As part of the celebration of Shavuot, the Omaha Beit Midrash convened a panel discussion involving clergy from Temple Israel (Reform), Chabad, and Beth El (Conservative) with Jennie Gates-Beckman of the Jewish Federation of Omaha serving as moderator. The discussion questions were posed by Rabbi A. Brian Stoller; Rabbi Mendel Katzman and I also participated on the panel. The following are my preparatory notes on the topic of Pikuach Nefesh, the principle of setting aside Jewish Law to save a life.
There is a lot of talk about the principle “Pikuach Nefesh” these days. What is this principle, and how is it relevant to the current pandemic?
The concept is that Jewish Laws, especially those that apply to the Sabbath and holy days can be set aside for the sake of saving a life. The word “Pikuach” actually means “to open up” you may recall the blessing that we say in the morning “Pokeiach Ivrim” thanking God for opening up the eyes of the blind.
There is a case in the Mishna (Yoma 8:6) that talks about a person being buried under some rubble on Shabbat. We are obligated to “open up that rubble” i.e. to clear away the rocks etc. to save the person even though this is an act that violates the laws of Shabbat.
There are two basic principles involved which allow for this. Firstly, the Torah in the book of Leviticus(18:5) teaches us that the commandments are given to us to live by and not die by. Secondly, we learn that the Shabbat is given to the people of Israel, the people of Israel not given to the Shabbat. (Yoma 85:b) Shabbat is for us, it is part of our conventual relationship with Our Creator; we are not beholding to the Shabbat.
Dr. Elana Sien Hain of the Shalom Hartman institute gave a fascinating talk on the subject of Pikuach Nefesh especially as it relates to our current situation. (https://youtu.be/z0WSSOylWSc) She cites a passage of rabbinic legal text (Tosepfta Shabbat 15) which gives two possible ways to understand the concept of Pikuach Nefesh. In some ways, Pikuach Nefesh can actually enhance our experience of Shabbat. The example she gives is of a bris which must be performed on the 8th day, even if it is Shabbat or Yom Tov – I once witnessed a bris on the Bima on Yom Kippur, it added an extra dimension of excitement and spirituality to the Holy day. I would imagine that similarly, saving a person in distress on Shabbat would give you a wonderful feeling which would make the Shabbat feel even more meaningful, even more special. On the other hand, sometimes violating the rules of Shabbat even for the sake of saving a life may make you feel like you diminished your experience of Shabbat. Perhaps, to help someone, you had to perform an action which violates Shabbat. You may feel bad or even guilty about this violation and it, therefore, diminishes your experience of Shabbat. If this occurs you can take some comfort in the knowledge that you have enabled another person to potentially keep many more Shabbatot in the future.
Doctor Hein gives the example of a psychiatrist who had to use the telephone to check in with a client on Shabbat because they were afraid that this person may be so depressed in their isolation due to the social restrictions required by the COVID situation that they could, God forbid, be considering suicide. Even though using the phone took away from her Shabbat experience, the doctor violated Shabbat so that the client would live and thus have the potential to keep many more Shabbatot in the future.
Is Pikuach Nefesh absolute, or are there limits to it? How far are we supposed to go in order to save a life?
Fred Rosner is a professor of medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, the Chairman of the Medical Ethics Committee of the State of New York, and an expert in the medical writings of Moses Maimonides. He put together a book called an Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics ( https://tinyurl.com/y9bknfc6) which discusses among other topics the concept of Pikuach Nefesh. He reminds us that one of the guiding principles in answering this question is the belief that one person’s blood is no redder than another person’s blood. In other words, every human life has equal value so we are prohibited from sacrificing one life for the sake of another. On the other hand, it is permissible to risk great personal injury to save a life. This is especially true when it is a person’s profession or training that is required to save a life. Thus, we are taught that even a person teaching a Torah lesson who is a member of a volunteer ambulance squad must abandon that class and rush out to save a life if he is called upon do so.
Interestingly, our sages made it very clear that this principle of saving a life applies even if the person being saved is not Jewish, this is explicitly expressed the Mishna I cited at the beginning. Cynics might say this is so that people will not have an excuse to discriminate against us saying the Jews only care about their own. However, The Torah teaches that all of humanity is created in God’s image and therefore we must treat everyone in the same manner regardless of their religion or nationality.
There are, however, situations where the principle of Pikuach Nephesh cannot be applied. These include committing murder, idolatry, or violating some sexual or interpersonal prohibitions.
Is Pikuach Nefesh strictly about saving someone from death, or can it be applied more broadly?
Pikuach Nefesh certainly applies beyond the scope of physical danger. There are many cases in which psychological danger is a serious reality and therefore we are obligated to violate the rules of Shabbat to assist those in such situations. A good example is in the case of the psychiatrist checking in with the patient that I cited earlier. Even if a person isn’t suicidal, certainly there are cases involving depression or the possibility of mental abuse where violating the Shabbat to help would be considered Pikuach Nefesh. For example, the Talmud (Yoma 84b:7-10) teaches that if “one sees that a door is locked before a child and the child is scared and crying [on Shabbat], he breaks the door and takes the child out.”
There is also the principle of spiritual Pikuach Nefesh. Is it possible that to maintain the spiritual life of a community we are permitted to set aside some of the rules of Shabbat such as using a computer, to preserve the spiritual life of the community? Perhaps we can do these things so that we can ensure that the community will maintain its spiritual connection to Shabbat and therefore, on one hand, enhance the experience of Shabbat for some and on the other hand, make sure that people will remain engaged and therefore willing to keep many more Shabbatot in the future.
Does the principle of Pikuach Nefesh make any distinction between risk to the individual and risk to the community?
There are differences between individual Pikuach Nefesh and communal Pikuach Nefesh. So, for example, a soldier must go out and fight for the community even though there is a grave personal danger to that soldier. Similarly, Dr. Rosner points out that a fire in a public space can be put out on Shabbat when the community would face hardship if the fire is not extinguished, even if there is no immediate danger to life. Also, a proactive action on Shabbat that would result in avoiding a dangerous situation in the future could be permissible when the health of the community is at stake whereas for an individual this would be much more difficult to justify.
As I said earlier, there are situations where the principle of Pikuach Nefesh cannot be applied. These include committing murder, idolatry, or violating some sexual or interpersonal prohibitions. However, Doctor Rosner seems to suggest and that there may be cases where even certain sexual prohibitions could be set aside for communal Pikuach Nefesh.
Finnaly, Doctor Hain in her class cited two historical examples to illustrate the idea of communal Pikuach Nefesh. The Book of Maccabees recalls that at first the followers of Matthias refused to fight on Shabbat. Their leader chided them and said, “fools if you don’t fight on Shabbat then we will suffer a terrible defeat and throughout all time people will know that if you want to defeat the Jews just attack them on Shabbat.” In other words, they were obligated to fight on Shabbat to preserve the community. Certainly, they enabled many future generations to keep the Shabbat.
Her other Example occurs during the Shoah. People who were inmates of concentration camps and ghettos risked great personal danger to keep as many laws and customs of Shabbat and festivals as they could. Kind of reverse Pikuach Nefesh. To those brave Jews, it was a way to hang on to their humanity and to somehow resist the tyranny of the Nazi oppressors. In other words, it was in risking danger to keep the law that they were able to preserve and enhance their lives.