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 521 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Shabbat table 521
(photo credit: 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 scholar.
While this ruling is not disputed, scholars do disagree regarding the legal argumentation that leads to this consensus position.
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 lifesaving.
Indeed, in the time of the Hasmoneans, some Jews refused to go to battle on Shabbat, leading to their quick decimation.
To negate 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 Shabbat.
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 community.
This remains true even when one might think that no one would notice one’s dodging life-saving responsibilities.
WHILE THIS 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.
Recent scholars, 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 God.”
The writer, online editor of Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture (, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.