The Story of Pikuach Nefesh Begins

After a Tisha b’Av tangent, I’m back to examining midrashim on Shabbat, from the collection Mekhilta (3rd century CE). You can see earlier posts here and here.

Saving a Life Trumps Shabbat

This next midrash is long and I’ll cover it in multiple posts. Here’s the prologue.

“Once R. Ishmael, R. Elazar ben Azariah, and R. Akiba were walking along the road followed by Levi the netmaker and Ishmael the son of R. Elazar ben Azariah. And the following question was asked among them: From where do we know that the duty of saving life supersedes the laws of Shabbat?” (Mekhilta on Ex. 31:13)

This story will pull us right into the heart of a well-known Jewish understanding that pikuach nefesh, saving a life, takes precedence even over Shabbat, that sacred and central practice of Judaism. I take pride in knowing that at the core of Jewish ritual lies a practical ethic of life over principle. Here, we have the earliest textual source for that teaching (it later gets adapted in the Talmud, B. Yoma 85a-b).

Before we get to how the rabbis answer the question, I want to ponder the setup. Three rabbis (and famous ones at that) are walking along, with two apparent students following them. A question is asked. Given that the two students never offer their opinions, it is probably they who question their mentors. The midrash presents itself as a story, rather than a simple record of interpretations.

How come?

Reason 1: Demonstrating Reality

The rabbis are walking along, pondering life and Torah as they do. When the question arises, it is not: “Should saving a life be more important than observing the restrictions of Shabbat.” Rather, it is: “What Torah source supports this lived reality?” In other words, the sheer banality of a conversation while walking illustrates that the precedence of pikuach nefesh is well-established, and that the goal here is simply to attach biblical sources to that reality.

Reason 2: Creating Reality

The details hook us. They provoke questions. Why did this conversation come up? Were the students trying to stump their teachers. Were they genuinely curious? Was this actually a Shabbat stroll, and did they just have to save someone, thus prompting the question? Even though none of these wonderings are resolved, and indeed, even though after the setup there will be no further story element to the midrash, just the occasional context to the midrashic teachings gives us a sense that early rabbinic Judaism was alive and in the world. Almost all we have is a text, and very little evidence otherwise of the time. These brief moments where we witness the rabbis concretizes our imagining of their lives, not just their teachings. Through story, we metaphorically follow the rabbis just as their students literally follow them on the path in this midrash.

Why do you think story matters in midrash or anywhere else?