Avoiding Life Threatening Situations on Shabbat

The previous two issues discussed the source for performing melacha in a life threatening situation and the question of hutrah vs. dechuyah.  This week's issue will discuss the permissibility of creating situations that would require violation of Shabbat for pikuach nefesh purposes and what measures must be taken to avoid life threatening situations that require violation of Shabbat. 

Setting Out on a Voyage Prior to Shabbat

A Beraita (quoted the Gemara, Shabbat 19b) states that it is prohibited to set out on a sea voyage within three days of Shabbat unless the voyage is for the purposes of fulfillment of a mitzvah.  There are many interpretations among the Rishonim as to why it is prohibited to do so.  One of the explanations is that of R. Zerachia HaLevi, Ba'al HaMaor, Shabbat 7a, who suggests that the reason why it is prohibited to set out on a voyage is because the passengers may be required to perform melacha on Shabbat in order that the ship does not capsize.  Although those melachot will be performed for the purpose of pikuach nefesh, one should not create a pikuach nefesh situation that requires violation of Shabbat unless it is for the purpose of performing a mitzvah.

Ba'al HaMaor's interpretation is not necessarily considered the accepted interpretation of the Beraita (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 248:2).  Nevertheless, the principle that Ba'al HaMaor derives from the Beraita – that one should not create a pikuach nefesh situation that requires violation of Shabbat - is accepted by Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 248:4.

Ba'al HaMaor's principle seems to be contradicted by his ruling in Ba'al HaMaor, Shabbat 53a.  In the times of Gemara it was considered dangerous to perform a brit milah without washing the infant in warm water before and after the milah.  The Gemara, Eiruvin 67b, implies that if there is no hot water available for a milah on Shabbat, the milah is postponed until Sunday.  Ba'al HaMaor discusses a case where there is sufficient water to wash the infant prior to the milah but not enough water to wash the infant subsequent to the milahBa'al HaMaor states that if the milah was already performed, one would certainly be required to heat water on Shabbat, as neglect to wash the infant in warm water poses a danger to the infant's life.  However, if the milah was not yet performed, one may not perform the milah knowing in advance that water would have to be heated in order to wash the infant.

It is clear from this ruling that one cannot perform a milah on Shabbat knowing in advance that one would have to violate Shabbat for pikuach nefesh purposes.  However, this ruling is questionable.  Based on Ba'al HaMaor's principle, one may create a pikuach nefesh situation that requires violation of Shabbat if it is for the purpose of fulfilling a mitzvah.  Milah should be considered no less a mitzvah than any other mitzvah.  If so, why can't one perform the milah knowing that hot water will be required for pikuach nefesh purposes?

Three answers are given in order to resolve Ba'al HaMaor's opinion.  First, Magen Avraham 248:14, implies that it is only permissible to set out on a sea voyage for mitzvah purposes if there is question as to whether a pikuach nefesh situation will arise.  If it is known that one must violate Shabbat for pikuach nefesh purposes, one may not enter such a situation.  In Ba'al HaMaor's case of milah, it is known that if the milah is performed, Shabbat must be violated in order to heat water for the purpose of pikuach nefesh.  Therefore, the leniency that allows one to enter a pikuach nefesh situation for mitzvah purposes does not apply.

Second, R. Ya'akov Y. Kanievsky, Kehillat Ya'akov, Shabbat no. 15, distinguishes between entering into a situation of pikuach nefesh before Shabbat and entering into such a situation on Shabbat.  One who enters such a situation prior to Shabbat (as in the case of the sea voyage) violates a rabbinic prohibition.  Since it is only a rabbinic prohibition, Chazal allowed entering into this situation for mitzvah purposes.  However, to enter such a situation on Shabbat (as in the case of the milah) constitutes a biblical prohibition.  Therefore, there is no room for leniency when the cause of the situation is a d'var mitzvah.

Third, R. Yosef D. Soloveitchik (in Mesorah 6) distinguishes between milah and other mitzvot.  Regarding milah, the machshirei milah (preparatory items for the milah) are specifically excluded from permissible milah activities on Shabbat.  Therefore, the heating of water - which should have been prepared beforehand - is considered machshirei milah and one cannot perform a milah on Shabbat if one will have to violate Shabbat for machshirei milah.  According to R. Soloveitchik, one may enter into a situation that will require violation of Shabbat for pikuach nefesh purposes even if it is known that the pikuach nefesh situation will definitely arise, and even if one enters into the situation on Shabbat.  Milah is the one exception to the rule because of the special exclusion of machshirei milah

Avoiding a Violation of Shabbat in a Pikuach Nefesh Situation

There are numerous rulings of R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach relating to pikuach nefesh (all are recorded in Shemirat Shabbat KeHilchata) that received criticism from R. Auerbach's colleagues.  First, if an ill person in a life threatening situation requires a candle, and the only available lit candle is at a neighbor's home, one may light a new candle for the ill person if removal of the candle from the neighbor's home will cause the neighbor distress (Shemirat Shabbat KeHilchata 32:65).  Second, if an ill person in a life threatening situation requires hot food or a hot drink, and the only available food of this kind belongs to a neighbor, one may cook food on Shabbat if taking the food from the neighbor will leave him without any food for Shabbat (Shemirat Shabbat KeHilchata 32:74).  Third, if electrical wires fall on Shabbat and are situated in a place that is accessible to the public, one may call the electric company, and there is no requirement to remain there the entire Shabbat and warn passersby of the danger (Shemirat Shabbat KeHilchata 41:22).

The first two rulings were criticized because the neighbor also has an obligation to save the life of the ill individual.  If there is no option to light a different candle or cook food on Shabbat, the neighbor would certainly be required to provide for the ill individual.  Why then is it permissible to violate Shabbat in a situation where the neighbor is inconvenienced by providing for the ill individual; if he provides the necessary item, violation of Shabbat can be avoided?  Regarding the third ruling, R. Auerbach was asked: isn't it preferable for someone to stand next to the electrical wires the entire Shabbat rather than violate Shabbat?

R. Auerbach, Minchat Shlomo 1:7, answers all of these objections with an important principle regarding pikuach nefesh.  Regardless of whether pikuach nefesh on Shabbat is hutrah or dechuyah, any melacha performed to save the life of an individual constitutes absolutely no violation.  Therefore, if an ill person requires a specific item that requires performance of a melacha on Shabbat and that melacha can be avoided by alternative means, one is not required to employ those alternative means if doing so comes at the expense of something else.  Although a neighbor is obligated to save the life of another individual, he is not required to provide his light or his food when one can equally provide light or food to the ill individual by performance of melacha for pikuach nefesh purposes.  Similarly, one who spots downed electrical wires is not required to forgo his oneg Shabbat when he can just as easily call the electric company which would constitute performance of melacha for pikuach nefesh purposes.