The famous story about Hillel's devotion to Torah learning in Yoma 25b tells that Hillel endangered his life by trying to listen to Shmayah and Avtalyon in extremely cold weather until he fell unconscious. When they found him in the morning under 5 feet of snow:

פרקוהו והרחיצוהו וסיכוהו והושיבוהו כנגד המדורה אמרו...
ראוי זה לחלל עליו את השבת

They extricated him from the snow, and they washed him and smeared oil on him, and they sat him opposite the bonfire to warm him. They said: This man is worthy for us to desecrate Shabbat for him.

Sefaria's WD comment: Saving a life overrides Shabbat in any case; however, this great man is especially deserving.

I understand from that wording (assuming they actually uttered it) that for them not every Jew was worth of saving on Shabbos.

When learning Hilchos Shabbos (Shus OC 328-330) I don't recall any discussion of who's worth or not be saved on Shabbos. Is it a Machlokes ever since? Who (besides them) holds the opinion that some Jews are not worthy of being saved?

  • I don’t think they meant literally that he is worth being saved and most other people aren’t. Just that he is such a great man that it was “worth it” to save him, whereas saving a rasha (or even a beinoney) is less “worth it”. Not halachicly, just morally. – Lo ani Sep 28 '19 at 19:52
  • Also, I don’t think that there is any halachic authority, from any era, that argues with the axiom “פיקוח נפש דוחה את השבת” – Lo ani Sep 28 '19 at 19:54
  • @Loani Look at MB שכ"ט ג he might be arguing that. – Al Berko Sep 28 '19 at 20:00
  • @Loani I would argue that saving a Rasha is worthier like in חמור שונאך. – Al Berko Sep 28 '19 at 20:02

In the course of a wide-ranging teshuvah about pikuach nefesh on Shabbos, the Tzitz Eliezer quotes several explanations:

  1. (from Kapei Aharon) According to one view (R' Shimon ben Menasya), it might be permissible to violate Shabbos for pikuach nefesh only if the person will thereby be able to keep future Shabbosos, but not for חיי שעה, if they're anyway going to die soon. (That's not the accepted halachah, though.) Shmaya and Avtalyon may have held according to this opinion, and so they were saying that for such a person, even his חיי שעה is worth breaking Shabbos to save. (He notes that they said this only after they treated Hillel, because the point wasn't to urge their students to do everything possible to save his life - they would know to do that anyway, unless indeed they had reason to think that he'd have only חיי שעה.)

  2. (based on an opinion cited in Minchas Chinuch) Possibly, according to that view, only derabanans may be violated for חיי שעה, not deoraisas. The things they did for Hillel (bathing and anointing him, and putting him in front of a fire to warm up) are all derabanans, so their point was that for such a person, we could have violated even deoraisas if necessary.

  3. (from the Shevus Yaakov) Even though Hillel had risked his own life getting into this situation, the fact that he did it for the sake of Torah makes it permissible to break Shabbos to save him (whereas in other cases, if a person puts themselves in danger, it may not be allowed to do so - the Tzitz Eliezer goes on to discuss this point, and the different opinions about it, in detail).

  4. (from the Chida) Of course we break Shabbos to save any Jew's life. But if the person then ends up committing aveiros, they might well have been (spiritually) better off if they hadn't being saved. Shmaya and Avtalyon were saying that Hillel, being a tzaddik gamur who had mesiras nefesh for Torah, is not like that - he's far better off having had Shabbos broken to save his life.

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