Ask the Rabbi: May Jews save all lives on Shabbat?
While Judaism embraces the extreme value of life, it is not always the supreme value.
Shabbat table Photo: Thinkstock/Imagebank
From the outset, let me state very clearly: Jewish law obligates Jews to save
the lives of all humans, Jews and gentiles alike, even if it entails violating
Shabbat. This is the universal conclusion of all contemporary decisors, despite
confusing media reports of a recent public lecture by a senior Israeli
While this ruling is not disputed, scholars do disagree
regarding the legal argumentation that leads to this consensus
While Judaism embraces the extreme value of life, it is not
always the supreme value. God, the Bible tells us, took the Jewish people out of
Egypt so they could serve Him. This service entails giving up one’s life rather
than committing idolatry as well as the other unconscionable transgressions of
murder and illicit relations.
Given the importance of Shabbat observance,
a biblical reader might have come to believe that this value also trumps
Indeed, in the time of the Hasmoneans, some Jews refused to
go to battle on Shabbat, leading to their quick decimation.
this sentiment, the Talmud declares that the value of life trumps Shabbat
observance (pikuah nefesh doheh et hashabbat). God, the Sages contended,
commands us to “guard my laws and statutes... and live by them” (Leviticus
18:5), but not to die to observe them. Consequently, even in cases when there is
a doubt whether the danger is life-threatening, one still violates Shabbat to
save a life.
Shabbat remains sacrosanct, however, and if it does not
compromise the speed or efficacy of the life-saving efforts, one should minimize
the transgressions performed in the life-saving process.
A NUMBER of
talmudic texts make clear that this understanding only permitted Shabbat
desecration to save fellow Jews.
Some have criticized this interpretation
as falling short of the ethical standards found in the Hippocratic oath. Others
have more notoriously accused Jews of believing that gentile blood is less red
than Jewish blood. One infamous incident occurred in 1965 when an anti-religious
Israeli journalist, Israel Shahak, alleged that he witnessed an Orthodox Jew
refusing to use his telephone to help save a non-Jew. While his inability to
provide any evidence for this incident led many to claim it was a modern version
of a blood libel, it nonetheless generated a public clarification that his claim
was a definitive distortion of Jewish law. Jewish law definitively mandates
saving the lives of all humans, even if it entails violating
While the Talmud never provides a definitive rationale for this
distinction between gentiles and Jews, one passage implies that the belief was
that Jews needed a dispensation to save their own, while non-Jews could supply
their own lifesavers without resorting to Jews to violate Shabbat. Such an
interpretation might justify an “on-call” system for regular healthcare
providers (like hospital rotations), but obviously would not help in an acute
emergency when circumstances dictated that a gentile could only be saved by a
Jew. The Talmud, followed by medieval sages, contended that for the sake of
preventing enmity (mipnei eiva), Jews may violate certain prohibitions. Many
scholars used this dispensation to justify violating transgressions in order to
save the lives of gentiles.
Rabbinic scholars dispute whether
dispensations to prevent enmity may justify breaking a biblical prohibition or
only a rabbinic edict. Be that as it may, Rabbi Moshe Sofer noted that the
failure to save non-Jews would not only create enmity, but could also lead to
gentiles refusing to treat Jews, or even to pogroms. As such, Jews must save the
lives of all humans, even if it entails violating biblical prohibitions on
Shabbat, because a lack of reciprocity endangers the Jewish
This remains true even when one might think that no one would
notice one’s dodging life-saving responsibilities.
argumentation practically results in treating all lives equally, some scholars,
including Rabbi Yehiel Y. Weinberg, have expressed reservations that the logic
stems from overly particularistic and pragmatic considerations. During the
Shahak affair, chief rabbi Yehuda Unterman contended that concerns for enmity
reflected more fundamental beliefs in the importance of peaceful relations
(darchei shalom). While rabbis Hayim David Halevi and Immanuel Jakobovits shared
this position, it was rejected by others who believed this apologetically
reinterpreted a definitively pragmatic argument.
however, have pointed to the 13th-century commentary of Rabbi Menahem Hame’iri,
who contended that the Talmudic failure to apply the dispensation to save the
lives of gentiles only applied in ancient societies where the non- Jewish
majority regularly abused its Jewish inhabitants. In cultures where the larger
population acts on ethical principles, no distinction is made between saving the
life of a Jew and that of a gentile. In the words of Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch,
“Compassion and mercy for all men are the mark of the Jew, just as they are of
The writer, online editor of Tradition and its blog, Text &
Texture (text.rcarabbis.org), teaches at Yeshivat