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Peninei Halakha > Shabbat > 27 – Sick People and Saving Lives > 16. Police Activity on Shabbat

16. Police Activity on Shabbat

All agree that police officers must desecrate Shabbat to save lives. Thus, if a suspicious object is found, or if dangerous people are seen engaging in suspicious activities, one must call the police. If a serious fight breaks out that could turn lethal, one must call the police. If robbers break into a home and might harm the residents, one must call the police. However, according to some poskim, in a situation where there is no danger to life, a police officer may not perform melakhot that are prohibited by Torah law. For example, if thieves robbed a home and left, since there is no longer any danger to human life, one may not call the police. Even if the thieves are still in the home, but the residents are not home, since there is no danger to life, one may not call the police. Similarly, if one witnesses thieves breaking into a closed store or bank, one may not call the police. In addition, a police officer may not write up reports about a theft, fingerprint an apprehended thief, or transport a thief to the police station on Shabbat (SSK 41:24-25; Yalkut Yosef 329:20-27).

However, several leading rabbinic authorities maintain that one may call the police in order to prevent theft or property damage, and a police officer may respond by driving to the scene of the crime, because if property damage or theft is not dealt with on Shabbat, the crime rate will skyrocket, and ultimately people’s lives will be endangered. Within this opinion, there is debate about whether police officers may drive back to the station after an incident and whether they may perform regular patrols on Shabbat. Some are inclined to permit this when the drivers are not Jewish (Heikhal Yitzĥak, OĤ 32; Yaskil Avdi, OĤ 5:44; Tzitz Eliezer 4:4).

Our master and teacher R. Shaul Yisraeli (Amud Ha-yemini §17) allows Jewish police officers to drive on patrol, to drive back to the station after an incident, and to transport suspects. He argues that if we go easy on criminals or make it difficult for the police to do their jobs on Shabbat, police officers might quit or become hesitant in doing their jobs, and the crime rate will rise to the point that lives are endangered. Therefore, we may do whatever is necessary to prevent criminal activity on Shabbat. Furthermore, as we have seen, the Sages allow those involved with saving lives to return home, even though they will be carrying their weapons through a public domain. If we do not let them return, they might hesitate to go out to help people in the future (above, section 10).

Another factor supports this approach. As we have seen, the Sages stated that if a gravely ill person needs someone to take care of him, then even if a non-Jew is available, it is preferable for a Jew to undertake whatever melakhot are necessary to help him. If a non-Jew is asked to take care of him, it may happen that if someone is dangerously ill in the future and no non-Jew is available, people will be hesitant to desecrate Shabbat in order to help him (above, section 4). The same logic applies regarding police activity. If we restrict the ability of the police to catch thieves and prevent crime on Shabbat, ultimately this will lead to loss of life. We should add that nowadays some criminal activity in Israel is connected with terrorist activity. Therefore, the struggle against thieves is, to a large extent, also a struggle against terrorists, and thus directly involves saving lives.

According to all opinions, one may not call the police on Shabbat in order to fill out reports that are strictly financial, such as for the purpose of making an insurance claim or the like. Additionally, one may not call the police on Friday night to complain about noisy neighbors.

The police force should commission rabbis to review the entire array of police operations and determine, together with the police chiefs, what is vital and must be done on Shabbat and what is not. Similarly, they should establish special Shabbat protocols to minimize Shabbat desecration; for example, the officers can use a shinui whenever possible. They should also establish a procedure ensuring that if a non-Jewish police officer is on duty, he will be the one to drive and to write reports. All Jewish police officers should also be provided with a Shabbat pen, so that their writing will only be rabbinically prohibited (above, 18:2; see Harĥavot).

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Series Editor: Rabbi Elli Fischer

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Editor: Nechama Unterman