A Case of Pikuach Nefesh

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

The Gemara recounts a story where the government sent two officers to a yeshiva to study To[1]rah. The government wanted to find out if there was anything objectionable in the Torah. The yeshiva had no choice but to accept these new students. Af[1]ter the officers felt they had studied enough, they declared, “We have stud[1]ied your entire Torah and found nothing wrong except for one matter. Your laws state that the Jewish owner of an ox that gores a Canaanite-owned ox is exempt from paying for any damages. Howev[1]er, a Canaanite must pay full damages if his ox gores a Jewish-owned ox.” The Meiri explains that the Canaanites were not careful about damages to anyone’s property but their own. Still, these two officers found that law to be objection[1]able. However, because of the warm and gracious treatment in the yeshiva that they experienced, the two officers stated that they will keep this matter a secret. The Yam Shel Shlomo wonders why didn’t the rabbis of the time just falsely claim that the law was different? After all, if the two officers reported this law to the government, the government could have passed harsh and dangerous decrees against the Jewish nation. Now they had to rely on the graciousness of the two officers to keep their word that they would remain silent. Wouldn’t the falsehood have been justified in the face of pikuach nefesh? The Yam Shel Shlo[1]mo concludes from here that falsifica[1]tion of the Torah is absolutely forbidden under any circumstances. The rabbis were not allowed to lie and change the halacha even for the sake of preventing dangerous decrees. During the Covid epidemic, some employees were forced to take the Covid vaccine or risk termination. Some peo[1]ple found the vaccine objectionable. One way to escape from the mandato[1]ry vaccination was to obtain a religious exemption. Someone knowledgeable in the Jewish religion wrote a five-page thesis explaining why the use of the vaccine was against Judaism.

Though the author had some legitimate points, the majority of the reasons cited were fanciful concoctions. A local resident asked his Rav if he may use the letter to obtain a religious exemption. The Rav answered with an unequivocal, “No.” One may not falsify the laws of the Torah for any reason. This is in line with the Yam Shel Shlomo, that one may not con[1]coct incorrect rulings of our sages even to escape from serious harm. The Rav, though, said that the legitimate parts of the thesis may, of course, be used. The rule is usually that pikuach nefesh allows one to transgress any aveira except for the three cardinal sins: Idolatry, forbidden relationships, and murder. However, as seen from the Yam Shel Shlomo, there are other aveiros that likewise can’t be violated. The Gemara in Bava Kama (60b) states that Dovid HaMelech was unsure if he was allowed to steal or cause dam[1]age in a time of war. Many commen[1]tators are incredulous. Can it be that Dovid Hamelech’s army is in danger, and there is any prohibition that isn’t waived?! Tosfos concludes that the Ge[1]mara means that Dovid HaMelech was unsure if he had to pay restitution for damage caused by his army. However, Rashi, admittedly with an extreme mi[1]nority view, seems to have understood the Gemarra literally. It is even possible that one is not allowed to steal even in the face of pikuach nefesh. The Gemara states that it is bet[1]ter that one jump into a fiery furnace than to shame someone publicly. Some Rishonim understand this statement as somewhat hyperbolic. Of course, if actually faced with pikuach nefesh, one should rather embarrass his friend. Tos[1]fos, however, understands the Gemara literally. This is another example of an aveira that is not waived in the face of pikuach nefesh. Tosfos, though, ex[1]plains that embarrassing someone pub[1]licly was really already included among the big three sins. When someone is shamed, blood drains from his face, and that is tantamount to murder. That is why someone should actually jump into a fiery furnace rather than embarrass someone publicly. Rabbi Paysach Krohn related that Rav Moshe Sherer, zt”l, had an idea to help a fellow Yid. Rav Moshe Sherer called Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky, zt”l, for guidance. It was deemed a matter of pi[1]kuach nefesh. Yet, Rav Yaakov said it was a serious question. Rav Sherer’s solution meant endorsing a Jewish candidate for Senate who didn’t stand for Jewish val[1]ues. Ultimately, Rav Yaakov ruled that even a question of pikuach nefesh does not permit a chillul Hashem. While the general rule is in fact that pikuach nefesh permits the violation of all aveiros except for the three cardinal sins, this rule has exceptions.

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Ye[1]shiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway. In addition, Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead, NY. He can

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