Lo Ta'amod Al Dam Rei'echa: The Mitzvah of Saving a Life
The Torah (Vayikra 19:16) states "lo ta'amod al dam rei'echa," do not stand idly by your brothers blood. The Gemara, Sanhderin 73a, cites a Beraita that states that this verse teaches that if one sees someone in a life-threatening situation (e.g. he is drowning in a river or being dragged by wild beasts), he has an obligation to save him. This week's issue will discuss the parameters of this mitzvah/prohibition. How far must one go to save someone else's life?
Is There a Monetary Obligation to Save Someone's Life?
The Gemara, ibid, notes that this verse seems to be extraneous. After all, the mitzvah of hashavat aveidah (returning a lost item) already encompasses an obligation to restore a "life that is being lost." The Gemara answers that the mitzvah of hashavat aveidah only requires one to personally return an object. It does not require one to hire someone else if he is not personally capable of performing the mitzvah. The verse of lo ta'amod al dam rei'echa requires one to hire someone else if he is not capable of performing the life-saving mission.
Rabbeinu Asher, Sanhedrin 8:2, states that although the bystander is required to hire someone else, the one who his rescued must reimburse the bystander if he has the means to do so. Implicit in Rabbeinu Asher's ruling is that if the one who is rescued does not have the means to pay for the rescue, the bystander must incur the cost. R. Meir HaLevi, Yad Ramah, Sanhedrin 73a, rules that there is an absolute legal obligation to reimburse the bystander.
Rabbeinu Asher's requirement of the bystander to pay for the rescue (when the one being rescued does not have the means) seems to be based on the general obligation to spend money for performance of mitzvot. Rama, Orach Chaim 656:1, rules that one must spend up to one-fifth of his assets on order to fulfill a positive mitzvah and his entire fortune in order not to violate a negative commandment. R. Akiva Eger, Glosses to Yoreh De'ah 157:1, s.v. V'Lo, cites a dispute between R. Yair Bachrach, Chavot Yair no. 139 and Rivash no. 387, regarding a negative commandment that is violated by passivity. According to Chavot Yair, it is treated as a positive commandment and one must spend up one-fifth of his assets. According to Rivash, it is treated as a negative commandment and one must spend his entire fortune in order to avoid violation of the prohibition. Pitchei Teshuva, Yoreh De'ah 152:4, notes that this dispute is applicable to the mitzvah of lo ta'amod al dam rei'echa. The mitzvah of lo ta'amod al dam rei'echa is phrased as a negative commandment, yet one violates the mitzvah by passively allowing someone to die. Therefore, according to Chavot Yair, one must only spend up to one-fifth of one's fortune in order to save someone else's life. According to Rivash, one must spend his entire fortune in order to save someone else's life.
Comparing Saving a Life to Hashavat Aveidah
There are a number of Acharonim who present novel ideas based on the Gemara's comparison between saving a life and hashavat aveidah. They all infer from the Gemara that the only difference between lo ta'amod al dam rei'echa and hashavat aveidah is the requirement to hire someone else to save a life. First, R. Shlomo Kluger, Chochmat Shlomo, Choshen Mishpat no 426, notes the principle of zaken v'aino l'fi k'vodo, the principle that if a distinguished individual finds an item that would be embarrassing for him to return, he is exempt from the mitzvah of hashavat aveidah (Baba Metzia 30b). R. Kluger suggests that the Gemara's omission of the zaken v'aino l'fi k'vodo principle as an added feature of lo ta'amod al dam rei'echa, implies that the principle exists for life-saving missions. Therefore, if the life-saving mission will cause someone embarrassment, he is not required to perform the mission. R. Moshe Feinstein, Igrot Moshe, Yoreh De'ah 2:174 (3), rejects R. Kluger's assertion and considers it "an absolute mistake." R. Feinstein notes that the principle of zaken v'aino l'fi k'vodo is quantified by how the finder (rescuer) would deal with the situation if it was his own property. If he would forgo his own property because the embarrassment of retrieving it is too great, he is not required to embarrass himself to save someone else's property. Otherwise, this principle does not apply, even if returning the item causes minor embarrassment. When it comes to saving a life, one would certainly do whatever possible to save his own life, even if it will cause tremendous embarrassment. Therefore, the same standards apply to someone else and one is required to save a life, even if it will cause tremendous embarrassment.
Second, Minchat Chinuch, no. 237, suggests that one can deduce from the Gemara that there is no obligation to save someone from suicide. There certainly is no mitzvah of hashavat aveidah on property that was intentionally discarded by its owner. If in fact there is an obligation to save someone from suicide, the Gemara should have listed this as a distinction between hashavat aveidah and lo ta'amod al dam rei'echa. R. Moshe Feinstein, op. cit., rejects Minchat Chinuch's position with the same certitude as his rejection of R. Kluger's position. The reason why there is no hashavat aveidah on intentionally discarded items is that one has a legal right to discard his own items and in doing so, he forfeits the right to the item. However, one has no legal right to end his own life, and therefore, if he attempts to do so, one must make every effort to save him.
Third, the Talmud Yerushalmi, Terumot 8:4, 47a, records an incident where R. Shimon b. Lakish risked his own life in order to save someone else. Hagahot Maimoniot, Hilchot Rotzei'ach 1:15 (Defus Kushta) deduces from the Talmud Yerushalmi that lo ta'amod al dam rei'echa requires one to put his own life at some degree of risk in order to save someone else. S'ma, Choshen Mishpat 426:2, posits that most Rishonim disagree with Hagahot Maimoniot and maintain that one is not required to risk one's own life to save someone else.
R. Ya'akov Etlinger, Aruch LaNer, Sanhedrin 73a, s.v. V'ha MeHacha, suggests that the reason why most Rishonim do not require one to risk his own life to save someone else is that the aforementioned Gemara seems to imply the opposite. If in fact one must risk his own life in order to save someone else, the Gemara should have listed this as an important distinction between lo ta'amod al dam rei'echa and hashavat aveidah. The Gemara's omission of this distinction implies that one is not required to risk one's life to save another life. R. David Freidman, She'eilat David, Even Ha'Ezer no. 6 (note 4), presents the same logic and adds that one can include life-saving missions that cause physical pain or distress in this discussion. The fact that the Gemara never included pain or distress as a difference between hashavat aveidah and lo ta'amod al dam rei'echa implies that one is not required to place oneself in a position of pain or distress in order to save a life.
Fourth, Radvaz, 3:627, discusses the question of whether one is required to give up a limb of his body in order to save someone else's life. He concludes that one is not required to do so, but if one does it is considered a pious act (midat chasidut). Radvaz implies that one can prove this point from the aforementioned Gemara. If in fact lo ta'amod al dam rei'echa requires that one give up a limb of one's body, that would be an obvious difference between hashavat aveidah and lo ta'amod al dam rei'echa.
Radvaz's ruling is applied to the discussion of live kidney donations. R. Yitzchak Y. Weiss, Minchat Yitzchak 6:103, and R. Ovadia Yosef, Yechaveh Da'at 3;84, both rule that one is not required to give up one's kidney in order to save someone else's life. However, they conclude that if the procedure is not dangerous to the donor, it is meritorious to do so.