Question: What does a Sabbath-observant doctor do when a friend or neighbor needs emergency medical assistance on Shabbat? The answer: Everything necessary. Call an ambulance, cut a bandage, use a defibrillator…

Jewish law is quite clear that when it comes to saving a life, there is no question that one may overlook the prohibitions of Shabbat. In fact, the rabbis declare: “The Sabbath is superseded when life is threatened; and the more alacrity with which this is done, the greater is the praise” (Yoma 84b).

This ruling applies not only to doctors, but to all people. And the very same passage in the Talmud cited above goes on to offer numerous examples of life saving actions, such as a child falling into the sea or into a pit or extinguishing a fire. Cases such as these (drowning, fire) are most often clear-cut situations when a person must think and act fast in order to save the victim.

But what of those cases that are difficult to determine whether they are life threatening or not?

This, as in many instances of Jewish law, requires one to be an honest judge of the situation. The operative rule always is: one must always err on the side of caution and do whatever is necessary to save a life.

And while one is permitted to override the rules of Shabbat in order to save a life, one has to keep those laws at the forefront of one’s thoughts and not violate Shabbat unnecessarily. For instance, if one does go to a hospital and has a choice of an automatic door or a manual door, one should use the manual door to avoid completing the circuit that activates the electric door (as long as it does not delay treatment).

This Treat was last posted on February 23, 2010.

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