In Judaism, the preservation of human life takes priority over almost all the commandments. The Talmud emphasizes this principle by quoting the verse from Leviticus 18: 5 which says, “Therefore you will keep my statutes and my laws, by which man will live if he fulfills them; I am the Lord.” The rabbis explain this in the Yoma 85b treatise of the Talmud: “That he will live for them and not that he dies for them.” This principle is called “Pikuach Nefesh”, “Saving a life”.
In 1848, a cholera epidemic broke out in the city of Vilnius. The rabbi of the city was Rabbi Israel Salanter, one of the great luminaries of his time. For Yom Kippur, the doctors had advised that everyone should eat and not only those who were sick, so that they would not weaken and thus be more susceptible to contracting the disease. Rabbi Salanter thought that it would not be enough to get an edict that everyone had to eat on Yom Kippur this year. He was afraid that some people would not listen to his proclamation. Instead, he went up to the podium in the synagogue, on the holiest day of the year, brought some wine and cake, recited the blessings, and then drank and ate in front of the entire congregation. He told them that what he was doing was not violating the laws of Yom Kippur, but complying with the laws that require preserving his own health.
The Pikuach Nefesh principle has its own rules. First, the life of one or more specific persons who have a first and last name must be saved, as was the case with Rabbi Salanter´s community and not in general, such as, for example: “if I do not take such an action, many could lose their lives”. Not only must the person be in danger of losing his life, but also of losing some part of his body or the function of an organ or suffering from a disease that shortens his life. A simple pain does not count. And if it cannot be determined whether life is in danger or not, in principle, the situation should be considered dangerous, until proven otherwise.
Not all commandments are relevant to this topic. In the Talmud, the rabbis give examples of commandments that are relevant but must be violated in the event of “Pikuach Nefesh”, such as the rules of Shabbat, festivities and kosher food, among others. But practicing idolatry, blasphemy, and having prohibited sex are commandments that cannot be broken to save a life. It is also not allowed to end or put another life in danger, including yours, to save someone else’s life.
Ovadia Yosef, who was the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, ruled that one can donate an organ to a person in critical need, as long as he does not put his own life at risk. Likewise, saving a life annuls the prohibition of desecrating a corpse, since its organs can be used to save someone. Finally, in the event that one must decide whether to save his own life or that of another person, Rabbi Akiva declares that you must save your life before that of the other. “And you will choose life, God said.” So, to fulfill the commandment of Pikuach Nefesh, you might have to violate another.
By: Marcos Gojman.
Bibliography: Understanding Judaism by Benjamin Blech and other sources.