(This should not be relied upon for practical halacha. When a question arises a Rabbi should be consulted.)
1. The Torah commands us not to stand idly by while someone’s blood is being spilled (Lo Saamod Al Dam Re’acha). We must therefore do everything in our power to save another Jew from a life threatening situation. If one is able to save another person and does not he has transgressed this commandment. (Rambam Rotzeach 1:14)
2. However, there is also a ruling of Chayecha Kodem, which teaches that your life takes precedence and therefore one is not allowed to place one’s self in a life threatening situation to spare another from a life threateningcan not commit suicide or place himself in peril in order to save another person.
3. The question that the poskim deal with is whether one is required to enter a potentially life threatening situation (Safek Sakana) in order to save another Jew from an absolute life threatening situation. For example a man is drowning and if no one jumps in to save him he will die. However, the torrent is pretty strong and it is possible that the person jumping in may be in danger himself of drowning. The question is is he allowed or required to jump in the water?
4. Harav Yosef Karo zt”l, in his Sefer Kesef Mishnah, cites the Hagahos Maimon who rules in accordance with the Yerushalmi that one is required to place himself in a Safek Sakana in order to save another Jew from an absolute life threatening situation. He explains that because the other person will definitely die and the rescuer will only potentially die, we worry about the definite and not the potential. This was also the view of the Tiferes Yisroel (Peah 1:5).
5. The Kesef Mishnah and Hagahos Maimon do not tell us where in the Yerushalmi can this ruling be found. The Netziv (Emek Sheala Shelach) explains that they are referring to the Yerushalmi in Meseches Terumos which records that Rav Imi was captured by robbers and was in a life threatening situation. Rav Yonasan said that there is nothing we can do and we must accept his untimely fate. However, Reish Lakish said, “I am going to rescue him and either I will kill them (the captors) or they will kill me.” Reish Lakish actively placed himself in potential danger in order to save his friend and this is the source of the ruling of the Hagahos Maimon.
6. Harav Yoel Serkes zt”l, in his commentary on Shulchan Aruch (Sma Choshen Mishpat 426), noted that the Rama and Shulchan Aruch both omit this ruling from their writings. It is in no doubt due to the fact that the pillars of halacha, the Rosh, Rif, and Rambam, all omitted the ruling of the Yerushalmi. It also seems that Rabbeinu Yona, in his Sefer Issur V’Heter (59:38), disagrees with the Hagahos Maimon and rules that one is not required to enter a potentially dangerous situation in order to save a person in life threatening danger. The Mishnah Berurah (329:19) also rules that one is not required to endanger himself in order to save another.
7. The Aruch Hashulchan (429:4) explains that the reason all these Rishonim do not rule in accordance with the Yerushalmi is that the Talmud Bavli disagrees with the Yerushalmi. He does not, however, include a source from the Bavli that would imply or convey a view different from that of the Yerushalmi. See the Tzitz Eliezer (9:45) who cites potential sources from the Bavli that seem to disagree with the Yerushalmi.
8. The Radvaz (shu”t 3:626) feels that according to the vast majority of opinions, who do not require one to endanger himself in order to save another person, not only is one not required to do so, one is not allowed to do so. He writes that one who places himself in Safek Sakana in order to save his friend is a “foolishly pious individual” and the potential risk out ways the mortal danger facing his friend. One is not allowed to endanger himself in order to perform a Mitzvah or in order to avoid a sin (except idolatry, murder, and sexual relations). Therefore, it is not permitted to endanger one’s self in order to avoid performing the sin of Lo Saamod Al Dam Re’acha. This ruling was also cited by Harav Yitzchak Weiss zt”l (Minchas Yitzchak 6:103).
9. Harav Moshe Feinstein zt”l (Igros Moshe Yoreh Deah 2:174) disagrees with the ruling of the Radvaz. He explains that although normally one may not endanger himself in order to avoid a sin, in this case one is permitted since his actions will lead to a Jewish person being saved. According to Harav Moshe zt”l the whole debate is whether one is required to enter a Safek Sakana in order to save his friend. However, everyone agrees that one is permitted to do so.
10. Harav Ovadia Yosef zt”l (Yechava Daas 3:84) found a discrepancy in the writings of the Radvaz. In one response the Radvaz (ibid.) writes that one is not permitted to endanger himself in order to save his friend. While in another response (2:218) he writes that one is required to enter a somewhat dangerous situation in order to save someone from a life threatening situation. Harav Yosef zt”l explains that there is no contradiction. If there is a 50%, or more, chance of death one is not allowed to save his friend. It is not allowed to perform an act with such a high risk of death, even in order to save his friend. If the chance of death is less than 50% one is required to save his friend. In this case the chance of death is so small that the reward of saving a Jew out ways the potential danger. He adds that the Radvaz, himself, seems to indicate such a distinction in one of the responses.
11. The Radvaz (3:626) does add that there is no requirement to donate a limb in order to save another jew, even if donating a limb involves a small (less than 50%) risk of death. He explains that the ways of the Torah are sweet and the Torah would never require someone to become mutilated and deformed. What if donating eyes could save a life, reasons the Radvaz, you would have half of Klal Yisroel missing eyes? The Torah cannot require such a thing. Although it is praiseworthy to donate a limb, the Torah would never require organ donation.
12. A soldier in war time may not be bound by the previous discussion and it is possible that a soldier may place himself in danger in order to save others. For normative halacha, a rabbi should be consulted.
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