Saving a Life on Shabbat

Shabbat (18:3) | Yisrael Bankier | 13 years ago

The last Mishnah in the eighteenth perek teaches that one may desecrate Shabbat for the sake of a woman in labour. The Bartenura explains that that woman is considered in a life threatening situation. Consequently the prohibitions of Shabbat are overridden to save her life. 

The first difficulty we encounter is that a Beraitia (Shabbat 128b) teaches that if is woman needs oil, her friends may bring it to her. However the Beraita appear to preference that it be carried with a shinui. Our assumption has been however that in the case of danger the prohibitions of Shabbat are overridden. According to the Rema (OC 328:12) there is no problem, because he rules that where a shinui would cause absolutely no delay then it should be employed. 

The Shulchan Aruch however rules that in a life threatening situation on Shabbat there should be no preference to use other people (e.g. minors or nochrim). Instead the more eager one is to desecrate Shabbat to save another’s life the better. The Aruch HaShulchan explains that there is a concern that if the task is given to others, people might think that overriding Shabbat is not really ideal and might resist if faced with a similar case in the future (Ran). Additionally there is a concern that doing so will cause an unnecessary delay. How then can the Shulchan Aruch (330:1) also rule like the above Beraita that when bringing oils to a woman in labour it should be done with a shinui where possible?

The Mishnah Berura (330:5) answers that the labour pains are natural and not commonly fatal. Consequently this case is an exception, in that the Chachamim were slightly more stringent, provided that shinui does not create any extra delay. 

This discussion gets more interesting as we move to the nineteenth perek that deals with a brit millah on Shabbat. It opens with the debate between R’ Eliezer and R’ Akiva regarding the scope of activities that would ordinarily be prohibited on Shabbat, the may be performed for the sake of the brit millah. R’ Akiva has a more restricted position that those activities that could be performed prior to Shabbat cannot be performed on Shabbat. In the second Mishnah it teaches that if one did not grind the cumin that was used for medicinal purposes prior to Shabbat, he cannot do so on Shabbat, but only chew it instead. The Bartenura explains that where possible we use a shinui. The Bach (331:1) elaborates that the requirement of a shinui is only prior to the Brit Millah. After the Brit Millah, when there is a clear and present danger, no shinui is required.    

It gets difficult however when the following question is raised by the Ran. Earlier it was understood that bathing the baby in hot water after the brit was critical for the baby’s health. What would the law be if the water spilt prior to the brit? There is no danger to the baby now. Can we continue with the brit, thereby placing the baby in danger and necessitating the desecration of Shabbat? The Beit Yosef  (YD 266) brings two opinions. The Ramban rules that the brit millah goes ahead. It is the mitzvah to be performed now and it is not pushed off due to a future danger. Indeed the Mishnah seems to suggest that one prepares the cumin with a shinui or brings the bandage by “wearing” it in order that the brit can continue. 

The Razah and Rashba however argue that the brit must be delayed. So how do they explain our Mishnah? They explains that the case is where they only discovered that they forgot to prepare the cumin and bandage after the milah is performed. We find therefore that according to this opinion a shinui is required even in this dangerous situation. The difficulty is that the Beit Yosef (Shulchan Aruch) rules like that Razah. R’ Akiva Eiger (YD 266:6) makes note, as we have stated, that according to this understanding, the Mishnah’s requirement of a shinui is after the brit millah. Consequently we have another difficulty on the Shulchan Aruch. Why is the case of a brit millah different in that it requires a shinui?

The Sefat Emet explains that while no shinui is ordinarily needed for an ill person that is in danger, perhaps that case of a brit millah is different. Firstly the brit millah being on Shabbat was known in advance. Furthermore one could have prepared these things prior to Shabbat. Finally, the necessity of these items was common. Consequently the Chachamim required a shinui in this case.

As always, please do not draw any practical conclusions from these articles and instead seek halachic advise for your local rabbinic authority.   


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