Pikuach Nefesh and Changing the Halakhic Lifestyle

By: Shayna Herszage  |  April 24, 2020

By Shayna Herszage

The past several weeks have been a lesson for modern society about functioning in unprecedented circumstances. In the era of COVID-19, schools and most workplaces have learned to function remotely, and almost all human interaction and connection is indirect to protect our health and wellbeing.

One of the more difficult transitions in the global Jewish community, particularly during Passover, has been the closure of synagogues. In a time when prayer is so important to many people, as they pray for their loved ones and for hundreds of thousands of people around the world to recover from the virus, how can prayer suddenly go from communal to solitary? How can we all purposely miss praying with a minyan for weeks on end, especially over a holiday?

In fact, many have responded by holding (or attempting to hold) illegal minyanim or other religious-based gatherings. These illegal gatherings, while established with the intention to maintain and be stringent on halakhah, puts the health and wellbeing of others at risk.

In Masekhet Shabbat, we learn that this is not what Judaism is meant to be about. In Shabbat 3a, Shmuel is cited as saying:

כֹּל פְּטוּרֵי דְשַׁבָּת פָּטוּר אֲבָל אָסוּר, בַּר מֵהָנֵי תְּלָת דְּפָטוּר וּמוּתָּר: צֵידַת צְבִי, וְצֵידַת נָחָשׁ, וּמֵפִיס מוּרְסָא!

“With regard to all exempt rulings in the halakhot of Shabbat, although one who performs the action is exempt by Torah law, his action is prohibited by rabbinic law. This applies to all cases except for these three cases for which one is exempt and he is permitted to perform the action: Trapping a deer, where he does not actually trap it, rather he sits in the entrance of a house that a deer had previously entered on its own, preventing its exit; and trapping a poisonous snake because of the danger that it poses; and one who drains an abscess, meaning one who lances the boil of pus and drains the liquid from it.”

The three cases listed above are permitted by rabbinic law, despite the fact that originally one would consider them to be prohibited. The second and third items of the list, trapping a poisonous snake and draining an abscess, are permitted because to prohibit them would cause a health risk.

This source is an example which displays the importance of pikuach nefesh — in Judaism, we are meant to protect the lives and the health of ourselves and our peers, even if that means we must bend the way we maintain other halakhot. We see this in the Torah in Vayikra 18:5, which states:

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֤ם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי֙ וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֨ר יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה אֹתָ֛ם הָאָדָ֖ם וָחַ֣י בָּהֶ֑ם…

“You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live…”

Learning this daf in the time we live in now is particularly fitting, especially to a statement made prior to the first days of Passover — which fell on a Thursday and Friday, causing them to run together with Shabbat, making a particularly long yom tov. Without synagogue or the hosting of guests over the three days, the resulting isolation posed a risk to mental and emotional health of those observing. To support those who may struggle in these ways during the long yom tov, Rabbi Mordechai Willig stated that rabbis, while observing the holiday, should keep their phones on and be available by phone call or text message in order to support those who may be struggling.

Following his statement, other rabbis, and even non-rabbis, began to make the same statements: their phones would be on throughout the holiday, for the purpose of pikuach nefesh.

In response to these precautions taken to protect physical and mental health, one may argue: should we be changing the way we observe holidays and the way we pray for only potential risks of physical and mental struggling? It could be that no one in a specific congregation is carrying COVID-19, and it could be that, in the long yom tov, no one will.

The answer to this question lies within Masekhet Yoma, in 84b:

היכי דמי כגון דאמדוה לתמניא יומי ויומא קמא שבתא מהו דתימא ליעכב עד לאורתא כי היכי דלא ניחול עליה תרי שבתא קמ”ל

“What are the circumstances in which uncertainty would arise as to whether or not his life will be in danger in the future? They are a case where doctors assess that an ill person needs a certain treatment for eight days, and the first day of his illness is Shabbat. Lest you say: He should wait until evening and begin his treatment after Shabbat so they will not need to desecrate two Shabbatot for his sake, therefore it teaches us that one must immediately desecrate Shabbat for his sake. This is the halakha, despite the fact that an additional Shabbat will be desecrated as a result, because there is uncertainty about whether his life is in danger.”

This source comes to show that, even if the risk is only a potential one, it is better to have transgressed on a halakhah than to have risked dying to maintain a mitzvah. Therefore, even if we are not sure if a congregant has COVID-19, or even if we are not sure if someone will be in a dangerous state of mental or emotional health, it is our duty as members of the global community to change the ways we observe our faith. In fact, these sources show that acting out of concern for individual and public health is a mitzvah and a way of observing Judaism in itself.

To bring the message back to our sugya in Masekhet Shabbat, the dangers that have risen in the world, like the poisonous snake and the boil, give Jewish society a choice. We can either ignore the problems and continue with our minyanim and turn off our phones completely over the holidays, or we can acknowledge the problems and accommodate them into how we live our Jewish lives. As we see in this portion of Masekhet Shabbat, however, the answer is clear: we cannot observe Judaism in a vacuum, ignoring matters of health and wellbeing, in good conscience.