03. For Whom Do We Desecrate Shabbat?

The Sages offered a rationale for desecrating Shabbat to save someone’s life: “Desecrate one Shabbat so that he will observe many Shabbatot” (Yoma 85b). However, in practice, even when it is clear that the person being saved will not observe Shabbat, one is commanded to desecrate Shabbat to save him because the Torah strives to increase life. Therefore, we desecrate Shabbat to save a mentally impaired person (shoteh), who is exempt from observing the mitzvot. Similarly, we desecrate Shabbat for someone who is unconscious and about to die, in order to prolong his life for a short while (BHL 329:4, s.v. “ela”).

We desecrate Shabbat in order to save an unborn fetus, even if forty days have not yet passed since conception (Behag; Ritva; BHL 330:7, end of s.v. “o”). Similarly, we desecrate Shabbat to save a premature baby. Although in the past it was forbidden to desecrate Shabbat to save a baby born in the eighth month, whose nails and hair had not yet grown in, as it was certain that it would not survive, nowadays, with the improvement of medicine and the invention of the incubator, whenever doctors assess that the baby has a chance of long-term survival, we desecrate Shabbat to save him. (See SA 330:7-8; SSK 36:12 and n. 26.)

Technically, a Jew may not desecrate Shabbat to save a non-Jew, since one may only desecrate Shabbat for the sake of someone who is himself commanded to keep Shabbat. However, in practice, this rule only applies when another non-Jew is present to save his fellow non-Jew. If no other non-Jew is present, one must treat the non-Jew, even if this requires desecrating Shabbat. Since we want non-Jews to save Jews, we must save them as well. Thus, saving a non-Jew’s life is included in the category of piku’aĥ nefesh.[2]


[2]. The basis of this permissive ruling, namely, that it ultimately prevents danger to Jews, is articulated in Ĥatam Sofer, YD 131 and Divrei Ĥayim, OĤ 2:25. Similar rulings appear in Igrot Moshe, OĤ 4:79; R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, cited in SSK ch. 40 n. 47; Tzitz Eliezer 8:15:6 and 9:17:1; and Yabi’a Omer 8:38. Additionally, according to Ramban (Hasagot Le-sefer Ha-mitzvot, Hosafot Le-mitzvot Aseh 15), we desecrate Shabbat to save a ger toshav (a “resident alien,” a non-Jew who has accepted the seven Noaĥide laws before a beit din). This is also the opinion of Rashbatz. Others maintain that even if a non-Jew did not accept the Noahide laws before a beit din, if he observes these laws in practice, he is considered a ger toshav (Maharatz Ĥayot; R. Meir Dan Plotzky). This is also the opinion of R. Naĥum Rabinovitch in Melumdei Milĥama, p. 143. Many others maintain that we do not desecrate Shabbat for a ger toshav, and that this category does not even exist nowadays. However, according to all opinions, in practice we desecrate Shabbat to save the life of any person, as explained above. In a hospital that operates in accordance with halakha, it is preferable to have non-Jewish doctors and nurses on duty during Shabbat. If non-Jewish patients arrive, the non-Jewish medical staff can care for them. If a Jewish doctor has the most expertise on an illness afflicting a non-Jewish patient, and during the week such a case would normally be referred to him, the Jewish doctor treats the non-Jewish patient, even if this will involve performing melakhot that under normal circumstances are prohibited by Torah law.

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Translated By:
Series Editor: Rabbi Elli Fischer

The Laws of Shabbat (1+2) - Yocheved Cohen
The Laws of Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Women’s Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Pesach - Joshua Wertheimer
The Laws of Zemanim - Moshe Lichtman

Editor: Nechama Unterman