Dealing with People who are Gravely Ill on Shabbat
“You shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgements: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the Lord.” This verse in Vayikrah () has been explained by our rabbis of blessed memory to be an admonition to “live by the commandments of the Torah and NOT TO DIE BY THEM” (). That means that one may even transgress commandments of the Torah in a life threatening situation. The Ran explains the reasoning behind this admonition being that the commandments are given to the Jews not the Jews to the commandments. ()
Of the many applications of this, the most prominent is the annulment of the laws of Shabbat in circumstances where a Jewish life may be in danger. Halachically it is stated: “Someone who is so sick that his life is in danger, It is a commandment to profane Shabbat for him.” () Succinctly put, anything and everything must be done in order to save a persons life even if it requires profaning shabbat. Indeed, it is a “commandment” under such circumstances to profane the Shabbat.
Applications often encountered are: aiding a women in labor; helping someone who may be having a heart attack; rushing a child to the hospital who has had a terrible accident; and taking care of any life threatening wound.
Exceptions made for such sick people involves the use of medical apparatus, medication, or surgical procedures, all of which are absolutely forbidden under normal circumstances.
Often the assistance of a non-health professional will be required in order to save a persons life. The most common of these is phoning for an ambulance, driving the sick to the hospital, and carrying utensils into a public domain which are required by the sick person.
It has further been stated: “One who rushes is praiseworthy and one who asks questions is considered a murderer.” () That is to say that in potentially life threatening situations one should not stop and ask questions of a rabbi whether or not it is permissible to desecrate shabbat, instead he should rush to save the persons life.
Following the same trend of thought; if someone is trapped in a room which has caught fire it is permissible to break the door down even if the door is broken into useable pieces of wood, and even if he needs these pieces.()
It has been said by Maimonides that when Shabbat is desecrated we try not to use a gentile or a child instead the desecration should be performed by the great men of Israel and their (the Jewish people’s) wise men. () The reasoning behind this is to prevent people from believing that only with reluctance was it permitted to desecrate shabbat for the gravely ill.
This ruling only refers to these men being of the same professional stature as the gentile, but if the gentile is a better practitioner than the Jew it is better to have the desecration performed by the gentile.
This suspension of the laws of shabbat is certainly not a blanket approval of all desecration of shabbat. It is not permitted for a person who is desecrating shabbat for a sick person to perform additional acts which will serve his own purposes. Examples of this would be to listen to the radio while driving the car, turning on the car fan, turning off the car’s ignition. Additionally, it is forbidden for a healthy person to eat of the food which was prepared for the gravely ill, even if they are left-overs.