Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Exceptions to Pikuach Nefesh (Saving a Life)

As many Jews throughout the ages have unfortunately discovered, most mitzvot can be violated for the sake of saving a human life. In fact, it then becomes a mitzvah to disregard that mitzvah. (In other words, saving a life "outranks" the other mitzvah, so that the other one no longer applies.) But not all mitzvot can be disregarded when a life is in danger. The realm of pikuach nefesh (saving a life, specifically a human life) is complicated, but the exceptions are relatively simple in theory. There are 3 or 4, depending on how they are grouped:
  • Idolatry (Some include any chilul Hashem-the defamation of Hashem's name-which is a very big category of mitzvot violations)
  • Murder (Does not include self-defense. Note that killing does not necessarily equal murder. Yay legalese!)
  • Incest and Adultery (Also known as "forbidden relationships," but that can also be a much larger category)
Why these mitzvot and not others? The idea of pikuach nefesh comes from Leviticus/Vayikra 18:5, "You shall therefore keep My statutes, and My ordinances, which if a man do, he shall live by them: I am HaShem." From this psuk (verse), the rabbis concluded that "That he shall live by them, and not that he shall die by them." But if that is the case, why shouldn't we be able to violate any mitzvah for the purpose of saving our lives or the life of another? 

I don't know the answer to that, at least not the "official" answer. My guess is that each of the exceptions listed above denies Hashem and His creation. Unjustified murder is acting like a Gd, doling out life and death. Incest and adultery deny the honor of the relationships closest to us, demeaning them as a person and family member. Idolatry is pretty self-explanatory. I feel like I've heard this idea before, but I don't remember where.

But playing devil's advocate, the rabbis say that violating the laws of Shabbat are a desecration of Hashem's name (wow, that's redundant) because violating Shabbat is denying that Hashem created the world in 6 days and rested on the 7th. Given my reasoning above, it seems like desecrating the Sabbath should also be an exception. Going even further, if Hashem really gave us mandatory oral and written law at Sinai, then violating any mitzvah would be denying that Hashem created humanity/the world and chose Israel as His nation. In that case, it would be prohibited to violate any mitzvah even to save a life. Where would we draw the line?



  1. In Tanya Chapter 24, The Alter Rebbe points out the same discrepancy between Shabbos and "The Big Three".

    If someone willfully violates the Shabbos he is considered as if he worshiped idols, and therefore his Shechita is no longer accepted (He is actually considered to have willfully transgressed all the Mitzvos, but the Alter Rebbe is using Shechita to illustrate a point). However, the Shechita of someone who has illicit sexual relations is still acceptable (in other words, it is not considered as if the one who had illicit sexual relations transgressed all the Mitzvos, just that one).

    This tells us that breaking shabbos is a harsher transgression.

    Yet even though Shabbos seems to be worse, one is allowed to break the Shabbos to save a life, but is not allowed to have illicit sexual relations to save a life.

    Rather, the Alter Rebbe says, whether or not we must give up our life instead of transgressing the mitzvos, is simply the way G-d wants it, and is not tied to the severity of the mitzvos.

    (The Alter Rebbe is explaining that every sin transgress is tantamount to idolatry, since it is denying G-d's unity. We convince ourselves that some sins are lighter than others, but in truth every sin we do we separates ourselves from G-d. After some sins however, it may be easier to restore our connection to G-d, depending on the severity of the blemish caused by the sin).

  2. I can't think of a situation outside of duress where one would be forced to break those three mitzvot for a human life. And all bets are off as to whether a life is actually being saved under duress, anyway. Other observances (particularly on shabbat) do interfere with emergency situations: everything from travel, to stoking a fire for hot water, to stitching up a wound, to writing notes to ensure that the person has consistent care. Some of these would need to be broken in antiquity, others need to be broken today. I'm just glad that this is the set of mitzvot we're allowed to break: everything reasonable in an emergency situation.

    This brings up a few interesting points:
    (1) There are many ways of going about saving a life. You should try to break as few mitzvot in the process if you can give the same care either way. Israeli hospitals are decked out with shabbos-friendly switches and technology, for instance.
    (2) Saving a life is a great mitzvah, but training to save a life is not (it pays off in the former later on). I've heard that medical students generally should be careful to observe shabbat in situations where they're not needed in the hospital.

    Interesting sidenote: if an orthodox doctor has call on shabbat, is he allowed to ask a secular jew to take his call? The first impression I had, and most people have is NO! Moshe Feinstein rules differently. He says that not only is it permissible, the orthodox doctor SHOULD pass off his call. That way, the orthodox doctor can observe shabbat from home, and the secular doctor, by saving lives in the hospital, is spending his shabbat following halacha. There's more observance all around!

    1. The three mitzvot that are inviolable are those that raise us up from the level of savagery that prevailed in biblical times--and is with us now. A people who worship one G-d and obey His commands will not fall into idolatry and the barbaric practices associated with "pick-a-diety." A people who do not murder affirm the sanctity of life. A people who hold marriage and sexual continence sacred will not give way to their base insticts.

      "Who is strong? He who subdues his [evil] impulse, as it is said: He who is slow to anger is better than a strong man; he who rules his spirit is better than one who conquers a city.'"--Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot 4:1

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  4. It;'s said you can disobey your parents in only 3 situations:
    1) Choosing a mate
    2) if they ask you to desecrate Sbabbat
    3) I foget the third, but I think it's onr of the Big Three