In an old MSNBC news story about Jack Lew, a Shabbat-observant Jew who was just appointed to be the new White House Chief of Staff, there's a story about his getting a call from President Clinton when Lew was his budget director. It says:

Lew later consulted with his rabbi, who said that taking an important phone call from the President of the United States would be permissible on the Sabbath under the Talmudic teaching that work on the Sabbath is allowed in order to save a life.

I've heard similar stories about other highly-placed Shabbat-observers who got special dispensation to take actions on Shabbat that are normally considered forbidden, due to their high positions in government. One example is this paragraph from New York Times (August 18, 2000) about Senator Joe Lieberman:

Mr. Lieberman, with the help of his two rabbis, Rabbi Al Feldman in New Haven as well as Rabbi Freundel, has derived a way to reconcile the requirements of Jewish law with his responsibilities as an elected official. Jewish law teaches that one may break the Sabbath if the matter involves ''concern for human life.'' Mr. Lieberman and his rabbis have interpreted that by drawing a line between governing and campaigning. That means he will not break the Sabbath to campaign, but he is required to break the Sabbath to cast a Senate vote or take crucial action on public policy.

  • Is this concept recorded anywhere in responsa literature?

    There have been many other Sabbath-observant Jews throughout history in high places in non-Jewish government (although the relatively recent development of instantaneous global communications makes such issues more likely to come up nowadays). I imagine that this issue comes up for many people in the Israeli government, but there could be special reasons that apply to working for the Jewish State that may not apply to any other government.

  • What is the rationale behind applying the doctrine of "threat to life" to the actions of people in such positions?

  • Does it really apply, for example, to any "important" call from the President to his budget director? Wouldn't the connection between most such calls and any threat to life be very tenuous?


1 Answer 1


Summary: Many believe that when it comes to applying halacha on a level that will affect the general public, we must be far more conservative in our concern for the welfare of others. In a modern sense, we would call this an application of the Law of Large Numbers, whereby we are concerned for far reaching cases of pikuach nefesh such as the general economic operation of a country, even though no immediate sense of pikuach nefesh, saving a life, might be apparent.

A start to an answer can be found here:

הלכות מדינה כתחום עצמאי - חיים נבון‎

In short, many conclude that laws relevant to the general public are essentially different from laws for individuals.

From Rav Kook (משפט כוהן, סי' קמ"ג)‎:

וכל אלה ועוד כיוצא בהם הם שרידים שנשארו לנו ממשפטי המלוכה, שהם אינם על פי גדרי התורה של הלכות יחיד. ובמקום אחר בארתי, שגם אלה יש להם מקור בתורה, אלא שדרכי הדרשה בזה נמסרו לכל מלך כבינתו הרחבה

These and many others are remnants from the laws of a kingdom [Ed. i.e. a functioning political state], which are not in the bounds of laws of the individual. In other places I've explained, that these too [Ed. laws of a political state] also have a source in the Torah, but rather the rules of interpretation were dependent on the understanding of each king.

A good example given is the following (Shabbat 42):

מכבין גחלת של מתכת ברשות הרבים, בשביל שלא יזוקו בה רבים.‏

One should extinguish burning metal in the public roadway in order that it will not harm the public.

The Ramban (ad loc.), expressing the views of the Geonim, explains:

בהלכות גדולות מצאתי - גבי גחלת של עץ לית בה היזק רבים, מאי טעמא - כמה דלא כביא אית בה סומקא, וקא חזו לה, ולא אתי לאיתזוק בה; אבל גחלת של מתכת, אע"ג דאזיל סומקא קליא, ולא חזו לה, ואתו לאיתזוקי בה... וכ"כ ר"ח ז"ל כדבריו. ותימה הוא, איך אנו מתירים מלאכה גמורה משום היזק שלא במקום סכנת נפשות. ושמא כל היזק של רבים, כסכנת נפשות חשיב ליה שמואל.‏

In the Behag [Ba'al Halachot Gedolot] I have found - regarding burning wood there is no harm to the public, why? If it's not extinguished it will remain glowing red, people will see it and will be careful from being harmed; but burning metal, even though it's slightly red, it's not noticeable, and people will come to be harmed... Rabbi Chananel writes similarly. This is problematic -- how can we permit wholly prohibited work [e.g. a melacha de'orayta] because of concern of harm if it's not a case of fearing for a person's life? [e.g. if it's not pikuach nefesh, saving a person's life, why are we instructed to commit a flagrant melacha de'orayta, Biblical act of work, only to prevent minor harm to the public?]. Perhaps any harm to the public, is equivalent to saving a person's life according to Shmuel.

Based on this principle, Rav Shaul Yisraeli permits going to a non-halachically required war (milchemet reshut) for the purpose of preventing financial loss. See עמוד הימיני, עמ' קמו‎:

נראה שיסוד הדברים הוא שכל מה שנוגע לשלום הציבור או סילוק נזק ממנו, הכל נחשב כפיקוח נפש, כי כל מה שכרוך בשלום הציבור יש בו בעקיפין עניין עם פיקוח נפש. פרנסת היחיד, לדוגמה, אין בה משום פיקוח נפש; אבל אם הציבור יהא מחוסר פרנסה, אפילו אם אין זה נוגע ללחם, הרי לא יימלט שבאחד מבין הרבים יהא כזה שהוא צריך לאוכל יותר משובח, באופן שאצלו זה יכול להיות פיקוח נפש. וכן כל מלחמה שהיא מביאה הרווחה, ועל ידי זה ניתנת אפשרות לטפל יותר בחולים ותשושים, מה שאינו קיים בזמן שהתנאים הכלכליים הם ירודים. וכן מלחמה שהיא להרבות שמעו של המלך, יש להניח שעל ידי זה יפחדו האויבים מלבא, וירבו אלה המעונינים לבא אתו בברית, מה שגם כן מביא למצב כלכלי יותר טוב, ועל ידי זה מתרבה בריאות הציבור. וכן עניין של סילוק הנזק בציבור בעניין הגחלת, אמנם זה מצד עצמו אינו מסוכן, אבל הרי ייתכן שהניזוק לא יוכל לצאת לעבודה, וייתכן גם שהוא בודד ולא יוכל להגיד למישהו שיבואו לעזור לו, ועל ידי כן יכול הדבר הקטן הזה להביא לידי פיקוח נפש. וכיוצא בזה מיני ציורים, שאם אנו חושבים על זה לגבי היחיד הרי זה רחוק, שאין לחשוש מזה; ומכל מקום, באופן ציבורי הרי זה קורה סוף סוף, ולגבי פיקוח נפש גם זה מובא בחשבון.‏

It appears that the basis of the matter is that anything related to the public peace or removing harm to the public, is considered 'saving a life', because anything entailing public peace is at least tangentially related to 'saving a life.' An individual's livelihood, for example, is not 'saving a life'; but if the general public will be lacking in livelihood, even if it's not precisely one's bread, it's impossible that there won't be an individual among the public who requires better food, in such a manner that for that individual it could be 'saving a life'. Similarly, any war that brings benefit, and thereby allows for the sick and old to be better cared for, which isn't possible during time of poor economic conditions [i.e. if a war wasn't launched and instead people are afraid of attack from surrounding countries]. Similarly, war whose purpose is to gain 'prestige' for a king, which one can assume will cause surrounding enemies to be more fearful, and surrounding neighbors will be more willing to make peace, which will also bring to greater economic prosperity, and thereby will bring about better public health. Similarly regarding removing something which potentially causes damage to the public like the coal [e.g. burning metal], even if itself is not dangerous, but perhaps it will cause the injured individual from going to work, and perhaps he lives on his own and can't ask for help from others, and therefore perhaps this little thing [e.g. removing the smoldering metal] could bring about saving a life. Similarly many other circumstances, if we think about an individual perhaps the chances are small and we need not be concerned; but in any event, for the public it will eventually happen [e.g. Law of Large Numbers], and therefore we must also consider it as 'saving a life.'

Similarly, in an article printed in the halachic journal of Assiya (הרב מ"מ פרבשטיין, אסיא נג-נד, תשנ"ד, עמ' 100‏‎), it is recorded that Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach permitted soldiers to perform non-life saving work on Shabbat. The soldier's job was to understand various transmissions, but wanted to not decipher the ones he assumed were unimportant to 'saving a life', pikuach nefesh:

ניגשנו יחד להגרש"ז לשאול לחוות דעתו, והוא פסק כי החייל חייב לפענח את כל השדרים... למרות שאין כל הבדל בהלכה בין פיקוח נפש של יחיד ושל רבים, ואף על ספק פיקוח נפש של יחיד מחללין שבת, בכל זאת יש הבדל גדול ביניהם ברמת הסיכון הנחשבת לפיקוח נפש... למשל, אנשים אינם נרתעים מנסיעות בין עירוניות, על אף שיש בהן אחוז סיכון מסוים, נניח של אחד ל-10,000. אבל אין כל ספק שראש מדינה אשר ייטול סיכון של אחד ל-10,000 על מדינתו - ייחשב כבלתי אחראי למעשיו, דעל ציבור דרגת סיכון כזו נחשבת לסכנה. ולפיכך פסק הגרש"ז שעל החייל לפענח את כל השדרים, כיוון שהנידון בהם הוא בטחון המדינה, אף על פי שאותו אחוז של סיכון לגבי אדם פרטי לא היה נחשב לפיקוח נפש.‏

We came to Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach to ask his opinion, and he decided that the soldier should decipher all of the transmissions... even though there is no halachic distinction between pikuach nefesh [Ed. saving a life] of an individual or of the public, and even though regarding a doubt of saving a life we still must violate Shabbat, nevertheless there is a great difference between the level of danger that is considered for saving a life... For instance, people aren't concerned about taking an intercity bus, even though there is a certain danger involved, let's say 1 in 10,000. But there is not doubt that a head of state who will take a 1 in 10,000 chance of danger for his country - would be considered irresponsible, because at the level of the public, that level of danger is considered a [true] danger. Therefore Rabbi Auerbach decided that the soldier should decipher all of the communications, because it relates to the state's security, even though the same percentage of danger for an individual would not be considered 'saving a life'.

Similarly, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, former Chief Rabbi of Israel, permitted the use of Jewish medical cadavers for use in medical schools because in the case of the welfare of the general public we must be concerned about future saving of life, pikuach nefesh, i.e. by training good doctors. (Even though regarding cases of an individual, the circumstance of 'saving a life' must be immediate and at hand.) (הרב ש' גורן, תורת הרפואה, עמ' 235‏‎)

Of interest would also be a collection of articles (650 pages) compiled by Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli and the Eretz Chemda Institute which deals with issues of state and halacha: התורה והמדינה‎; and also the journal תחומין‎.

  • 2
    On Yom Kippur in 1996, I was in the Yereshun Synagogue in Jerusalem sitting next to the then very elderly former NRP leader Yosef Berg -- a member of several Israeli cabinets. During the break I sat there in awe as he told me how the entire cabinet had met in a room just behind the bimah of that synagogue on Yom Kippur 1973 as the country was mobilizing for war and responding to the Egyptian and Syrian attacks. Feb 26, 2013 at 16:20

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .