Saving Lives on Shabbat
Both Yehuda Avner in his interview (“Up Close with Yehuda Avner” by Michael Freund, summer 2011) and Joseph Lieberman in his book, The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath, excerpted in the same issue discuss their experiences in which life-threatening circumstances required them to perform normally forbidden activities on Shabbat. Unfortunately, both gave the impression that there is a conflict between observing Shabbat and saving lives, which regrettably requires one to violate Shabbat.
Senator Lieberman presents a philosophical justification for doing so, writing: “To do otherwise would be to put form over substance, to elevate the [Sabbath] law above values on which the law is based, and to forget that the Sabbath is primarily a day to affirm and uphold life.”
In fact, performing normally forbidden activities on Shabbat to save a life is an integral part of Shabbat law and the highest form of its observance. Additionally, Shabbat brit milahs or Shabbat sacrifices in the time of the Temple both require performing normally forbidden acts. All these activities are part and parcel of how the Torah tells us to observe the Shabbat.
Avner states: “If I had to be driven somewhere [on Shabbat] to attend a meeting that had life and death implications, I used to sit on the car floor to ensure that I would not forget that it was Shabbat.” Should the mohel at a Shabbat brit and a Kohen performing Shabbat sacrifices also sit on the floor while performing their duties to remind themselves that it is Shabbat?
The suggestion that there is an advantage in inventing new practices to remind oneself that the day is Shabbat is inconsistent with the spirit of Jewish law.
Professor Nathan Aviezer
Petach Tikva, Israel