suffering, since R’ Akiva was being executed, but lashes which Rav [the author of the statement about Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah] was discussing are infinite suffering, and a human being cannot withstand this. If so, continual, unending poverty for the duration of one’s life is infinite suffering, and is much more difficult than the loss of life.

Therefore I say that the ruling that financial compulsion does not qualify as compulsion was not said in every case. For a person who is healthy and strong, and skilled in a craft that can support himself and his family - were he to lose everything he has, it would be nothing more than the pain of losing money, but nothing like loss of life. But for a person who is unwell or infirm, and whose income is wholly derived from their property and possessions that sustain them, and for whom loss of that property would deprive them of any income to support themselves and their family other than charity, making themselves wholly reliant on others - for such a person it is certainly correct for their wealth to be as precious to them as their body, and ever more so - for death would be preferable to a life of poverty. And even though this distinction is nowhere mentioned among the halakhic decisors, in any case it is written, “its [the Torah’s] ways are ways of pleasantness” (Proverbs 3:17).