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Avoiding Emergency Shabbat Violation


Based on a shiur by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l

Translated and adapted by Rav Eliezer Kwass


            How much must one do before Shabbat to minimize Shabbat desecration?  We know that on Shabbat one must do whatever possible to save a life - "pikuach nefesh" (Yoma 84 and elsewhere) - when a situation presents itself unexpectedly.  However, what if one knows in advance that he or she will have to encounter pikuach nefesh situations on Shabbat?  Our instinctive reaction is that one should make all possible preparations to avoid having to desecrate Shabbat.  True, the Torah demands that we violate the Shabbat laws to save lives; but if it is within our means, we should also attempt to prevent clashes between Shabbat and "pikuach nefesh."  Nevertheless, to what lengths must we go in order to minimize this clash?

            For example, medical professionals and women in advanced stages of pregnancy might be able to prepare beforehand in order to avoid desecration of Shabbat.  The pregnant woman nearing her due date should take into account the possibility of a Shabbat birth.  How?  Is it enough to turn off the inside lights of the car so they will not automatically turn on when the door opens?  Or, perhaps she should have to sleep in walking distance from a hospital in order to avoid driving altogether?

            Our focus, then, is the extent to which one must prepare PRIOR to Shabbat for life-threatening situations that may arise ON Shabbat.

            There is one frequently occurring case that highlights the clash between the ideals of pikuach nefesh and the mandates of Shabbat: circumcision on Shabbat.  [However, we will note the possible uniqueness of this situation.]


            The writings of Rav Zerachia Ha-levi, the Ba'al Ha-ma'or, seem to contain two contradictory passages.

            The first (Shabbat 7a in the pages of the Rif) concerns departing on a sea voyage during the days before Shabbat:

"Concerning the statement of the Sages that one should not embark on a sea voyage three days before Shabbat (Shabbat 19a):... It seems to me that there is another reason behind both this law and the prohibition to begin a siege against a Gentile city [within three days of Shabbat].  Both of them involve danger; and, since three days before Shabbat is considered 'before Shabbat,' [then if one begins these activities less than three days before Shabbat] it appears as if one is RELYING ON BEING ABLE TO PUSH ASIDE SHABBAT, for nothing stands before pikuach nefesh.  The same would apply to beginning a journey through the desert or any other dangerous place where one would have to desecrate the Shabbat."

            According to this passage, the reason for the prohibition of three days is "appearing to rely on future [legal] Shabbat desecration."  Thus, it is problematic to place oneself in a situation where one knows that he will rely on pikuach nefesh to push aside Shabbat laws. One has transgressed at the moment he decides to take the journey.  However, this prohibition seems to be only RABBINIC in nature: had it been a biblical prohibition, it would have been forbidden even prior to three days before Shabbat.

            The second passage of the Ba'al Ha-ma'or seems to contradict this idea.  He writes (Shabbat 53a in Rif pages, s.v. Katav):

"... He [the Rif] should not have said that [one can heat water on Shabbat for the child's circumcision even if the prepared water spilled BEFORE the circumcision], but rather: 'The child can be washed as normal before the circumcision using water that has been heated before Shabbat.  After the circumcision, if the hot water spilled, one can even heat water for him ON SHABBAT ITSELF because the child is in danger.  This only applies if the water spilled after the circumcision, though.  If the water spilled before the circumcision, THE CIRCUMCISION IS DELAYED and Shabbat laws are not pushed aside.'"

            This source implies that according to the Ba'al Ha-ma'or there is a BIBLICAL prohibition against placing the baby in a situation of piku'ach nefesh (via circumcision).  According to the Torah, the circumcision is ideally to be performed on the eighth day; here, it is delayed until after Shabbat because the water spilled.  Had there merely been a RABBINIC prohibition to place oneself in a situation requiring Shabbat desecration, it would have been permissible to perform the biblical mitzva of circumcising the infant and then to heat new water once the prepared water spilled.

            Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt"l presented two possible ways to resolve this contradiction.

            1. The decision to circumcise (despite the spilled water) takes place ON SHABBAT ITSELF, while the decision to set sail takes place A FEW DAYS BEFORE SHABBAT.  The prohibitions of Shabbat are already in effect in the first case, but not in the second.  Therefore, Shabbat takes precedence over circumcision on a biblical level, whereas there is only a rabbinic prohibition against beginning a sea journey during the days before Shabbat.

            2. Circumcision INHERENTLY INVOLVES SHABBAT DESECRATION, but its preliminaries and adjuncts do not.  Only that which could not have been prepared before Shabbat is permitted, i.e. the incision itself, but not heating water.  A circumcision that will be necessarily linked with the Shabbat desecration of heating water is itself prohibited.  In contrast, beginning a journey within three days before Shabbat DOES NOT BY DEFINITION INVOLVE PROHIBITED SHABBAT ACTIVITY.

            Moreover, one can differentiate between the cases of the Ba'al Ha-ma'or and the case we raised at the beginning.  The Ba'al Ha-ma'or deals with whether one can put himself in a situation where he will have to desecrate Shabbat in order to save a life.  Perhaps one cannot extrapolate to our concern - wherein a life-threatening situation will DEFINITELY occur and the question is whether there is an obligation to minimize Shabbat desecration.  Certainly, after the fact, where one did not prepare before Shabbat and the life-threatening situation came up, it is permissible to desecrate Shabbat to do whatever necessary for pikuach nefesh (as opposed to circumcision and Temple service).

            [One could go a step further and distinguish between preparing before Shabbat in order to avoid having to desecrate Shabbat, and pushing off the life-threatening situation itself to another day (for example, administering drugs to induce labor before Shabbat).  Clearly, there is no need to artificially change when the pikuach nefesh situation will take place.  It also makes sense not to distinguish between the two cases.]


            A dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva about preparations for a circumcision is quoted by the gemara in Shabbat (130a):

"Rabbi Eliezer said, One is permitted to chop wood [on Shabbat] to make coals to make iron [to make a circumcision knife].

Rabbi Akiva stated a rule: All work that could have been done before Shabbat does not override Shabbat restrictions, but that which could not have been done before Shabbat overrides Shabbat."

            In Pesachim (66a) Rabbi Akiva rules consistently in this vein with regard to all mitzvot, not just circumcision. One explanation posits that Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer argue about whether the laws of Shabbat are PUSHED ASIDE ("dechuya") in order to perform a circumcision, or are totally WAIVED ("hutra").  According to this approach, Rabbi Eliezer maintains that the laws of Shabbat are waived; therefore, even preparations that could have been made before Shabbat are permissible on Shabbat.  Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, maintains that the Shabbat laws are merely pushed aside, demanding that one minimize Shabbat desecration for the sake of saving a life.

            This is a very difficult position to uphold when one considers a similar argument between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer concerning the Temple service on Shabbat.  The gemara (Pesachim 69b) asks why Rav Yehuda must proclaim that we rule like Rabbi Akiva in two nearly identical arguments.  [It points to the uniqueness of circumcision (a thirteen-fold covenant) and that of the Pesach sacrifice (punishable by "karet").]  It is clear that the gemara viewed the two Tannaim as taking similar conceptual positions in both arguments.  However, EVERYONE AGREES that the Shabbat laws are waived - not pushed aside - for the Temple service on Shabbat.  Thus, the argument must be based on a different principle; Rabbi Akiva cannot possibly maintain that Shabbat laws are merely pushed aside in favor of saving a life.

            There is another way of explaining the conceptual basis of Rabbi Akiva's distinction between what could and what could not have been done before Shabbat.  [Rabbi Eliezer might simply maintain that Shabbat is totally waived and one can do whatever is needed in order to perform a circumcision.]

            Rashi (Shabbat 130a) explains that "work that could have been performed before Shabbat" refers to preparations for the circumcision and "work that could not have been performed before Shabbat" refers to the circumcision itself.  According to Rashi, there is no essential difference between the circumcision itself and those preparations that make it possible.  It is simply not possible to perform circumcision before Shabbat because its time has not yet come.

            One could, however, see a fundamental difference between the ACT of circumcision and the PREPARATION it requires.  The Oral Law contains a special directive to perform an eighth-day circumcision on Shabbat.  However, there is no independent derivation permitting preparations for circumcision on Shabbat; they are permitted only because they are considered essential to the circumcision.  Furthermore, only those preparations that could not have been performed before Shabbat are defined as essential to the circumcision and are included in the waiver; those that could have been prepared before Shabbat are not included in the waiver.

            Nevertheless, we cannot differentiate between the act of saving a life and the preparations for such an act: both are considered part of the mechanism of pikuach nefesh.  We must do whatever is needed in order to save a life; even if one did not prepare beforehand, he must still take the necessary steps in order to save the life.

            The Maggid Mishneh (Hilkhot Shabbat 2:14) rules that one is permitted to tend to any of the needs of a patient whose life is in danger, even those that are not essential to saving his life.  One can, for example, extinguish a candle so the sick person can sleep better, even though his life does not hinge on the extra sleep.  Within the Maggid Mishneh's approach, we can distinguish - as does Rabbi Akiva regarding circumcision - between what could and what could not have been tended to before Shabbat.


            The Or Zaru'a (2:38) was asked whether people who desecrated Shabbat for pikuach nefesh require atonement ("kappara").  His answer: they do not.  However, we might ask about one who had the opportunity to prevent some Shabbat desecration through properly preparing ahead.  Thought should be given to the question: would he need atonement for the "unnecessary" Shabbat violation?

            In any case, the contrast to circumcision is clear.  A patient can never be allowed to die in order to avoid extra Shabbat desecration because someone in the hospital did not make the necessary preparations.  The only question is, after the fact, whether atonement is required for his lack of preparation.  However, a circumcision can be pushed off if the knife was not made before Shabbat.  Similarly, if hot water to clean off the child after the circumcision was not prepared in advance, we are not allowed to actively create a new situation of pikuach nefesh by performing the circumcision.


            In general, some view pikuach nefesh on Shabbat as unique in Halakha; perhaps there is more reason to be lenient about violating Shabbat in order to save lives than other mitzvot.

            One can suggest two reasons to support this position:

1. Even those who generally maintain that pikuach nefesh simply pushes Halakha aside, consider Shabbat laws to be completely waived.

2. Whereas in general we derive the lesson that pikuach nefesh overrides other halakhot from, "You should live by them" [the mitzvot - and not die by them], this lesson for Shabbat is derived from other verses, perhaps indicating extra leniency.

            Others, however, maintain that there is reason to be more hesitant about transgressing Shabbat to save a life than transgressing other mitzvot.  According to the Smag and the Yerei'im (410, 411), it seems that there is reason to be stringent with regard to Shabbat violation to save lives.  Aside from the prohibition against doing work on Shabbat, they suggest that there is an additional element of maintaining the sanctity of Shabbat ("shemira") and honoring Shabbat as well.


            When one is likely to encounter a life-threatening situation on Shabbat, one should ideally prepare beforehand to avoid Shabbat desecration, as long as it does not cause any unusual difficulties.  However, there is no clear halakhic obligation to do so and, therefore, if such preparations will seriously hamper one's enjoyment of Shabbat (oneg Shabbat), one need not extend oneself.  Therefore, great halakhic authorities ruled [see Shmirat Shabbat Ke-hilkhata 36:7 in the name of the Chazon Ish zt"l and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt"l - editor's note] that a woman near her due date need not spend Shabbat within walking distance of a hospital in order to avoid having to drive on Shabbat.

[This article was not reviewed by Harav Lichtenstein zt”l.]



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