Tuesday, January 19, 2010

rescue efforts even on Shabbos

My BIL posted an article from the Jewish Post describing the relief efforts of Israeli doctors and other personnel in Haiti. The article mentions that, “Among the staff are Orthodox Jews who went to Haiti even though it was Shabbat. Reiss said they avoided performing unnecessarily tasks like shaving, but did everything needed to save lives.”

This makes for wonderful public relations, but I have no doubt that these individuals did not go to Haiti with the intent of scoring a public relations coup – they went because a Jew cannot help but react with compassion when he/she sees a fellow human being in distress. It is our instinctive nature to be rachmanim and gomlei chassadim, to act selflessly to help others.

This response resonates with our emotional and moral sensibilities, and yet I wonder if it is the correct response. Once a situation of ones has arisen all issurim are suspended. However, the Ba’al haMaor writes that a person cannot place him/herself in a situation of inevitable ones by choice. A person may not embark on a ship immediately before Shabbos because he/she will have to violate Shabbos if anything goes wrong onboard –once the ones is there one can do what is necessary to save the ship, Shabbos notwithstanding, but one may not intentionally enter into that situation by choosing to embark before Shabbos instead of at some other time.

Given the choice of volunteering to be among the first rescuers and doing melacha d’oraysa (which it would be very hard to avoid given the situation) for the sake of an aku”m (which there does not seem to be any clear cut heter for) on Shabbos or keeping Shabbos and waiting until the next day to mobilize the relief efforts, is the choice to render aid even on Shabbos so clear cut? Again, instinctively one feels that expedience is paramount when it comes to questions of human life, and I don’t think this instinctive reaction is due to a lack of appreciation of Shabbos on our part. Perhaps it is even correct to follow that instinctive reaction to save life and worry about sorting out technical legal details later. Perhaps it is not proper to raise even after the fact the sort of question I am posing when human life hangs in the balance. Is it? If it is, if we should concern ourself with the technical halachic issue either before or after the fact, how do we halachically justify the response? And finally, if in hindsight we conclude that technically one should not volunteer in cases like this, how do we square that with our moral instinct?

It goes without saying that this theoretical discussion is only with respect to the question of Shabbos, but certainly our compassion extends to those in Haiti desperately in need of the bracha of tov Hashem la'kol v'rachamav al kol ma'asav.


  1. First, you ought to look at a post someone once wrote that is relevant to this issue.
    Then, you should look at the last paragraph of the last comment there, numbered 4.

  2. I have a friend who booked a holiday flat and then found there was no washing machine, he asked a rov who said he could cancel the booking.

    He then called the owner and said he had asked the halacha and was OK to cancel, so the owner said 'aval zeh lo enoshi!"

    So he replied, "mah, ha'halacha loh enoshi?!"

    pc :-)

  3. One of my BIL's favorite stories in the Yerushalmi is the episode of Shimon ben Shetach's purchase of a donkey from a bandit (in Elu Metziyos). In the saddle bag was found a precious gem. The talmidim were overjoyed -- aveidas aku"m is mutar, so their rebbe was now rich. Sb"S's reply - "v'ki Shimon ben Shetach babariyon hu!" What may be technically permitted still can render one into a barbarian. Where to draw the line...?

  4. Daas Yochid10:42 PM

    Ah...now we are on to one of my favorite topics, midas chasidus and lifnim mishuras ha'din. (BTW, is there a difference?)

    The whole idea seems to indicate that there exists an extra halachic system of values, based on ועשית הישר והטוב.

    The question is, where does this value system come from. Is it innate? Innate only in some people?

  5. Anonymous1:22 AM

    i think there was a jew there from montreal arent we mefakeach es hagal on a safek pikuach nefesh?

  6. I did not know there was a Jew from Montreal there -- if so, you have a good point.

    >>>The question is, where does this value system come from.

    L'mai nafka mina if it is innate or socially conditioned?

  7. Chaim, there are some things that aren't in the rule book. The fifth section of Shulchan Aruch, after all, is common sense and remains entirely ba'al peh.
    Consider: the Israeli team arrives during the week. Suddenly Shabbos starts and they stand down, light candles and ignore the human misery and suffering around them for 25 hours, even loudly singing zemiros in fulfillment of the requirement to make oneg Shabbos.

    Could you imagine the response? The eivah? The chilul Hashem?

    Further, we are not Vulcans. We do not have complete emotional control. What normal human could sit and enjoy his gefilte fish while the dying cry around him?

    We all recoil from violating halacha (hopefully). But we recoil even more strongly from committing a perceived chilul Hashem. Rav Eidensohn's DaatTorah even put up a piece on how sometimes that has overriding importance.

  8. Anonymous3:56 PM

    If Rav Eidensohn put up a piece on how avoiding chilul hashem trumps halacha, on the importance of ve'asisa hayashar vehatov, then we certainly can rely on him. Like Lubavitcher shchita is reliable-- if THEY agree it's dead, it's most definitely dead.

  9. Reductio ad absurdum: Rather than suffer the chilul Hashem of constant newstories about suffering Palestinians, let's dismantle the State and be goverened by the PLO.
    Rather than cause eivah by shortening my work week and leaving early on Friday, I will now invoke the chilul Hashem override clause and work through Shabbos.

    Pragmatically, considering that many countries have not participated at all in the relief efforts, would it really create public outrage if we participated in some other way, e.g. providing supplies, $, that does not entail chilul Shabbos? I am far less certain about your assumptions and therefore am at least willing to entertain a counterargument to your position.

  10. Anonymous7:01 PM

    Especially since the son'ei Yisrael are now saying that we're there to harvest organs. Who knows? Maybe there really is a market for organ donations for people who already have AIDS anyway, since the rate of HIV/AIDS is said to be around 6%, and who knows what percentage is latent. http://www.haiti-micah.org/haiti-facts.html