Friday, March 5, 2010

When you must violate Shabbat

It’s well known in the Jewish world that it is an obligation to violate Shabbat if a life is at stake. Despite the laws which restrict all manner of work on that day, if someone is in danger, then we suspend all of those laws. That principle is as old as Judaism.

But, I read a new twist on it today. What if there are multiple people available to save a life? Who, in that case, should be the one to violate Shabbat? Logic would seem to say that if a non-Jew is available, then he/she should do it, so that the life can be saved and Shabbat can be honored. It turns out that, according to most authorities, the opposite is true. The Jew must violate Shabbat and save the life, rather than ask the gentile to do it.

Why? Because someone who observed the situation might mistakenly think that, based on what he/she saw, Judaism values Shabbat more than life. And, that possibility, slim as it might be, is too great to risk. In fact, Maimonides, one of the great legal scholars in Jewish history, says that the most pious Jew available (among those qualified to help the person in need) must be the one to do so, to make it absolutely clear that this is the proper Jewish way to behave.

It’s not only important to put people above ritual. It’s important to be bold about it, and proud.

Just like we’re always telling our kids, “people over things.” And, even though our rituals are holy things, they’re still things. People matter more. Let’s always be clear about that.

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