To Save a Life

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

One mantra that is often repeated in halacha is that nothing supersedes saving a life. Therefore, it is somewhat surprising that a recent Gemara (Kesubos 39a) seems to take a contrarian view. The question addressed by the Gemara is whether a certain intervention, which might very well be ordinarily prohibited, can be prescribed to prevent a life-threatening condition from developing. Rebbe Meir rules in the affirmative, exactly as we would have expected. (Or perhaps he holds that the intervention is not actually prohibited.) Astonishingly, the Sages disagree. They say that the individual should not use the halachically forbidden intervention. Instead, the individual should rely on the verse in Tehillim (116:6), “Hashem protects the simpletons.” How could the Sages disregard the threat to human life and possibly allow a life-threatening situation to develop? The answer is the subject of much debate. The reader is forewarned that no practical conclusions may be drawn from this article especially in matters of life and death. This article is intended simply to engender discussion. As a preamble it must be noted that the Shulchan Aruch writes (328:2), “If someone has a dangerous ailment, it is a mitzvah to desecrate the Shabbos. The one who acts quickly is praiseworthy.

The one who asks a shailah is a murderer.” The Shut Binyan Tziyon suggests what some may consider a radical idea. While it is true that we are concerned about even a farfetched possibility of a threat to human life, that is only when the danger is present right now. He gives the example of someone trapped in rubble. The dangerous situation is present right now. We will therefore violate Shabbos even for an unlikely chance that there is a threat to human life. However, if the dangerous situation is not present now, but we are merely afraid that one will develop, a different set of rules apply. In this case, we are not concerned about unlikely possibilities. Since in the Gemara’s case, there was no current threat to human life, only the unlikely possibility that a dangerous condition will develop, halacha may not be violated. According to the Binyan Tzion, we may only violate a halacha (such as Shabbos) for a remote possibility of a threat to human life, if there is already a dangerous situation. If we are merely concerned that one will develop, then we are not concerned about remote possibilities. Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, the Achiezer, vehemently disagreed. He said that there is not enough of a basis to suggest such a radical halachic difference between present danger and not.

Rather, the Gemara is discussing a dangerous possibility that is not merely unlikely, it is so remote that the Sages said we need not be concerned with it. Perhaps, if no halacha was being violated we would be concerned. However, a farfetched possibility does not override halacha. Indeed, the modern poskim admitted to having a hard time defining how dangerous a situation must be to warrant violating Shabbos. Rav Shlomo Zalman, zt”l, discussed the smallpox vaccine. He said one may not violate the Shabbos to obtain the vaccine because of the farfetched, remote possibility that a one- or two-day delay will make a difference. He did suggest, however, that when the illness was more prevalent, if one would have to wait a few years before obtaining the vaccine if he didn’t get it on Shabbos, then perhaps Shabbos may be violated. Along these lines there is a contemporary posek who bemoans the fact that people assume one can desecrate the Shabbos for cuts requiring stitches by saying that they are concerned for the far-out possibility that the cut may become infected before the end of Shabbos. Typically, people apply ointment and bandages and would delay treatment for insurance reasons. They certainly can delay treatment for Shabbos. However, there is more reason to be lenient when only rabbinic violations are involved. However, another posek apparently felt that a cut that requires stitches is a reason to violate the Shabbos.

Perhaps they are not disagreeing, and it depends how deep the cut is. Rav Zilberstein, shlita, quotes his father-in-law, Rav Elyashiv, about an interesting halacha. He says that if a patient has a small chance (less than 5%) of getting worse before Shabbos is over, Shabbos may be violated to immediately take the patient to the hospital. This is in contradiction to a case where a passenger develops a dangerous health condition on a plane. Suppose there is only a remote chance (less than 5%) that his condition will worsen if the flight continues as scheduled. The plane should continue its flight and not make an emergency landing which would inconvenience hundreds of passengers. If there was a more than five percent chance that the passenger’s condition would worsen, then an emergency landing is warranted. My father-in-law, Rabbi Aaron Katz, was on a Continental Airlines flight to Israel. He was exiting the restroom when a 72-year-old passenger fainted right into his arms. Being a paramedic, he immediately leapt into action. He laid the passenger down and checked her vitals. The flight attendants brought the oxygen which he requested. Rabbi Katz surmised that the woman was having a heart attack. He called out to see if anyone had aspirin.

Many people offered Advil, but one passenger thankfully had baby aspirin. Surprisingly, the plane was stocked with medicine to treat a heart attack victim but had no IV with which to administer it! There was no EKG or other diagnostic equipment available. The pilot wanted my father-inlaw’s opinion if the plane should make an emergency landing. Using the information available to him, my father-in-law thought it was warranted. However, he asked for clarification, “Which airport would we be landing in?” The pilot answered, “The International Airport in Tehran!” Needless to say, the flight continued straight to Israel. The pilot radioed ahead all the information they had on the patient. Within thirty seconds of landing, Magen Dovid Adom was on the plane. She was in good hands.

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Yeshiva 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 be contacted at ASebrow@

Share this article: