Why doctors can heal on Shabbat

It took rabbis several centuries to justify how saving life could take precedence over Sabbath observance


None of us would think twice about a Jewish doctor rushing off to hospital to perform an emergency operation on a Saturday morning rather than going to shul. We take it for granted that pikuach nefesh, saving life, takes precedence over the prohibitions against work on Shabbat.

But this is not something explicitly permitted in the Torah. The Hebrew Bible contains no incidents of healing on Shabbat. The sages who set about codifying Jewish law classified healing as “work” — it involves the mixing of medicines, travelling to the patient, carrying equipment and other tasks generally forbidden on the Sabbath day.

While there is little doubt that the Jewish people always healed and saved life on Shabbat, the ruling which allowed it came only after nearly three centuries of debate. Shabbat prohibitions were taken very seriously in Maccabean times. When one thousand strictly observant Jews, including women and children, were attacked by the Macedonians on the Sabbath, the Jews refused to fight in accordance with Sabbath law and, not surprisingly, all of them were killed.

After this tragedy, Mattathias the priest and Jewish leader at the time — he was the father of the famous Maccabee brothers — decreed that the Jews could defend themselves on the Sabbath day. Otherwise, he explained, their enemies would always attack on the Sabbath day and the Jewish people would cease to exist. This ruling was thus wholly pragmatic and sensible, and what you might expect. But it was not justified according to written Torah law.

The sages were left with a problem. How could the work of healing and saving life on the Sabbath be justified according to Torah law, which forbade “work” on the Sabbath. The problem could be solved only by a further revelation of Jewish oral law.

A partial record of their debates in the first century is preserved in the pages of the New Testament, where Jesus justifies healing on the Sabbath day. But scholarly analysis shows that the arguments used to justify Sabbath healing which are now attributed to Jesus can be traced back to Jewish sources, even though they are not now recorded in any Jewish texts.

It seems that the gospel writers wanted to show Jesus as a halachist who debated on equal terms with the Pharisees, the most respected of the Jewish sages of the time. Many of the words of Jesus on the subject of healing are, in fact, derived from arguments used by Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah (of Haggadah fame), Rabbi Akiva and especially Rabbi Ishmael, who was the first to be associated with the phrase pikuach nefesh, a phrase which he apparently invented for any action that saved life at the expense of any Jewish law.

But the arguments proposed by these first-century sages were difficult to understand. Further arguments were therefore suggested in the second century CE. These were all based on simple interpretations of Torah texts, especially those from Shemot (Exodus), and were easy to repeat.

Finally, at the end of the second century, Samuel of Nehardeah, who was head of the yeshivah in Nehardeah in Babylon, “revealed” the full meaning of the verse to which most rabbis will refer when they are asked about healing on the Sabbath day. This is the text of Leviticus 18:5, “You shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments; which if a man does, he shall live in them.”

The simple meaning of this text commands the Jewish people to keep Torah law “in their own lives”. The added, hidden meaning revealed by Simon of Nehardeah suggests that the Jewish people can observe Torah law, only if they do not die. In other words, acts of healing and saving life must always take place on the Sabbath, in order that the Jewish people can keep the Torah.

This simple interpretation finally justified healing on the Sabbath. It is, however, important to note that all through the centuries of the Jewish debate — from the mid-second century BCE to the end of the second century CE— there is evidence that the Jewish sages always allowed healing on the Sabbath day, even though this was apparently prohibited by Torah law.

Care for the sick and the sanctity of life has always been a priority in Jewish life. According to an early oral law, probably issued before 70 CE, it was even allowed to extinguish a light (an otherwise prohibited Sabbath act) in order to help an invalid to sleep. It is clear that the physical comfort of the sick was just as important as the process of healing and saving of life.

As is stated in the Mishnah, the earliest post-biblical record of Jewish law: “If any person saves alive a single life, Judaism considers that he has saved the whole world” (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4.5).

Jesus, the Sabbath and the Jewish Debate, by Nina L. Collins, is published by Bloomsbury and available from Amazon

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