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The mitzvah of saving a human life

THE Torah says, “and one shall live by the commandments,” on which the Talmud comments, “and not die by them.”

The Torah is a living Torah and the life it prescribes is just that: life. Nihilism, suicide, terrorism — even inflicting on oneself a non-fatal wound — have no place in the value scheme of the Torah.

It logically follows that if someone’s life is in danger, it is a mitzvah to try to save that person’s life.

This has many implications:

• Medicine.

It is a mitzvah to acquire the expertise to save a person’s life. To be a doctor, a nurse or an EMT is to engage in holy action. It is a mitzvah to consult with a doctor, to save one’s own life.


• Ritual.


The laws of the Sabbath are put aside if they hinder the saving of a life.

• Abortion.

In the event that an abortion may seem warranted to save the life of the mother, it is a mitzvah to approach such a weighty halachic problem with extreme care and responsibility. The outcome may be saving the life of the mother, or the lives of both mother and child.

• Heroes.

Rarely, one person has the opportunity to save many lives. In the event of war, a soldier may save the lives of fellow soldiers or of civilians. Still more rarely, a politician may have the opportunity to stop a genocide and thus save hundreds, thousands or millions of lives.

The truly heroic name here is “Morgenthau.” No name is more associated with the mass rescue of hundreds of thousands of people than the name Morgenthau.

• Food.

The truly heroic name here is “Borlaug,” the man who saved more lives than anyone else in human history. He eradicated starvation in many parts of the world.

• Torah Study.

A statement of the sages says that Torah study is greater than saving a life. What could this possibly mean? An incident from the life of Rabbi Akiva Eiger illustrates.



Maybe medicine is wrong. Maybe it is a contradiction to faith and trust in G-d. G-d is omnipotent; G-d can do anything. Maybe it is wrong to try to intervene in the natural process. Maybe the right and faithful thing to do is to trust that G-d will heal, and to accept death when He does not heal.

Certain religious philosophies preach this medical pacifism. It is such a strong belief in Oregon that legislators there found it necessary to pass a law saying that a person cannot endanger his relative by refusing appropriate medical care. “Christian Science” teaches medical pacifism.

The Torah teaches the opposite.

G-d charges Jews with improving the world, with partnership with G-d to enhance the Divine purposes. When a physician heals another person, the physician is not contradicting faith in G-d, but demonstrating it.

G-d wants people to learn the healing arts, and to devise new ways to heal.

G-d gives the human being the potential to actualize His purposes. Faith enters the equation as a booster of the efforts to research and to apply the best ways to heal.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was once asked whether it was a contradiction to faith to purchase life insurance. Maybe one should rely on G-d to take care of one’s family after one is gone. No, said Rabbi Feinstein. The element of faith enters after the purchase of the life insurance, trusting that G-d will enable one to pay the premiums.

Every act of training to be, or of applying one’s knowledge as, a medical healer is to “pay the premiums.”

Every medical advance is to “pay the premiums” — sometimes, just to make a person feel better or to donate blood; other times, as in medical research, to save thousands of lives; and still other times, to invent a vaccine that saves millions of lives.

The Torah states that if one hurts someone, one is obligated to pay his medical expenses (Exodus 21:19). Meaning, a person is supposed to consult a doctor to heal himself.

The Torah states, “I am the L-rd your doctor” (Exodus 15:26). Meaning, says one commentator (Da’at Zekenim mi-Ba’alei ha-Tosafot):

“I [the L-rd] enlighten you to take care that you do not get sick, just as a human doctor advises people which foods are harmful, or as a father warns his child to avoid sin that bring illness . . . ”

A medical practitioner has always been in a position of high prestige in the Jewish community because it is life-affirming in the purest sense.



One may supersede the Sabbath laws in order to save a life. This is no big deal unless the Sabbath itself is a big deal.

If one says that it is more important to save a life than to pick up the paper clips on the floor, how important could saving a life be?

The comparison of “more important” to “less important” is nothing unless that which is “less important” is of the highest importance.

Sabbath observance is of the highest importance.

That, and only that, highlights the extreme importance of saving a life.

Sabbath observance is one of only three “signs” in the Torah, the other two being circumcision and tefilin. There are 613 commandments; only three are called “signs.” The Sabbath is one of them.

Sabbath is one of only 36 mitzvot whose violation brings the severest punishment, karet (“excision”). Legal systems measure the relative importance of laws by the punishment for their violation. A life sentence that is imposed for murder, as opposed to probation for petty theft, is an indicator of the importance of murder. The violation of the Sabbath is on that level.

Sabbath is the only holiday in the entire Jewish calendar that is separate from human initiative. One needs to know the first day of the month in order to determine the dates of all of the other Jewish holidays, which fall in the middle of the month. These holidays depend on a human sighting of the New Moon — on human initiative — to determine the first of each month. Only because the Sanhedrin has been disbanded has the procedure of declaring a New Moon via a human sighting been suspended. A fixed calendar is substituted. But philosophically, all Jewish holidays remain dependent on human intervention.

Not so the Sabbath.

It is built into creation. As G-d turns the heavenly spheres, G-d brings the Sabbath. Only G-d.

Yet, this Sabbath — a sign, a potential trigger of karet, a matter of Divine timing — must be violated to save a life.

The central spiritual institution of Judaism, the “palace in time,” is put aside to save a life.

Yes, the life to be saved must be in immediate danger to justify a Sabbath violation, and the person who would violate the Sabbath must be able to thwart the danger to life, again to justify his violation of the Sabbath.

But that happens.

Medical emergencies.

A woman in labor.

A person trapped in rubble.

Life is supreme.

The Sabbath must sometimes be violated.



It is said in the codes of Jewish law that no longer do even the highest rabbinic sages have the authority to rule in capital cases. No beth din, or rabbinical court, may hear a capital case today. The authority of the beth din has diminished since the destruction of the Second Temple and the disbandment of the Sanhedrin.

Funny how the human reality evolves. No more capital cases, true. But life-and-death cases? They abound. They exercise the highest rabbinic sages, even today.

For example, a woman is pregnant. The woman has a medical history that, in the past, has been exacerbated to the point of danger to her life when she is expecting. The purpose here is not to draw the exact halachic guidelines, which are specific to individual cases, that allow or demand an abortion. But the principal is clear: Jewish law rules on life-and-death cases, even today.

Learned rabbis sit with learned doctors, who are called in by observant couples facing a terrible decision, to ponder the appropriate application of the medicine and of the Halachah.

The matter is fraught with tension and almost unbearable weight because of the essential teaching of Judaism: life.

The goal is to save the mother’s life and to save the child’s. Very rarely, medical reality dictates that a choice must be made, in which case the mother’s life takes precedent. The point remains: life. And one shall live by the commandments.


HEROES: Genocide

If life is the supreme value, and saving a life the supreme mitzvah, then the supreme anti-value is genocide. The worst evil is mass murder. The worst stigma is to be a murderer. The sharpest condemnation is to call someone a murderer.

And the highest of the high is to stop mass murder.

Not easy.

President Clinton failed to stop the genocide in Rwanda.

President Nixon failed to stop the genocide in Cambodia.


President Roosevelt failed to stop the Holocaust.


President Wilson failed to stop the genocide in Armenia.

But beneath the president of the United States during WW II was a man named Henry Morgenthau, Jr.

And beneath the president of the United States during WW I was Henry Morgenthau, Sr.

This father-and-son team is perhaps the biggest saver of lives, during genocide, in human history.

In WW I, it was the Armenians, targeted by the Ottoman Turks. In WW II, it was the Jews, targeted by the Nazis (and their collaborators of many nationalities).

Henry Morgenthau, Sr., was President Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to Turkey. He received reports from the field. They staggered him. They turned him white. They filled him with equal parts anger and stupefaction.

These reports told of the mass murder of the Armenians by the Ottoman Turks. These reports told of the favorite Turkish method: walking people to death. The Turks walked more than one million people for miles and miles until they starved and dropped dead.

Henry Morgenthau, Sr. sent cables to Washington about the “attempt to exterminate a race.” He used the word “exterminate” because the world “genocide” had not yet been coined.

Morgenthau awakened the press. He awakened charities. But he could not awaken President Wilson, who wanted to remain neutral in the war. Wilson would not intervene to save the Armenians, and Morgenthau resigned out of conscience.

However, while he did not stop the genocide, his arousal of the press, and, more important, of the charities, did lead to aid reaching intended Armenian victims and the saving of thousands and thousands of lives.

Then there was his son, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., the Secretary of the Treasury. He put a memo on the desk of FDR in 1944, after millions of Jews had already been exterminated. The memo was titled: “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews.”

The Secretary was Morgenthau.

The Report was by his conscience-stricken staff.

The Government was mainly the State Department, which, the report said, was “guilty not only of gross procrastination and willful failure to act, but even of willful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler.”

Morgenthau went to work — not least, by confronting his friend, neighbor and superior, President Roosevelt.

The ultimate result was the War Refugee Board.

A few others, besides Morgenthau, contributed to the creation and success of the War Refugee Board. Among the rare members of Congress who spoke up for direct American action to rescue the Jews of Europe was Colorado Senator Edwin “Big Ed” Johnson. But without Morgenthau, it would have all been for naught.

The War Refugee Board ended up saving about 200,000 Jews.

Each one, an entire world.

Morgenthau could go to sleep every night the rest of his life knowing he was instrumental in saving 200,000 Jews, otherwise doomed to death.



The ultimate hero is Norman Ernest Borlaug.

Never heard of him?

Neither did almost all of the countless millions of people who did not starve to death because of his phenomenal agronomical discoveries.

Berland was the Einstein of food production.

The Babe Ruth of land fertility.

The Chofetz Chaim of massive chesed, or loving kindness.

He is one of only six people to win the Nobel Prize for Peace, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

Borlaug set his sights on saving the world.

In a sense, he did.

He increased land productivity astronomically.

He developed high-yield, disease-resistant wheat. He increased the efficiency of fertilizer and water.

He made Mexico self-sufficient in wheat production.

He doubled wheat yields in Pakistan and India. Then he took his methods to Asia and Africa.

He is credited with saving over one billion people from starvation.

G-d chooses his servants widely. They may be doctors, decisors of Halachah, courageous opponents of evil — or PhDs in plant pathology and genetics.



“Torah study is greater than the saving of a life.” How is this possible? There must be some mistake, no?

If one says that property belongs to the crown, it belongs to the King. “Crown” is a metonymy. If one says “Rabbi Akiva Eiger” (1761-1837), the reference is to the gold standard in Torah study. His name is a metonymy for the most penetrating grasp of the Torah.

An incident in the life of Rabbi Akiva Eiger illustrates the relation between Torah study and the saving of life. The incident was told by Rabbi Y. Z. Soloveitchik, 1886-1959, and transmitted by Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman of Monsey, NY.

Rabbi Akiva Eiger had a son who also was a towering Torah scholar. And he had a son who went in a different direction: He became a chasid, a follower of the Kotzker Rebbe. This caused much disturbance in the family.

Once, this grandson fell into some kind of pit and his life was in danger. When Rabbi Akiva Eiger heard this he left his place of Torah study and went outside for 20 minutes.

He returned and told his son: “Your son will be all right.”

Rabbi Akiva Eiger did not mean that he rescued his grandson physically. A person on Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s spiritual level has a unique power in his prayers and intentions. G-d responded to them. His grandson lived.

Rabbi Akiva Eiger continued to speak to his son: “I can forgive your son for everything” (meaning his departure from the ways of the family) “but one thing I cannot forgive: the 20 minutes he took me away from Torah study.”

Twenty minutes!

Is this such a big deal?

Further, Rabbi Akiva Eiger left his studies to engage in the highest form of prayer and intention, which only a person on his level could achieve. A rabbi like him occurs only once in a generation, if that. Nonetheless, to Rabbi Eiger, these 20 minutes were a painful diversion from the highest of the high: Torah study.

As an atonement, his grandson fasted for 20 weeks — one week for each minute of Torah study his grandfather lost.

•       •       •

How may this incident help us understand the saying of the sages, “Torah study is greater than the saving of a life”?

Perhaps, Torah study is higher than the saving of a life because a person who penetrates the deepest layers of the Torah can, through his spiritual level, save a life.

It would be a waste for the singular, once-in-a-generation master of the Torah to involve himself practically in the saving of lives because his rarified spiritual powers do the job directly.

Or, perhaps, the study of Torah, not by a single person, and not necessarily on the rarified level of a Rabbi Akiva Eiger, but by the entire people of Israel, creates a spiritual plasma which underlies and permeates all of existence, enabling it to actualize the supreme value: preserving human lives.


Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik (1854-1918), who was legendary for his creative Talmudic genius, was quick to allow people to violate the Sabbath when a life was at stake. His critics charged that he was too lenient in applying the laws of the Sabbath.

He replied to his critics: “I am not lenient in the laws of the Sabbath. I am stringent in the laws of saving a life, of piku’ach nefesh

In an upside down world, with the debased value of anti-life gaining traction in parts of Arab and Islamic culture, it is critical to reaffirm the highest religious value: human life.

Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor | hillel@ijn.com

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