Pikuach Nefesh: Opinions Beyond the Story

The conclusion to this midrash (Mekhilta on Ex. 31:13) on pikuach nefesh (saving a life) and its precedence over observing Shabbat boundaries suddenly leaves the framing story behind.

The midrash began by relating that three rabbis (and some students) were wandering along when they were asked how we know that saving a life matters more than observing Shabbat. The midrash faithfully relates what each of the three rabbis opined, but then we get three more opinions from sages not present in the story.

In this way, we see the effervescent nature of Jewish learning bursting beyond original contexts, not limited to one story but transcending space and time. Although the number of opinions matches the number of rabbis here, this midrash cannot help but illustrate the old joke “two Jews, three opinions.” In this case, three rabbis – no, wait! – six rabbis with opinions. The editor of the midrash gathers them all.

The Final Teachings

The post-story opinions leave behind the strained hermeneutics of the first set of responses, and speak concisely if creatively.

Rabbi Yose HaGalili says: When it says, “But My Shabbatot you shall keep” (Exodus 31:13), the word “but” (ach) implies a distinction. There are Shabbatot on which you must rest and there are Shabbatot on which you should not rest.

Rabbi Shimon ben Menasya says: Behold it says, “And you shall keep Shabbat for it is holy unto you” (Exodus 3:14). This means: Shabbat is given to you but you are not surrendered to the Shabbat.

Rabbi Natan says: Behold it says, “Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep Shabbat to observe Shabbat throughout their generations” (Exodus 31:16). This implies that we should disregard one Shabbat for the sake of saving the life of a person so that that person may be able to observe many Shabbatot.

Only one of these opinions directly addresses pikuach nefesh, that of Rabbi Natan. Nevertheless, all three contribute to our understanding of how we properly relate to the sacred seventh day.

To Rest or Not to Rest

Rabbi Yose HaGalili picks up on the unusual choice to use the word “but”, and assumes that therefore there must be alternative choices. For him, sometimes one must rest on Shabbat, and other times one must not. The implication in context is that when one can save lives, one must not rest. This refers only to immediate opportunities to save lives – one shouldn’t keep working on Shabbat in order to make money in order to donate a percentage of it to a charity that over time saves lives. But nonetheless, it’s a radical idea that not only does pikuach nefesh override Shabbat, but that a particular Shabbat might not be suitable for rest because lives are at stake.

The Freedom of, and from, Shabbat

Rabbi Shimon ben Menasya goes one step further. Shabbat is ours [presumably to keep and observe in enlivening ways], and we are not hostages of Shabbat. Shabbat becomes holy based on how we respond to it. When we need to save a life, Shabbat’s holiness is enacted through rescue. When we need rest, Shabbat’s holiness infuses our calmness. In contemporary, progressive Judaism, I would argue that when we clarify and commit to whatever Shabbat observance or practice we choose, Shabbat becomes holy to us.

Deviance for the Sake of Continuity

Rabbi Natan brings us directly back to pikuach nefesh, and suggests that the reason we can save a life on Shabbat is so the person whose life we saved can observe many more Shabbatot. This principle reminds us that for the most part, we can and must deviate from our normal ritual practices when keeping them strictly would undermine the larger system. The psalms say that the dead do not praise God, nor do they observe Shabbat. Preservation of life must be enshrined at a foundational level in order for Shabbat to play its part in our lives.

Which of these opinions speaks most to you?