Chayei Sarah: Saving a Life on Shabbat

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12 Nov 2009

Last week’s column discussed the prohibition of extinguishing a fire on Shabbat. We should have mentioned that this prohibition, like all Shabbat prohibitions, is suspended if there is any chance of danger to life. Even if there is a doubt, we should not waver or delay to decide the halakha; the Yerushalmi says of this “One who asks in this situation is reproachable, and one who is asked is as one who spills blood” (Yerushalmi Yoma 8:5). The authorities should make clear in advance that saving life overrides Shabbat prohibitions, so that they shouldn’t be consulted at the last minute when every second counts.

The sanctity of life is a momentous value in Torah law. With few exceptions, all transgressions are permitted in the case of significant danger to life, even if the danger is not certain. This is learned from the verse, “Keep My laws and My statutes, which a man will keep and live by them – I am HaShem” (Vayikra 18:5).HaShem gives us His mitzvot to live by them – not to die by them.

But the emphasis on the precedence of preserving life over Shabbat observance is particularly great. In addition to the exhortation to live by the mitzvot and not to die by them, which applies to all mitzvot, our Sages found six different sources which teach us that Shabbat prohibitions are suspended in the case of danger to life! (Yoma 85a-b)

It seems that this profusion of sources comes to emphasize a special connection between Shabbat and preservation of life. Indeed, many authorities consider that whereas other prohibitions are merely suspended in the face of danger (dechuya), Shabbat is actually waived (hutra).

What is the special connection between Shabbat and saving life? Rav Natan of Breslav explains that Shabbat draws all its meaning from the Jewish people who observe it. The Shabbat is called the bride of Israel. It is also called a gift to the Jewish people. The death of a Jew thus diminishes the splendor of Shabbat no less than does the performance of melakha.

Rav Natan goes so far as to say that the death of a Jew is itself a “chilul Shabbat” – a desecration of the Sabbath! “Desecration” means literally a diminution of the sacred, and that is what occurs when Israel is less able to sanctify the Shabbat because of a death (Likutei Halakhot Shabbat 7:11).

(In previous columns we cited other halakhot that hint that the Shabbat draws its holiness from those who keep it. The Prisha OC 167:3b explains that this is why certain customs of Divine protection are kept on Shabbat, even though they are suspended on Seder night, the “night of watching”; we also have cited the derivation which likens Shabbat to a “city of refuge”, which only protects those who seek its protection – Eiruvin 51a (see also KSA 96:12).

One of the Talmud’s six reasons is: “Desecrate one Sabbath for him, so that he may keep many Sabbaths”. If “keeping” Shabbat meant only refraining from work, then there is no reason to desecrate Shabbat now so as not to desecrate it later. But keeping Shabbat is itself the source of the holiness of the Sabbath; therefore, by saving a Jewish life we are ultimately adding sanctity to the Sabbath day and not removing it.

Not only rescue from physical death but even rescue from the spiritual death of apostasy justifies violating Shabbat prohibitions (SA OC 306:14; KSA 92:10). The same explanation applies. According to Rav Natan’s reasoning, a Jew who denies the Shabbat is also a desecration of the Shabbat. This danger also demands that we diminish the holiness of Shabbat a bit in order to augment it greatly.

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.