Rabbi Ishmael’s Torah on Saving a Life

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.)

Apparently this principle was well-known and practiced, but only vaguely linked to the Torah. The three rabbis take up the worthy challenge of clarifying that link, each one locating an analogy in the Torah that by inference could support pikuach nefesh.

Rabbi Ishmael responds first.

Ishmael responded and said: Behold it says, “If a thief be found breaking in, and is struck and dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him” (Exodus 22:1). Now of what case does the law speak? Of a case when there is a doubt whether the burglar came merely to steal or even to kill.

Now, by using the method of kal vachomer, it is to be reasoned: Even shedding of blood, which pollutes the land and causes the Shekhinah to leave, is to supersede the laws of Shabbat if it is to be done in protection of one’s life. How much more should the duty of saving life supersede the laws of Shabbat! (Mekhilta on Ex. 31:13)

The Torah Case

Rabbi Ishmael’s case from Exodus 22 involves a question of legitimate self-defense. The next verse (22:2) says that if the sun is up when the thief enters the house, if the person living there strikes him and kills him, it counts as murder, not self-defense. Why? What’s different between someone breaking-and-entering at night or doing the same during the day?

The rabbinic tradition very practically suggests that someone breaking-and-entering during the day might assume the people are away, and is simply trying to steal something. But, at night he surely must know people are home, and therefore his motive might instead be attempted murder. As Rabbi Ishmael points out, when it is unclear what the motive is, the self-defense is legitimate.

Connecting Torah to Pikuach Nefesh

Having explained his Torah case, Rabbi Ishmael needs to connect it to pikuach nefesh. He does so by kal vachomer reasoning, what in Latin would be called a fortiori, or simply in English as reasoning from the stronger case.

The lesson he derives from his case involves another important Torah concept, that spilling blood (i.e. murder) pollutes the land of Israel, as in Numbers 35:33-34: “Do not pollute the land that you are in, for blood will pollute the land, and atonement will not come for the land for the blood that was spilled blood in it except with the blood of he who spilled it. And you shall not defile the Land that you live in, which I dwell in, for I am God who dwells in the midst of the Israelites.” From here, the rabbinic tradition understands that such pollution would lead God’s presence (Shekhinah) to depart from the land.

So Rabbi Ishmael suggests that even though the consequences are dramatically high for spilling blood, still one can do so if it is necessary to save one’s own life. By comparison, saving someone else’s life while violating Shabbat observance (a less serious offence) must of course be okay.

Weakness and Wisdom from Rabbi Ishmael

The primary weakness in Rabbi Ishmael’s argument that I see is in how he tries to connect the two cases. The Torah case says nothing about Shabbat. Rabbi Ishmael asserts it is talking about someone breaking-and-entering on Shabbat, thus helping him prove the two cases can be compared at all. But the fact remains that the Torah does not refer to Shabbat there, so his fabrication makes the whole structure flimsy.

Nevertheless, his response reveals intriguing insights, such as how God’s presence resembles the experience of Shabbat, and how both can be disrupted by human action (shedding blood or breaking Shabbat law), but that ultimately God’s concern is for life, whether in self-defense or through saving someone else. Holiness, divine union, religious ritual reality, and perhaps even perfectionism must all be set aside when life, the grounding upon which they ultimately matter, is at stake.