Shabbat and Gentile Lives

by Gil Student


The recent passing of Dr. Israel Shahak[*] marks the end of a very controversial career. Dr. Shahak, a chemistry professor and human rights activist who spent a lifetime criticizing Israel's treatment of Palestinians, will probably be best remembered for his theories about the basis of the treatment he so denounced. He proposed that Israel's relations with Palestinians are based on a history of religious racism. Jews, Shahak claims, have been so conditioned by their religion to hate Gentiles that even the anti-religious Zionists have retained this aspect of their Jewish heritage. Through scholarship with which an average Yeshiva student can find fault, Shahak culled source after source from Talmud and halakhah that he claimed demonstrated that Judaism is a fundamentally racist and hateful religion[1]. While his scholarship may have been less than rigorous, some of his points hit close to mark. It behooves us, as sensitive Jews devoted to halakhah, to examine his work and attempt to wade through the mistakes and evaluate whether, indeed, he may have raised issues of concern. This is certainly not an attempt to redeem the legacy of a man who has caused so much anti-Jewish hatred and violence. It is an effort to learn from one of our critics.

This author is not arrogant enough to try to judge Judaism based on whatever artificial values are currently popular. However, the attempt to understand Judaism based on the ideals of our contemporary society serves a number of purposes. The first is to note contradictions between these ideals and those of the Torah as we understand it. As Jews committed to Torah, we need to know when our values are not the same as those of the society around us, if not for our own understanding then to know what to reject from the outside world. Second, if one particular aspect of Torah seems to contradict a value that emanates from another part of Torah then we need to resolve this conflict. And third, this effort can help us arrive at a deeper understanding of Torah. We hope that this essay will fulfill all three goals on its chosen topic.

More than anything, the episode that propelled Dr. Shahak into the international spotlight was his claim to have witnessed in 1965 an injured Gentile left to die because an Orthodox Jew would not allow his telephone to be used on Shabbat to call for help[2]. While it is certainly difficult to understand exactly what prohibition is involved in allowing someone else to use one's telephone on Shabbat[3], Shahak claims that he contacted a rabbinic court that confirmed that this Orthodox Jew's actions were appropriate and even pious. Subsequent to this, Shahak alerted the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz which reported his story and thrust this episode into the public view. Attempts to verify Shahak's story have failed and no deceased Gentile or rabbinic court could be identified as having taken part in this tale[4]. However, this did not deter the story from spreading and creating controversy.

The details of the story, or whether it even happened, are not relevant right now. What is important is the idea that Shahak so maliciously tried to demonstrate. Let us, therefore, examine this issue. May we violate Shabbat in order to save someone's life and, if so, why and for whose life?


It has become ingrained within the Jewish psyche, and rightly so, that Shabbat must be violated to save a life. The proverbial "man on the street" will not hesitate to report that pikuah nefesh overrides Shabbat considerations. However, while the practical rule is well known, the halakhic reasoning behind it is probably not as famous. Many will likely explain that human life is more important than Shabbat, and, as we shall see, there is basis for this explanation[5]. Is this reason correct? Let us examine it. (To avoid confusion, let us state at the outset that we will conclude that this reason is incorrect.)

This explanation requires immediate qualification when it is noted that, at least theoretically, Shabbat may not be violated for a Gentile[6]. While the ruling that allows violating Shabbat to save the life of a Gentile has been generally accepted[7], it is for an ancillary reason and does not contradict the theoretical premise that Shabbat should not be violated to save a Gentile. Therefore, the reasoning behind pikuah nefesh must be amended to state that a Jewish life is more important than Shabbat.

From this theoretical stance, Dr. Shahak inferred that Gentile lives are unimportant to Judaism. But is this true? Does the evidence support this explanation?

Evidently not, when it is noted that, theoretically, Shabbat may not be violated to save the life of a non-observant Jew[8]. While again, for an ancillary reason, Shabbat is violated[9], the common explanation for pikuah nefesh must be modified to state that only the life of an observant Jew is more important than Shabbat. This alone disproves Shahak’s inference. The permission to violate Shabbat is not dependent on race or religion because non-observant Jews are included with Gentiles.

To complicate matters even more, Ramban[10] writes that we violate Shabbat to save a Ger Toshav, a Gentile who has officially accepted on himself to live a righteous life. It now seems that some Gentile lives and some Jewish lives are more important than Shabbat and some not. The logic that pikuah nefesh is about the importance of lives is no longer as compelling as it once was. Indeed, we would be remiss if we did not search for a more viable explanation.

As we shall see, a close reading of the sources shows that there is no evaluation that some lives are more important than Shabbat while others are not. There is no implicit message that Gentile lives are less significant than Jewish lives. No life is more important than Shabbat. What are more important are the future commandments that a person will observe. In other words, the one commandment of Shabbat may be violated to allow someone to fulfill many commandments in the future. No life, whether Jewish, Gentile, observant, or non-observant, is more important than following the G-d-given laws of Shabbat. However, many commandments are more important than one commandment and only they can override the Shabbat regulations.

The locus classicus for the source of why saving a life overrides Shabbat is a passage in Yoma (85a-b) in which six Tannaitic and one Amoraic reasons are given. The last Tannaitic reason is as follows:

R. Shimon ben Menasia said: "The Children of Israel shall observe the Shabbat [to make the Shabbat an eternal covenant for generations]" (Exodus 31:16) The Torah said to violate one Shabbat for him so that he may observe many future Shabbatot.

According to R. Shimon ben Menasia, part of observing any given Shabbat is the making of Shabbat into an eternal covenant. In the case of saving someone's life, violating Shabbat to save the endangered and allow him to observe future Shabbatot serves more to make Shabbat an eternal covenant than observing Shabbat and allowing the person to die[11]. However, the Talmud notes that this only applies to someone who will definitely observe many future Shabbatot. The Scriptural exegesis only permits violation of one Shabbat when there is a certainty that this will lead to the observance of many future Shabbatot. When there is a doubt, for example a terminally ill patient who may not live until the next Shabbat, the verse gives no permission to violate Shabbat regulations. Therefore, the conclusion of the Talmudic passage is that only the Amoraic reason of Shmuel satisfies all of the questions. Shmuel is quoted by R. Yehudah as saying:

"And live by them" (Leviticus 18:5) and not that one should die by them.

The implication is unclear but seems to be that one's observance of Torah commandments should not lead to one's death. How this leads to the conclusion that one person can violate Shabbat to save another person is not explained[12]. However, the Talmud assumes that this applies even to a case of doubt.


1) It appears from the passage that all of the Tannaitic reasons are rejected, including R. Shimon ben Menasia's, because they do not apply to cases of doubt[13]. Shmuel's reason is accepted as authoritative and is the one most familiar to the average Jew. With this in mind, the following passage from Shabbat (151b) is quite surprising.

It is taught: R. Shimon ben Gamliel said, "We violate Shabbat for a one day old baby. The Torah said to violate one Shabbat for him so that he may observe many Shabbatot."

If this reason has been rejected, why is it brought again? Why does the Talmud not note that it is rejected and bring Shmuel's reason? While it can be argued that this entire passage disagrees with that in Yoma or was composed prior to it, the following post-Talmudic statements cannot be dismissed in that way.

2) The author of Halakhot Gedolot[14] says that Shabbat may be violated even to save a fetus. Ramban[15] explains that even though a fetus is not a person and someone who kills it is not executed[16], we still say “Violate one Shabbat for him so that he may observe many Shabbatot."Surely Ramban knew that this reason was rejected in Yoma.

3) While discussing the emergency powers of the high court, Rambam[17] writes that the court can temporarily suspend a commandment or prohibition if this action will serve to keep many in the fold or assist many to return to Judaism. Rambam concludes with the following:

Just like a doctor will cut off someone's arm or leg so that his totality will live, so too the court can rule at certain times to temporarily violate some commandments in order that they will all [eventually] be fulfilled. It is like the early sages said, “Violate one Shabbat for him so that he may observe many Shabbatot."

Again, we see this rejected opinion quoted. Here, it is cited not because of its exegetical merit but because of its compelling logic. This will prove to be significant.

4) R. Menahem Meiri, in his commentary to the Mishnah in Yoma (83a), writes that we violate Shabbat to extend a dying person’s life, even minimally, because in that short time he may repent and confess his sins (to G-d). This seems to imply that the reason for violating Shabbat is not that the temporary life is more important. Rather, the potential mitzvah[18] Yet, that seems to be R. Shimon ben Menasia’s reject view.

5) R. Yosef Karo in his Beit Yosef[19] deals with the unfortunate case of a young girl who is kidnapped by Christians, a not uncommon occurrence in Medieval Europe. May Shabbat be violated to rescue this girl even though her life is not in danger?R. Karo concludes that one may violate Shabbat to rescue this girl and rules that way in his Shulhan Arukh[20]. While his precise logic will be dealt with shortly, it is noteworthy that R. Avraham Gombiner in his Magen Avraham[21] explains this ruling by invoking the rule “Violate one Shabbat for him so that he may observe many Shabbatot." Since only through violation of Shabbat will this girl remain an observant Jew, the potential of many future observed Shabbatot overrides the prohibitions of this one Shabbat. Yet, how can this rule be invoked if it is rejected in Yoma?

6) While we have already quoted the talmudic passage that discusses life threatening situations on Shabbat, there is another passage that discusses in general what to do when the observance of a commandment poses a threat to one's life. In Sanhedrin (74a) there is a majority opinion that a person can never violate adultery, forbidden sexual union, and murder even if he must be martyred for this stance. However, any other commandment may be violated rather than sacrifice his life.This is derived from the verse (Leviticus 18:5) "And live by them." There is also a differentiation between public and private actions and times of peace versus times of oppression[22].

On the following column (74b), the Talmud debates whether a Gentile must sacrifice his life before violating one of his seven commandments[23]. Tosafot[24] record the following question. How it is possible to suggest that a Gentile is not obligated to give up his life? The source for the permission to violate the law is from "And live by them" which only applies to Jews[25]. Gentiles do not have this latitude and therefore must accept martyrdom. Rather, it is explained in Tosafot, "And live by them" is not the basis of saving one's life by violating a commandment. We already know that we should do that. However, once we derive that we cannot violate idolatry, forbidden sexual union, and murder perhaps we will compare all commandments to those three. It is for this that we need "And live by them." This verse teaches us not to extend the stricture from those three prohibitions to all commandments. However, the basic underlying reasoning, before we arrive at "And live by them," is that we violate commandments to save our lives and this applies to both Jews and Gentiles. What is this reasoning? R. Reuven Margoliyot[26] suggests that it is “Violate one Shabbat for him so that he may observe many Shabbatot." Here, too, we use the logic of violating one commandment so that many will be fulfilled[27].

It is now much harder to say that this reason has been rejected in favor of "And live by them."< While that dismissal seems to be clear in Yoma, Tosafot imply that the two reasons coexist. However, if they are complementary, why does the Gemara in Yoma reject the reason of “Violate one Shabbat…"[28]?


Let us return to the passage in Yoma (85a-b) and, this time, analyze it more carefully. While the source for this passage is the Mekhilta on Exodus 31:13, we shall focus on the more familiar passage in the Gemara and note differences in notes[29] For the sake of presentation, we will divide the passage into a number of sections and discuss each section individually.

R. Yishmael, R. Akiva, and R. Elazar ben Azariah[30] were once walking and Levi HaSadar and R. Yishmael the son of R. Elazar ben Azariah were walking behind them. The following question was asked to them: From where do we know that saving someone's life -- pikuah nefesh -- overrides Shabbat?

These three great sages of the Mishnah were walking and two of their students were following. The students asked a question and put their teachers on the spot. As an aside, it is interesting to note that the assumption of the question is that saving a life overrides Shabbat observance. Evidently, this was a pre-existing tradition and the students requested halakhic justification of this permission. As with so much of the Talmudic material, this was part of the oral Torah transmitted through the ages. These sages were only interested in relating this tradition to sources.

As we shall see, each of these three sages answered in a technical fashion. Rather than offering a conceptual reason why saving a life should override Shabbat, they tried to prove logically that it did. However, from their proofs we can deduce an underlying reason for this halakhah.

R. Yishmael answered: It says, "If the thief is discovered while tunneling in[, and he is struck and dies, there is no blood-guilt on his account]" (Exodus 22:1). If there, where this thief may be coming for money or may be coming to kill, and bloodshed renders the land impure and causes the divine presence to leave Israel, one is still permitted to kill him to save one's life kal va-homer (a fortiori) that saving someone's life should override Shabbat.

R. Yishmael derives the permission to violate Shabbat from the verse regarding someone whose house is invaded by an intruder. Unsure whether this intruder is merely a thief or is a murderer, this person has Biblical permission to defend himself even if that means killing the intruder. Even though bloodshed is a terrible sin, it is permitted for this person to commit bloodshed in defense of himself. Saving his own life overrides the prohibition of bloodshed.

R. Yishmael argues that if when there is a doubt whether one's life is in danger one can still override a prohibition, and this prohibition is a very serious one, then certainly a definite danger to one's life overrides the lesser prohibition of Shabbat. In other words, if possibly saving my life is more important than murder then certainly a definite saving of my life is more important than Shabbat. According to R. Yishmael, life, as we suggested earlier, is more important than Shabbat observance.

R. Akiva answered[31]: "If a man acts intentionally against his fellow [to kill him with guile, from My altar shall you take him to die]" (Exodus 21:14) -- From My altar but not from on top of My altar. Rabbah bar Bar Hanah said in the name of R. Yohanan: This was taught only regarding to kill but to let live, even from on top of My altar. If there, where there is a doubt whether his words are substantive and the worship overrides Shabbat kal va-homer that saving a life should override Shabbat.

This requires a bit of explanation. The verse tells us that a murderer may be taken away from the altar. However, the implication of the verse is that only someone who is next to the altar may be taken away. Someone who is on top of the altar, i.e. in the middle of the sacrificial service, cannot be taken away. The court's officers must wait for the worship to finish before taking away the suspect. R. Akiva implies, and R. Yohanan explains, that this is only regarding someone wanted for committing a crime. If the officers wish to take him away to punish him, they must wait until after he is finished. However, if there is someone else on trial and this person's testimony is required to acquit him, then saving the accused's life overrides the service and the witness is taken away from on top of the altar.

R. Akiva then argues that since life overrides the sacrificial worship and the worship overrides Shabbat, logic dictates that saving a life should also override Shabbat. Here, however, we are unable to detect an underlying reason for this permission. All that we know is that saving someone's life overrides the sacrificial services and Shabbat. While we can speculate as to R. Akiva's reason, the texts do not give us an indication.[32]

R. Elazar answered: If circumcision, which affects only one of the 248 limbs[33] in a human, overrides Shabbat kal va-homer that an entire body should override Shabbat.

R. Elazar offers what, at first, seems like a very straightforward answer based on the accepted rule that circumcision of an eight-day old baby is performed on Shabbat[34]. If we will violate Shabbat for only one limb, certainly we will violate Shabbat to save a life.

However, on closer examination the logic is somewhat elusive. Circumcision and saving a life are not comparable. The former is fulfilling the Biblical mandate to circumcise a child. The latter is about saving someone's life. Just because we perform a mitzvah on a limb on Shabbat does not imply that we will save someone's life. R. Hananel[35] suggests that an uncircumcised child is, in fact, in a life-threatening danger[36]. >From the fact that we will override Shabbat to perform the life-saving circumcision we can infer that we will override Shabbat for any life-saving activity. Yet, the kal va-homer is then lost. Since both circumcision and saving a life are equivalent, there is no lesser case that implies the circumstance in a greater case. The language used by R. Elazar ben Azariah makes R. Hananel's explanation difficult. Additionally, only circumcision of an eight-day old baby overrides Shabbat. A nine-day old baby who, for whatever reasons, is still uncircumcised cannot be circumcised on Shabbat[37].He must wait until Sunday. However, according to R. Hananel this child is also in danger and his circumcision should also override Shabbat[38].

Rashba[39] offers another explanation that alleviates all of these concerns. As he explains in the name of Tosafot[40], circumcision is a mitzvah. If performing this one mitzvah overrides Shabbat, then certainly we can save a life that will perform many mitzvot. It is not danger to someone's life that overrides Shabbat observance. Rather, it is the fulfillment, or potential fulfillment, of commandments. We are permitted to save someone's life on Shabbat because this person will observe commandments in the future. According to R. Elazar ben Azariah, commandments, not life, override Shabbat observance.

Thus in the earliest discussion of why saving someone's life overrides Shabbat we find a basic disagreement. According to R. Yishmael, life overrides Shabbat. According to R. Elazar ben Azariah, commandments override Shabbat. Alas, R. Akiva's view remains undetermined.

This is the end of the discussion from the walk in which the students asked their teachers from where we know that saving a life overrides Shabbat. However, appended to this story are answers given by later generations. Unlike the earlier answers, which were attempts to derive an answer from logic, these answers are based on biblical exegesis.

R. Yossi ben R. Yehudah[41] said: "However (akh), you must observe My Sabbaths" (Exodus 31:13) -- It could have been for everything but we learn from "however (akh)" to distinguish[42].

Here we see an example of rabbinic examination of the precise language of Scripture. What purpose does the word "akh" serve in this verse? English translations may render it "however" or "nevertheless" but these translations do not necessarily represent the precise Hebrew meaning. The Talmud[43] has many cases in which the word "akh" is shown to separate out an exceptional case44]. Its purpose in a biblical sentence is to limit the statement much like "however" can do. For example, "Walk slowly; however, while playing sports run quickly." Here, "however" limits the previous statement. In Hebrew, "rak" serves that purpose. Akh" similarly limits a statement. However, rather than limiting a previous statement it implies that the current statement is a limit."Run specifically while playing sports." Here, "specifically" shows that the current statement that one should run while playing sports is an exception. >From that sentence, we know that most times one should not run.

In our verse, we are told that we must observe Shabbat. "Akh" shows that this statement is limited and teaches us that this is an exception to the rule. How can observing Shabbat be an exception to the rule?The key to answering this question is to note that "Sabbaths" is in plural. We are told that we must observe many Shabbatot and that this is an exception to the rule. R. Yossi ben Yehudah made the connection between this grammatical analysis and the already existing halakhah that saving a life overrides Shabbat observance. If someone's life is in danger, and should he perish he would obviously not be able to observe any further Shabbatot, one Shabbat may be violated in order to enable him to observe many future Shabbatot. In other words, observing many Shabbatot is the exception to the rule of observing one Shabbat. The exception that "akh" implies is that Shabbat can be set aside in order to facilitate the observance of many Shabbatot[45].

In relation to the dispute between R. Yishmael and R. Elazar ben Azariah over whether life overrides Shabbat or commandments override Shabbat, it seems that R. Yossi ben Yehudah would side with R. Elazar ben Azariah. R. Yossi ben Yehudah sees commandments, observance of future Shabbatot, as overriding the prohibitions of Shabbat.

R. Yonatan ben Yosef[46] said: "For it is holy to you" (Exodus 31:14) -- It is given to your hands and not you to its hands.

This is a very simple and straightforward reason. Shabbat is given to people and not vice versa. Therefore, a person's life takes precedence over Shabbat. Within the dispute between R. Yishmael and R. Elazar ben Azariah, R. Yonatan ben Yosef is clearly on R. Yishmael's side that life overrides Shabbat.

R. Shimon ben Menasia[47] said: "The Children of Israel shall observe the Shabbat [to make the Shabbat an eternal covenant for generations]" (Exodus 31:16) The Torah said to violate one Shabbat for him so that he may observe many future Shabbatot.

This is the explanation that was discussed towards the beginning of this essay. R. Shimon ben Menasia clearly states that one may violate Shabbat if that violation leads to the observance of future Shabbatot. He agrees with R. Elazar ben Azariah that commandments override Shabbat and not life[48].

After these six Tannaitic answers to the question of from where do we know that saving a life overrides Shabbat, the Talmud gives us one Amoraic answer[49].

R. Yehudah said in the name of Shmuel: If I was there, I would have said that my reason is better than all of yours. "And live by them" (Leviticus 18:5) and not that one should die by them.

As we have already explained, Shmuel's answer, which is accepted by this Talmudic passage as final, is explained by Tosafot as presuming that one may violate Shabbat in order to facilitate future observance of Shabbat. "And live by them" only teaches us not to draw the wrong inference and assume that since with regard to idolatry, forbidden sexual union, and murder one must give up one's life, so too by every mitzvah. To prevent that incorrect comparison, the Torah tells us "And live by them." However, the underlying reason why we may violate a precept to save someone's life is that he will thereby be able to fulfill future commandments.

Thus we see that aside from the seven-way dispute over the Scriptural/logical basis for this halakhah, there is a more fundamental dispute over its nature. According to R. Yishmael and R. Yonatan ben Yosef, saving a life overrides Shabbat because a life is more important than Shabbat observance. However, according to R. Elazar ben Azariah, R. Yossi ben Yehudah, R. Shimon ben Menasia, and Shmuel, only future observance of commandments overrides current prohibitions and allows the saving of a life on Shabbat. It is not worldly concerns that override the spirituality of Shabbat. Rather the spiritual value of future observance overrides the current Shabbat. This is the view that is accepted by the Talmud.


What we have seen is that while the Talmud rejects the many different derivations of the permission to violate Shabbat in order to save a life, it does not necessarily reject the underlying logics. Indeed, many of the different derivations agree regarding the logic. We can say that R. Shimon ben Menasia’s phrase “Violate one Shabbat for him so that he may observe many future Shabbatot” is not unique to his derivation. It is a statement to which two other Tannaim and Shmuel would agree. Thus, when the Talmud accepts Shmuel’s derivation, it is implicitly accepting R. Shimon ben Menasia’s reason (but not his derivation) because, conceptually, he agrees with Shmuel.

Given that, when the Talmud in Shabbat (151b) cites R. Shimon ben Menasia’s logic of “Violate one Shabbat for him so that he may observe many future Shabbatot” it is not siding with R. Shimon ben Menasia in the argument over the derivation of this rule. Rather, it is using his eloquent phrasing to represent the majority and final opinion regarding the logic of the permission. Ramban, too, utilizes this phrasing to explain why Shabbat may be violated to save a fetus. Similarly, Meiri used this logic, which is accepted by the Talmud, to explain the underlying Mishnah.

This logic, to which Shmuel agrees, is, according to Tosafot, the underlying reason of saving one's life by violating a commandment. This also explains why the Rambam, whose passion for noting Biblical sources of laws is well documented, only cited the logic of “Violate one Shabbat…" and not its Scriptural derivation. According to Shmuel, there is no Biblical source for this permission.

Let us return to R. Yosef Karo's discussion. He ruled that Shabbat may be violated to save a young girl from apostasy and R. Avraham Gombiner cited “Violate one Shabbat…" as a basis for this ruling. Not unbeknownst to R. Gombiner, R. Karo cited as his basis the language used in Shabbat (4a) "Sin so that your friend will benefit." Evidently, that rule is logically equivalent to that of “Violate one Shabbat…" However, the circumstances in which it appears is not appropriate to the language of “Violate one Shabbat…"[50] This equivalence should not be surprising because both rules share the same underlying logic -- sometimes it is necessary to violate a commandment in order to further greater observance.

Indeed, given this understanding, we can gain greater insight into a passage on Avodah Zarah (26a). Regarding a midwife treating a Gentile pregnant woman, R. Yosef suggested that the midwife should perform her services because of evah, which can perhaps be translated as “bad feelings”. Gentiles would certainly resent this action so, rather than risk the consequences of refraining, the midwife should violate Shabbat and treat the woman. Abaye says that the midwife should refrain and say “For us, who observe Shabbat, I can violate Shabbat to treat. For you, who do not observe Shabbat, I cannot violate it.”

Based on our understanding, Abaye is suggesting that Gentiles will accept a cogent and reasonable explanation. If we are to clarify to them that we can only violate Shabbat for commandments, including those observed by a non-Jewish Ger Toshav according to the ruling of Ramban, they will not bear any “bad feelings” over this religious obligation. In Abaye’s time, Gentiles understood and were respectful of religious obligations and would not have taken offense when these restrictions were adhered to.

What we have seen is that the laws about for whom Shabbat may be violated are not a definition of whose life is important and whose is unimportant. There is no implicit message that Jewish lives are more important than Shabbat while Gentile lives are not. No life is more important than following G-d's word. Rather, these rules are qualifications of how to follow the laws. The main goal is to maximize observance and, with regard to Shabbat, that means only violating it if this will lead to greater observance in the future. An observant Jew or a Ger Toshav will observe many future commandments and, therefore, violating one law today will lead to the observance of many future laws in the future.


The question that still needs to be asked is how a religious system can give precedence to rules over life. How can observance of Shabbat be more important than saving a person? It seems like these rules are the product of a stale bureaucracy and not a system that has been called a “tree of life” whose “ways are ways of pleasantness.[51]

This impression, however, is based on a limited focus. One has to look beyond the apparent to understand this issue. As we see life, it begins at birth and ends at death. However, Judaism teaches that there is more to life than worldly existence and more to man than his physical self.

Conventional wisdom has it that Judaism is a this-worldly religion while, in contrast, Christianity is next-worldly. Conveniently, this aphorism glosses over the ascetic and pietistic strains of Judaism. More crucially, however, is that all segments of traditional Judaism affirm a certain degree of next-worldliness. Even Maimonides, who is frequently cited as the paragon of this-worldliness, agrees that man must be concerned regarding his place in eternity. Every person is imbued with a soul that can remain forever[52]. Man’s actions and intellectual attainments in this world define how he will spend the eternity of the next world[53]. A focus on the spiritual, on the one thing that will last forever, is critical in Maimonides’ thought.

How does man perfect his soul, his own piece of eternity? This crucial question is not one that lends itself to a human answer. How can a finite person know what is best for an infinite soul? However, G-d has given us detailed instructions on how to refine our souls – through mitzvot. Every commandment we fulfill makes an indelible mark on our soul[54]. Whether it be by following in G-d’s ways and thereby making a soul more divine-like, or by acknowledging G-d’s immanent presence and thereby drawing a soul closer to G-d, following mitzvot has tremendous spiritual effects[55].

In contrast, man’s physical life is fleeting. Pleasures are temporary; joys are short-lived. Physical existence in itself lasts only approximately eighty years. After that, one spends an eternity in the spiritual[56]. While there are many important things man can do in this world, his ultimate goal is to prepare his soul for the rest of time. There is a disagreement among Jewish philosophers over the focus in this world. According to some, this world must be spent focused on the next[57]. As the Mishnah[58] says, “This world is like a corridor before the world-to-come.” The other view is that man has an opportunity in this world to rise to great spiritual heights, to bring a measure of the eternal into this ephemeral world[59]. However, all agree that the eternal is our focus. Refining souls, mending worlds, fulfilling commandments – these are man’s duty in this world.

R. Yisrael Salanter[60] asked why a righteous person should not want to die. Granted, suicide is forbidden, but if he happens to die we should be happy for him. In this world there is always the possibility that he may sin but in the next world he is on the highest plane. While the average person needs to remain in this world to refine his soul, the righteous have already done so. Why should he not want to die? There are a number of possible answers to this. However, the question alone brings into sharp focus what man’s duty is in this world.

This is not meant to minimize the importance of this world. It is only here that man has the ability to choose his destiny and it is only here that man can improve his lot. Mitzvot, perfecting the soul, are only for this world[61]. In this sense, man’s existence in this physical world is more divine-like that in the spiritual world. Here, man, like G-d, can create[62]! Here, man can finish his soul by perfecting it. It is in this world that man retains this aspect of the divine image.

Yet, as we said before, man must remain focused. The Talmud concludes, “It would have been better for man had he not been born but now that he has been he should examine (some read: improve) his ways.”[63] It is our effect on the eternal that is crucial. Granted, physical pleasures are acceptable and even encouraged in moderation[64] – hence Judaism’s alleged this-worldliness. However, this is only to strengthen us in our mission to make permanent and everlasting changes.

With this said, it is therefore crucial to evaluate the world from this broad, eternal perspective. When making choices and determining what is right, we must look at the long-term ramifications. In our case of violating Shabbat to save a life, we are dealing with Shabbat violation – an occurrence that has eternal ramifications – and someone’s fleeting physical life. Regardless of what happens, this person’s soul will remain forever. The only question is about his temporary, physical life. Looking at this with our broad perspective, temporary life cannot take precedence over a permanent change. This-worldly life cannot trump next-worldly life. Only commandments themselves, many eternal changes, can override one eternal change. It is the greatest eternal effect that must determine what takes precedence.

When Dr. Shahak criticized Judaism of being racist by denying medical treatment to Gentiles on Shabbat, he was wrong on many counts. First, this is not practiced today[65], as can be evidenced by the treatment of Gentiles by Jewish doctors in Sha’arei Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem or by Hatzoloh volunteers in New York. Second, the determination is not race-driven. In theory, it applies to both non-religious Jews and Gentiles. It also does not apply to all Gentiles. As we have seen from Ramban, we are allowed to violate Shabbat to save Gentiles who have officially accepted on themselves to live righteous lives. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the permission, or lack thereof, to violate Shabbat to save someone’s life is not in any way a valuation of that person’s life because no life, whether Jewish or Gentile, is more important than Shabbat.

* This article was written shortly after Dr. Shahak’s death on July 2, 2001.

I would like to thank Yisrael Dubitsky and Micha Berger for their help in preparing this article.  They bear no responsibility for its final content.

[1] His treatments of this topic have become so popular that there are hundreds of websites containing summaries or quotations of his work. At least one of his books, Jewish History, Jewish Religion - The Weight of Three Thousand Years, has been placed entirely on the internet.

[2] Israel Shahak, Jewish History, Jewish Religion - The Weight of Three Thousand Years, ch. 1

[3] Cf. Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 246:1; R. Yehezkel Landau, Dagul Mervavah, Yoreh Deah 151 on Shakh 6.

[4] R. Immanuel Jakobovits, “A Modern Blood Libel – L’Affaire Shahak,” Tradition, vol. 8 no. 2 (Summer 1996), pp. 58-65.

[5] Cf. Rashi, Sanhedrin 74a sv sevara; R. Yisrael Meir Kagan, Mishnah Berurah 329:4 Biur Halakhah sv ela.

[6] Avodah Zarah 26a

[7] R. Moshe Sofer, Responsa Hatam Sofer, Yoreh Deah 131, Hoshen Mishpat 194; R. Yisrael Lifschitz, Tiferet Yisrael, Avodah Zarah 2:6; R. Hayim Halberstam, Responsa Divrei Hayim vol. 2 Orah Hayim 25; R. Shalom David Ungvar, Responsa Yad Shalom 57; R. Mordekhai Ya'akov Breisch, Responsa Helkat Ya'akov vol. 2 54; R. Moshe Feinstein, Iggerot Moshe vol. 4, 49; R. Yitzhak Ya'akov Weiss, Responsa Minhat Yitzhak, vol. 1 53, vol. 3 20, vol. 10 31:14; R. Eliezer Yehudah Waldenburg, Responsa Tzitz Eliezer, vol. 8 15:6; R. Ovadia Yosef, Responsa Yabia Omer, vol. 8 Orah Hayim 38; R. Shlomo Zalman Braun, She'arim Metzuyanim Bahalakhah, 92:1; R. Zvi Hirsch Shapira, Darkhei Teshuvah, 158:3; R. Yehoshua Yishayahu Neuwirth, Shemirat Shabbat Kehilkhatah ch. 40 n. 42; R. Simhah Benzion Rabinowitz, Piskei Teshuvot, 390:2

[8] R. Yosef Teomim, Pri Megadim, Orah Hayim 328 MZ 6

[9] R. Mordekhai Ya'akov Breisch, Responsa Helkat Ya'akov vol. 1 45; R. Shmuel Wosner, Responsa Shevet HaLevi, vol. 3 36, vol. 5 48; R. Yitzhak Ya'akov Weiss, Responsa Minhat Yitzhak, vol. 3 20, vol. 10 31:14; R. Eliezer Yehudah Waldenburg, Responsa Tzitz Eliezer, vol. 8 15:5-6; R. Ovadia Yosef, Responsa Yabia Omer, vol. 8 Orah Hayim 38:8; R. Yehoshua Yishayahu Neuwirth, Shemirat Shabbat Kehilkhatah ch. 32 n. 1; R. Simhah Benzion Rabinowitz, Piskei Teshuvot, 329:2

[10] Additions to Sefer Hamitzvot, Positive Commandments that the Rambam Neglected, 16.  Cf. R. Shimon ben Zemah Duran, Zohar HaRakia, 81 n. 39. Cf. however, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Shabbat, 2:12.

[11] Cf. Rashi, Yoma 85b sv veshamru

[12] Cf. R. Meir Ibn Habib, Tosefot Yom HaKippurim, ad loc. sv amar

[13] We will later conclude that the tannaitic derivations, but not necessarily the reasons, have been rejected.

[14] End of Hilkhot Yom HaKippurim

[15] Torat Ha'Adam, Kitvei HaRamban, vol. 2 pp. 28-29; cited in R. Nissim ben Reuven's commentary to Rif, Yoma 3b sv vekatuv; cf. Hiddushei HaRamban, Nidah 44b sv veha; Beit Yosef, Orah Hayim 390

[16] This does not imply that abortion is permissible. See R. David M. Feldman, Birth Control in Jewish Law, part 5.

[17] Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Mamrim 2:4

[18] Cf. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 1:1

[19] Orah Hayim, end of 306

[20] Orah Hayim 306:14

[21] Ibid. 29

[22] Cf. Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 157 where the detailed laws are discussed

[23] The conclusion is no.  Cf. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 10:2

[24] Ad loc. sv ben

[25] Cf. R. Shmuel Eliezer Eidels, Hiddushei Maharsha, ad. loc.

[26] Margoliyot HaYam 74b:29

[27] Cf. R. Eliyahu Mizrahi's commentary on Rashi, Exodus 4:24. Our formulation answers R. Yehudah Rozannes' question in his Parashat Derakhim, essay 2 in the first paragraph.

[28] For some later examples, see R. Avraham ben Mordekhai, Responsa Ginat Veradim, 3:1 sv. hineh; R. Zvi Hirsch Chajes, Glosses to Shabbat 30a sv ha; R. Yosef Engel, Gilyonei HaShas, Yoma 85b sv. lo; R. Shmuel Engel, Responsa Maharash Engel, 4:72; R. David Zvi Hoffman, Melamed Leho’il; 2:32 sv. ule’inyan.

[29] Cf. also Mekhilta on Exodus 31:16; Tosefta Shabbat 16:13-14; Tanhuma Yitro 8, (ed. Buber) Vayeshev 8; Yalkut Shimoni, Mishpatim 327, Ki Tisa 391; Torah Shelemah, Exodus ch. 21 no. 273, ch. 22 no. 7, ch. 31 no. 30, 31, 87.

[30] In Mekhilta, R. Elazar ben Azariah is mentioned before R. Akiva.

[31] Mekhilta has it simply "R. Akiva said: If bloodshed overrides the service which overrides Shabbat a fortiori that saving a life overrides Shabbat." Also, in the Mekhilta R. Akiva's explanation comes after R. Elazar ben Azariah's.

[32] Cf. R. Alexander Shor, Bekhor Shor, Yoma ad loc.

[33] Mekhilta does not have the number of limbs in a person. Regarding the commandments of the Torah corresponding to the limbs of a person, see Makkot 23b.

[34] Shabbat 132a; Tanhuma, Lekh Lekha 16, Masei 1; Yalkut Shimoni, Tazria 547, Emor 643

[35] Commentary to Shabbat 132a

[36] Cf. Exodus 4:24-26

[37] Shabbat 132b; Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 331:4

[38] Cf. R. Shmuel Strashun (Rashash), Glosses to Yoma 85b, sv Rashi

[39] Novellae to Shabbat, 132a sv umah

[40] Cf. Tosafot HaRosh, ad loc. sv k"v

[41] Mekhilta has R. Yossi HaGelili

[42] Mekhilta adds: There are some Shabbatot which you override and some Shabbatot which you observe.

[43] Pesahim 5a, 71a; Eruvin 105a; Sukkah 48a; Bava Kama 11b; Shevuot 13a; Menahot 37b; Bekhorot 15a; Keritot 7a; Temurah 25a

[44] Cf. Yerushalmi Berakhot 9:5 (67b); R. Meir Leibush Malbim, HaTorah VeHamitzvah, Ayelet HaShahar 591.

[45] Malbim, HaTorah VeHamitzvah, Exodus 31:13 n. 3. This formulation of akh's function would explain Rashi's commentary on this verse in light of Ramban's questions.

[46] Mekhilta has R. Shimon ben Menasia

[47] Mekhilta has R. Natan

[48] It has been argued by some, e.g. R. Yosef Babad, Minhat Hinukh 32 (ed. Makhon Yerushalayim vol. 1 p. 178), that according to R. Shimon ben Menasia only future observance of Shabbat, as opposed to any other commandment, can override a current Shabbat. However, the wording of the Talmudic passage does not seem to leave room for this limitation. Cf. R. Moshe Ibn Habib, Tosefot Yom HaKippurim, Yoma 85b sv R”Sh; R. Hayim Elazar Shapira, Minhat Elazar, 1:9.

[49] Surprisingly, this answer can also be found anonymously in Tosefta, Shabbat 16:14. R. David Pardo, Hasdei David, ad loc. suggests that Shmuel never saw this Tosefta and arrived at the same reasoning on his own. Efraim Urbach, Hazal, ch. 13 n. 28 suggests that this is an Amoraic addition to the Tosefta.

[50] On the subject of "Sin so that your friend will benefit," see Tosafot, Shabbat 4a sv vekhi; R. Hershel Schachter, Be'ikvei Hatzon pp. 14-18.

[51] Proverbs 3:13-14

[52] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 4:8-9

[53] Ibid.; Hilkhot Teshuvah 8:3

[54] R. Saadia Gaon, Emunot VeDe’ot, 5:1 (ed. Kaffih,) pp. 168-171; Ramban, Sha’ar HaGemul in Kitvei HaRamban, vol. 2 p. 270. Cf. R. Elhanan Wasserman, Kovetz Ma’amarim, pp. 19-20.

[55] Cf. R. Natan Tzvi Finkel, Or HaTzafun, pp. 7-10

[56] Cf. R. Moshe Hayim Luzzatto (Ramhal), Messilat Yesharim, ch. 1

[57] Ibid.

[58] Avot 4:16

[59] R. Yehudah HaLevi, Kuzari, 1:109, 3:1

[60] Or Yisrael, ch. 23

[61] Eruvin 22a; Shabbat 30a

[62] Cf. R. Hayim of Volozhin, Nefesh HaHayim, 1:3-4

[63] Eruvin 13b

[64] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot ch. 4; R. Yehudah HaLevi, Kuzari, 2:50.

[65] See note 7.

© 2001 Gil Student