Three rabbis and two students are walking along the path, and a question arises: What is the scriptural basis for pikuach nefesh, the principle that saving a life takes precedence over observing the restrictions of Shabbat? (Read more about the setup to this story, and the responses of Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah.)
Rabbi Akiva speaks up.
Rabbi Akiva says: If punishment for murder sets aside even the Temple service, which in turn supersedes the Shabbat, how much more should the duty of saving a life supersede the laws of Shabbat! (Mekhilta on Ex. 31:13)
The Temple Service
What is the Temple service? On a functional level, it involves the sacrificial offering of various animals, grains, or fruits. All or part of the offering would be burned, with the remainder eaten or discarded.
Murder and the Temple Service
Rabbi Akiva’s argument for pikuach nefesh taking precedence over observance of Shabbat seems a bit convoluted. We first need to understand what punishing murderers has to do with the Temple service (the precursor to our contemporary prayer services).
In Talmud Bavli Yevamot 6b-7a, a lengthy discussion suggests that the key link is the prohibition on lighting fire on Shabbat. The Torah, which leaves so much of Shabbat observance vague, is quite clear in declaring that no fire should be lit on Shabbat. And yet, the Temple service – the very heart of Jewish ritual – involved fire to burn the sacrificial offerings! This simple fact proves that the Temple service supersedes Shabbat.
The Talmudic discussion is concerned with proving that the death penalty for murderers supersedes Shabbat as well, a potential problem because one method of capital punishment involved burning. The Talmud connects the death penalty with the Temple service via a prooftext from Exodus 21:14, “You shall take him from My altar, that he may die.” Based on the literal reading of the verse, execution can interrupt the Temple service, and if the Temple service supersedes Shabbat law, then logically murderers can be executed on Shabbat.
Rabbi Akiva adds to this chain the idea that if we must punish those who destroy a life, how much the more so should we seek to preserve life if given the opportunity! Therefore, if pikuach nefesh is greater or equal to punishing those who murder, which interrupts the Temple service, which supersedes Shabbat, then pikuach nefesh supersedes Shabbat.
A parallel discussion in Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 35b-36a leaves that chain of logic less conclusive. Additionally, this line of thinking, while interesting and educational (for me as I tried to sort out the rabbit hole of halakhah), begins to feel ridiculous. It comes across as an ex post facto rationale, rather than an organic development of principle. Most probably, all of these midrashim around pikuach nefesh were ex post facto, but the artistry in my opinion is in elegance rather than complexity. Rabbi Akiva lives up to his reputation as an interpreter of the obscure here.
Nevertheless, consider for a moment the hierarchy of values here. Saving a life comes first. Then, punishing those who take life and by extension creating a system that disincentivizes murder. After these basic, physical principles of protecting life comes the value of centralized worship ritual. The Temple service gave life and meaning to the members of Israelite culture. Rituals that bind us together and animate community are incredibly important, but not to the point where they allow death-dealing situations to occur.
Finally, Shabbat serves as the baseline – both a regular, weekly refresher and a taste of what an ideal world looks like. According to Rabbi Akiva (and all of the opinions so far), our ideals should be cherished, but not to the point where we neglect more practical values such as saving lives.