The principle of pikku’ach nefesh, whereby all but three mitzvot are set aside when life or health are in danger, is deduced in the Talmud from the verse in today’s sidra, “You shall keep My statutes and ordinances by which he who observes them shall live”.
By saying, “He shall live by them”, the verse implies, “He shall not die because of them”.
Life overrides law with three exceptions, idolatry, murder and adultery, which must never be committed even if one’s life is at stake. The pre-eminent value of life was dramatically illustrated in mid-nineteenth century in the great kehillah of Vilna during a cholera epidemic.
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter feared that fasting on Yom Kippur would gravely affect people’s health and weaken their resistance. He therefore told the community that, Yom Kippur or not, they had to eat and drink, and to show them how serious he was he went up onto the bimah during the service, made a b’rachah and publicly drank wine and ate cake.
The three cardinal sins, idolatry, murder and adultery, can never be condoned. Originally it was thought Shabbat is a law with the same absolute status: it was said that the observance of the Sabbath testifies to the Creation, and its desecration denies Creation and Creator.
This strict view was followed by the Maccabees who at first refused to break Shabbat in order to defend themselves against the enemy. Subsequently, however, they did permit themselves to fight “for our lives and our laws” on the basis that pikku’ach nefesh docheh Shabbat – “the preservation of life overrides the Sabbath”.
The Talmud is adamant that this is the intention of the Torah itself. One sage said, “The verse, ‘And you shall keep Shabbat because it is holy to you‘ (Ex.31:14) indicates, ‘Shabbat is handed over to you; you are not handed over to Shabbat'”.
Another rabbi quoted the verse, “And the Children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations” (Ex.31:16), which implies, “Desecrate for him (whose life is in danger) one Sabbath, so that he may live to observe many Sabbaths”.
Hence the rule is, “Even for a day-old infant, Shabbat may be desecrated; for a dead David, king of Israel, Shabbat may not be desecrated, because a dead person is free from keeping the mitzvot.”
Whether Shabbat can be broken for a non-Jew was provocatively raised in Israel in about 1965 when an anticlericalist, Dr Israel Shahak, alleged he saw an African collapse in the street and the nearest householder, an orthodox Jew, refused to break Shabbat by phoning for a doctor.
It was found that the incident may never have happened, but Chief Rabbi Unterman wrote a responsum clarifying the halachic position and ruling that human beings have to protect other human beings, and a life in danger has to be saved.