To Live By Them

When my wife was pregnant with our first child, I was studying in a yeshiva in Morristown, New Jersey.  It just so happened, that a friend of mine in the yeshiva was also expecting his first.  We arranged a chevrusa (study partnership) to delve into the laws of pikuach nefesh, or saving a life.

What does pregnancy have to do with saving a life?  According to authorities on Jewish law, even though medical care has advancedtremendously in the last hundred years, a woman in labor is nevertheless considered to be in a life-threatening situation.

The issue thus arises: Is one permitted to violate Shabbat in order to attend to a woman in the travails of labor?  May one drive a car to the hospital on Shabbat (an act normally prohibited)?

The answer to these questions seems so obvious to most minds – perhaps because of the permeation of Judaic thought throughout the world at large.  Yet it is not just the life-affirming answer that interests me, but the way in which the answer is achieved and the details of the Jewish approach to life.

By now you may be wondering: What does this have to do with the Torah portion of the week, the usual topic of this column?  This week we study the parsha of Mishpatim, which happens to be the 18th portion of the Torah.  18, of course, is something of a “magical” number in Judaism, for it is the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word for life, Chai.  It seems that all of us are doomed to write checks for charity in multiples of 18 for the rest of eternity.

Mishpatim contains, as its name indicates, laws of the Torah.  Not stories or philosophy.  Laws.  One after the other.  The Torah put the first portion of laws at number 18, to indicate two things: First, that Torah and Judaism are not just good in a spiritual sense, but that they also have a positive effect on our day-to-day physical lives.  Second, Mishpatim is #18 because we are meant to live by the Torah, and not to die by it.

This is in accordance with the source in the Talmud (Yoma 85b) for why one is permitted to violate the Sabbath in order to save a life, as in the case of a woman in the travails of labor.  The Talmud quotes Leviticus 18:5, which states with regards to the commandments, “you will live by them.”  The Talmud states that the verse comes to teach us that although one is meant to follow the commandments, this is not meant to be at the expense of life.  “You shall live by them, but not die by them,” is the Talmudic dictum, which is quoted in the Codes of Jewish Law.

Yet, as I stated at the beginning of this article, it is more the details of this section of Jewish law that impressed me when I first studied them.  Some of these details include:

  • One is not only permitted to violate Shabbat, but one is obligated to do so.  In fact, if the choice needs to be made who will violate Shabbat in order to save a life, the one of greater standing in the community should do so in order to teach how important it is.
  • Even if the said process may not be successful, as long as it has been used before, it must be done.
  • Even in a situation where we don’t know if the person is alive; or even if we don’t know if there is a person present at all, we still must violate Shabbat.  The Talmud discusses a situation of a fallen building, and teaches that even if we don’t know if there is someone there, (but have reason to believe that it is possible), then we must do all we can, even if it involves violating Shabbat.  Unfortunately, after 9/11, such a situation is no longer difficult for us to conceive of.
  • One who inquires of a rabbinic authority as to the permissibility of breaking the Sabbath when someone’s life is hanging on a limb, is considered to have committed an act of murder.
  • Worst yet, says the Jerusalem Talmud, is the one who is asked, for he should have preempted such a situation by teaching the relevant laws and their application in his community.

These are just some of the things that stick out at me as being hallmarks of the Jewish approach toward life, and are part of the reason why Judaism has such an aversion to suicide, murder, abortion and euthanasia.

The Sanctity of Life is something which is unparalleled in Jewish thought.  As important as Torah and its commandments are, life itself takes precedence.  Let’s celebrate it!

N.B. This column does not imply any halachic (legal) rulings, and did not include a discussion of the three “cardinal sins” for which one is obligated to die for (murder, idolatry and illicit sexual relations).