The Law of Preserving Life according to the Two Forms of Orthodox Judaism

As argued on many Viewpoints postings, Orthodox Judaism comes in two very different forms. One is based on the words of the sacred text; the other is biased by the cultural predilections and mental intuitions of the sacred person.

The sacred text in the Oral Torah regarding piqu’ah nefesh, the sacred precept that requires the watching over the sacred life of the Jewish person:

משנה מסכת יומא פרק 8:7

מי שנפלה עליו מפולת ספק הוא שם ספק אינו שם ספק חי ספק מת ספק עובד כוכבים ספק ישראל מפקחין עליו את הגל מצאוהו חי מפקחין עליו ואם מת יניחוהו:

[In the case of] a person upon whom [it is presumed that] a pile of rubble has fallen, if there is a doubt [i.e. a possibility] that the person is there [indeed under the pile and still alive, or whether there is a doubt whether the person is a non-Jew [where according to the ancient rule the person is not saved by violating the sacred day with forbidden labor] or a Jew [for whom the rule of piqu’ah nefesh does apply], we remove the pile if we find him alive, and we let matter rest if he not alive. [because the sacred life has been irrevocably lost].

The semantic plain sense of mefaqqehun in the pi’el is that there is a mandate/mitsva to remove the pile unless we are certain that the victim is deceased.

This passage is exegeted and codified by Maimonides, Shabbat 2:15 sees piqu’ah nefesh as not requiring permission to violate other laws because saving a Jewish life in danger is a greater normative concern. Supra. 2:18 codifies this law by paraphrasing the Mishnah, adding that even potential moments of life are sufficient to warrant Sabbath and Festival violations. Therefore, in order to privilege the image of God that inheres in the person who obeys the Commander’s commandments, the priority—and therefore the mandate—of violating the sacred day in order to preserve the sacred human person. Therefore, reading the canonical Mishnah semantically in order to apply its values legally, violations of lower grade norms, i.e. violating the Sabbath, in order to preserve life, is not to be done by a non-Jewish person or by a Jewish child, but by an adult Jew because piqu’ah nefesh is a legal obligation priority. (Maimonides, supra., 3, taking the Scriptural idiom “and you shall live by them” [Lev. 18:5] as an imperative, a.k.a a command.) While Maimonides’s religion and reading focus upon the literal sense of the Written and Oral Torah, he [supra., 3b] is pained and painfully aware of those hesitant to violate the Sabbath in order to save a life.

Carefully reading Maimonides’ careful reading of Scripture, Maran Joseph Caro rules:

When violating the Sabbath for an ill person who[se illness is a cause of mortal] danger, we try not to do so with a non-Jew, a minor, or a woman, but by adult Jewish men of knowledge [reason].

According to official, Oral Torah Judaism, it is a religious obligation that the adult violate the Sabbath and not one who is not commanded to do so.

כשמחללין שבת על חולה שיש בו סכנה, משתדלין שלא לעשות עי אי וקטנים ונשים אלא עי ישראלים גדולים ובני דעת

[Shulhan Aruch Orah Hayyim 328:12]. This view is made explicit in Bet Yosef OH 328:1:

ב (א) אבל [כל] דבר שיש בו סכנה מותר. לאו דוקא מותר דהא מצוה נמי היא לחלל עליו שבת אם הוא צריך לכך ולא חשש רבינו לדקדק דבריו כאן לפי שסמך על שמתבאר בסימן זה:

For any instance of danger, it is permitted [to violate the law]. And the idiom “permitted” is not precise, as it is a mitsva to violate the Shabbat for him [the ill person] if needed, and the master [R. Yehiel b. Asher] was here imprecise.

I suspect that R. Caro misread R. Yehiel here; for the latter sage, like R. Isserles, believed that with our case of danger to life, Shabbat restrictions are suspended, whereas for R. Caro the restrictions are cancelled by the higher grade norm of preserving life.

However, R. Isserles, supra, argues that

שולחן ערוך אורח חיים הלכות שבת סימן שכח

יא דאם אפשר לעשות בלא דיחוי ובלא איחור עי שינוי, עושה עי שינוי; ואם אפשר לעשות עי אי בלא איחור כלל, עושין עי אי (אז) וכן נוהגים; אבל במקום דיש לחוש שיתעצל האי, אין לעשות עי אי.

  1. If the act of Sabbath violation can be accomplished without delay which would endanger the ill person. The act should be done with a change in normal action in order to limit the gravity of the infraction.
  2. The act should be done by a non-Jew who is not obliged to observe the Sabbath.
  3. This consideration is the custom of this street corner Orthodox religion.

Aishel Avraham, Mahadura Tanina 328, concurs because most cases of very ill patients are doubtfully cases of piqu’ah nefesh, indicating that when life is in danger, Torah restrictions are suspended, whereas for the canonical Orthodoxy, these restrictions are cancelled.

In sum,

  1. the debate regarding the extent of Shabbat violation that is appropriate when attending to a patient whose life is in danger, one school arguing that when needed the Shabbat must be violated, and the other school maintaining that we may violate the Shabbat as minimally as possible.
  2. The former school of thought, based on the Oral Torah and Sefardic authorities, who read Torah as law, regard the Torah’s “and you shall live by them,” as a normative command, while the latter school sees violations of Law as cosmic events, making ritual leniencies problematic.
  3. For the former school, the text of the canon creates the Law; for the latter school, the consensus of great rabbis, not subject to review, is by definition legitimate and because these rabbis are great, are able to override the plain sense of the statute.

About Rabbi Alan Yuter

Rabbi Yuter is Adjunct Prof. of Hebrew Lit., Baltimore Hebrew University, and Adjunct Faculty, Fairleigh Dickenson University/Institute for Traditional Judaism. S'micha from Chief Rabbinate of Israel, Rabbi Mordecai Eliyahu. See bio for more.