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 here, and about Rabbi Ishmael’s response here.)
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah Gives His Answer
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah responded and said: If in performing the ceremony of circumcision, which affects only one member of the body, one is to disregard the laws of Shabbat, how much more should one do so for the whole body when it is in danger! The sages said to him: From the instance that you cited it would also follow that just as there the Shabbat is to be disregarded only in a case of certainty, so too here only in a case of certainty. (Mekhilta on Ex. 31:13)
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah likens pikuach nefesh to another Jewish practice, brit milah – circumcision on the eighth day after birth. At first, his comparison seems fruitful, because brit milah also supersedes Shabbat law when Shabbat coincides with the eighth day.
He strengthens the analogy by pointing out that circumcision takes precedence over Shabbat even though it affects only one part of the body, while saving a life necessarily involves the whole body which would otherwise die.
The reason brit milah conflicts with Shabbat law in the first place is because blood is drawn, something otherwise forbidden on Shabbat. Although the halakhic analogy makes sense in terms of how brit milah and pikuach nefesh supersede Shabbat, the one involves drawing blood while the other presumably involves keeping blood healthily within the body, functioning as its life force.
But while the analogy seems helpful, other rabbis (possibly the ones he is walking with, or some other unnamed collection of sages) strike it down. A critical element for allowing brit milah to supersede Shabbat is that it is only appropriate when the baby is born clearly on Shabbat the week previously. If he was born in the “gray area” between late afternoon and full evening on Friday, when it becomes difficult to tell if the birth happened on Friday or on Shabbat, then the circumcision gets postponed to Sunday.
So the sages point out that any analogy using brit milah will need to include a preference for certainty. Saving a life is simply too important to be allowed only in cases where one is certain that the person is in danger. Better to err on the side of caution, even if Shabbat law must be abandoned.