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Calling for Help on Shabbos


Can the police be called to stop a Shabbos break-in? Can the fire department be called for a fire? Can security providers follow regular security protocol activities on Shabbos? Which dangers made any fire in the Middle Ages a direct and immediate danger, warranting transgressing Shabbos prohibitions to extinguish it? Are these permits still relevant today? Is a hysterical bystander who transgressed Shabbos prohibitions in an emergency situation obligated to repent? Is a hospital permitted to refill its medical inventory on Shabbos? Are forensic pathologic investigations permitted on Shabbos if their purpose is to learn how to save future lives? How is “a far-fetched danger” defined?


In this week’s parasha, the Jewish nation arrived in Mara, where “He [G-d] gave them a statute and an ordinance, and there He tested them” (Shemos 15:25). Chazal (Sanhedrin 56b) explain what those “statutes and ordinance” were: some of the laws defining halachic ruling methods, the laws of Shabbos, the mitzva of kibbud av v’eim. (While various Midrashim have different opinions which were the three mitzvos, all agree that Shabbos was one of them.)

Later, we learn of the first national celebration of Shabbos, when the manne rained down from heaven and Moshe instructed the nation to complete all preparations on Friday. Here we learn of the prohibition to leave one’s living area on Shabbos.

In this week’s article we will outline the halachos of emergency situations, which we hope will never be put into practice, but nonetheless demands familiarity. When is calling for help permitted, required, or forbidden?

Emergency Ruling

On the one hand, the Shabbos prohibitions are cancelled when faced with a life-threatening situation, including even just a possibility of a risk (OC 329:1-5). On the other hand, when the situation does not endanger anyone’s life, calling emergency providers involves Shabbos desecration. Unless we learn the relevant halachos ahead of time, when an emergency crops-up we might find ourselves wasting precious time deciding if the situation warrants desecrating Shabbos or not — a dangerous position indeed.

The Yerushalmi (Yoma 8:5) writes: “the asked is unsuitable”, meaning that a rabbi, whose congregants come to ask regarding these matters, has wronged for not having taught his congregants the halachos ahead of time, causing them to waste precious time asking questions when the emergency presents itself. In emergencies, every second is crucial, so one must always be prepared.

In this week’s article we will discuss how to act in case there is a break-in, fire or general security issue – which actions are permitted, and which are forbidden.

Firefighting in the Middle Ages

The Shulchan Aruch (OC 334) writes at length about what is permitted and prohibited in case of a fire. The Rama (ibid, 260) adds that these halachos were true for the times of the Gemara, however, nowadays [in his times], since every fire is a life-threatening situation, fires, no matter how small and contained must be extinguished on Shabbos, and the faster one acts, the more praiseworthy he is.

The Rama refers to two reasons mentioned by the Rishonim which resulted in this blanket permit. In Europe, whenever a fire broke out, criminals would gather like vultures to take advantage of the crises, resulting in homeowners having to face a double emergency: the flames, which threatened to burn all their possessions, and looters who came to steal what remained. Since homeowners could not sit by idly while their possessions were looted, clashes with these criminals often led to loss of life.

A second reason was the speed at which fires spread, and lack of firefighting techniques and equipment. Fires in the Middle Ages could easily burn down entire towns or cities, at the cost of many lives. As a result, legislators passed a very cruel law that the negligent homeowner from whose home the fire originated, could be thrown alive into the flames. This forced citizens to be extra careful of fires, and to put out any fire whatsoever, even if one’s own home and possessions were already lost.

The Rama adds that where the above is not relevant: because law and order is maintained; thieves don’t show up at the scene of a fire and there is no law that endangers anyone’s life, a fire endangering only possessions must not be extinguished on Shabbos.

No Apparent Danger

The danger fires pose in various locales is divided by the Traumas Hadeshen (I, chapter 58) into three levels of danger: 1) where the above two issues are a concern 2) where they are only a possiblity 3) where they are certainly not a concern.

Where the above is a concern, the Trumas Hadeshen derives the law from the Gemara’s ruling (Eruvim 45a) regarding break-ins in border towns: even if invaders are only coming to steal possessions one may violate the Shabbos since if they are not chased off, further invasions of the rest of the land will result. Even if no attack has yet taken place, striking him first is vital to prevent further invasion, and permitted on Shabbos. Fires in this situation must be extinguished, no matter how small or contained, and doing so is essential and a mitzva.

Even towns which are “far from the border”, i.e. – where law and order is maintained, and fires don’t come with additional dangers, must still take into account the possible dangers and one is permitted to extinguish all fires on Shabbos. Only if the city’s Jewish elders have determined that no one’s life will be endangered is it forbidden to desecrate the Shabbos by extinguishing a fire.

To sum up this point: putting out a fire or calling the police to apprehend burglars on Shabbos is only permitted if there is a chance that the fire or encounter will escalate into a life-threatening situation.

Contemporary Application

How do these rules apply nowadays? Later poskim (Shiyurei Knesses Hagedola, OC 334:11; Elya Raba 334:25; Mishna Brura 334:73) write that also where the dangers mentioned in the Rama are not relevant, all fires are extinguished on Shabbos since there is always the chance that an elderly person or baby might be trapped. Therefore, even if everyone seems to have escaped, fires in or near residential areas must be extinguished on Shabbos.

The Chazon Ish (Menucha Nechona 3:36) rules that nowadays in Israel, all fires must be put out on Shabbos, because they will usually escalate into a life-threatening situation. Therefore, unless no Jewish lives will be endangered, every fire must be extinguished. However, where possible to minimize the prohibition, doing so is recommended, because the life-threatening situation is uncertain. Rav Nissim Karelitz (Chut Shani, volume II, 35:3) rules that in a densely populated city there is additional danger from the electric and gas systems, and even if a building can certainly be evacuated, flames can spread to neighboring buildings, and it is considered a life-threatening situation.

When Desecrating Shabbos Remains Forbidden

Rabbi Akiva Eiger (141:60) presents an example of an emergency situation, for which desecrating Shabbos remains forbidden. In ancient Babylonia, there were certain days on which it was illegal to light candles. This was due to the religious sensitivities of a certain religious group that worshipped fire. On their holidays they prohibited lighting candles in private homes. The Gemara (Shabbos 45a) discusses the possibility of moving the Chanukah candles on Shabbos to escape police officers’ attention. The Gemara understands that Rabbi Shimon permits one to move the candles, stating famously, “Rabbi Shimon is worthy to rely upon in extenuating circumstances”. Rashi explains that “extenuating circumstances” refers to the risk described here. Although the risk here is not reason enough to permit one to extinguish the lights, it is enough to permit relying upon Rabbi Shimon who permits moving the candles.

Rabbi Akiva Eiger asks: if all Torah prohibitions are permitted in dangerous situations, why wouldn’t it be considered a mitzva, even according to Rabbi Yehuda who forbids moving the menorah?

He answers, that it depends upon the risk. In this situation danger was very unlikely – the authorities did not punish lawbreakers for lighting candles. Instead, they would usually just confiscate the candles (see Gittin 17a). However, confrontation could arouse their ire, which could pose a later risk. Therefore, since the possibility of danger is farfetched and improbable but does exist, we rely upon Rabbi Shimon’s approach permitting one to  move the candles, but do not permit full Shabbos desecration.

0.1% Risk

Rabbi Akiva Eiger seems to understand that a risk rate of one-tenth of a percent is not pikuach nefesh. On the other hand, the Magid Mishna (Shabbos 2:11) explains that childbirth warrants Shabbos desecration because one woman in a thousand dies from childbirth. This appears to indicate that a 0.1% risk is considered life-endangering.

Does Rabbi Akiva Eiger disagree with the the Magid Mishne? The answer is no. The difference is in the situation – Rabbi Akiva Eiger refers to a possible eventual risk — the law enforcers in Babylonia were not in the vicinity, but there was a possibility that they may show up later. However, for childbirth – the danger is in the present, not an eventual future possible result.

Pathology and medical dissecting of cadavers is another issue. Halacha forbids violating the deceased, unless the reason is to save another person’s life. The Noda Yehuda notes (YD 210) that doing so, with intention to learn how to heal, is only permitted for a present situation. The Chazon Ish (Ohalos 22:34) explains that the issue is relevance – it depends how likely it is for such a case to show up.

The same is true for refilling a medical center’s medicine supply – a modern-day hospital will surely need their medicine to save people, and refilling the inventory is permitted if their supply is depleted, but a far-flung medical center in Alaska which doesn’t see too much traffic can wait to refill its inventory until after Shabbos.

Sounding an air-raid siren on Shabbos all over Israel due the incursion of one enemy plane (as was the case during WWII) was permitted by the Chazon Ish (Teshuvos U’kesavim chapter 48) because it was unknown where an attack will take place. (Of course, today this is unnecessary and forbidden.)


The Mishna Brura writes (334:76) that one who extinguishes a fire on Shabbos should not follow the atonement formula for Shabbos desecrators. In Sha’ar Hatziyun he explains this instruction refers to one who extinguished a fire that was considered a farfetched risk. Rav Elyashiv (Toras Hayoledes 63:2) explains that the Mishna Brura here only refers to extra unnecessary actions that one did, because the actual extinguishing of the fire is a mitzva, and could not have possibly been a reason to consider atonement. The Mishna Beruro teaches us that even for those extra actions one should not follow the atonement formula, because this could prevent one from prompt action in the future, should he find himself in an emergency situation.


When facing a current danger, even if the risk is farfetched, calling for help is a mitzva, and one must not take the time to ask a rabbi. Rather, one must act immediately.

Desecrating Shabbos for very farfetched risks is permitted, although trusting in Hashem and not desecrating Shabbos is also permitted.

A situation not perceived by most as dangerous, although it could, theoretically, develop to be dangerous, is not considered life-threatening. Scenarios such as these should be considered by a rabbi, and ruling should take place before the situation presents itself real-time.

Practical Halachos

If there is even the slightest chance a Jew might be hurt by a fire – someone might be trapped in what seems to be an empty, deserted house; the fire could spread to residential areas; exposed gas or electric lines could explode and endanger people, calling the fire department or doing whatever is necessary to extinguish it is a big mitzva, even the actions involve Torah prohibitions (Shmiras Shabbos Kehilchaso 41:1).

Even if many people end up calling for help, and the additional calls add nothing at all, each caller did a great mitzva for which he will be rewarded by Hashem (Mishna Brura 328:42).

Calling the fire department on Shabbos is permitted even if it is run by Jews who will perform non-essential actions, e.g. bringing in the insurance company or calling the police (Shmiras Shabbos Kehilchaso, 41:2).

Once firefighters are on the scene, cooperating with Jewish insurance workers on non-lifesaving issues in activities that will result in Shabbos desecration is forbidden. If asking for a non-Jewish police officer will not result in additional Shabbos desecration, it is permitted to ask for him to come, and his questions may be answered, even if he writes them down, provided a Jew doesn’t specifically tell him to write (Shmiras Shabbos Kehilchaso 41:7). Where noncompliance with security forces will endanger someone, or if the information is necessary to capture a criminal, cooperating with security forces is required.

Where there is clearly no concern of Pikuach Nefesh, such as a contained fire raging in a commercial building during the night, where it cannot spread to residential areas, or expose electric wires or gas lines etc., calling the fire department is forbidden. (Shmiras Shabbos Kehilchaso 41:3). If the firefighters are not Jewish, it is permitted to scream “Fire, fire!” so that non-Jewish neighbors will call the fire department. One is even permitted to promise reward for calling the fire department, but explicitly asking a non-Jew to call the fire department is forbidden (Shmiras Shabbos Kehilchaso 41:14).

One is permitted to call emergency workers to remove hazards from public areas, such as torn electric wires or other hazards. Although one could, technically, remain at the spot to warn passersby about the hazard until Shabbos is over in order to save himself from desecrating Shabbos, calling workers on Shabbos is permitted. Nevertheless, one who scrupulously remains there in order not to — is praiseworthy (Shmiras Shabbos Kehilchaso 41:21).

Calling the police for a break in or a violent conflict is permitted because these encounters often result with loss of life (Shmiras Shabbos Kehilchaso 41:24-26).

If refraining from giving details to police or other emergency workers will prevent them from arresting or otherwise stopping criminals, which will result in further danger, giving over details is permitted, even if a Jewish worker records the details (Shmiras Shabbos Kehilchaso 41:76).

Calling the police to prevent monetary loss is forbidden. Therefore, one must not call the police for a burglar seen breaking into an empty apartment, business, or bank, where there is no concern that he will continue breaking in to occupied houses and clashing with owners (Shmiras Shabbos Kehilchaso 41:76).

In Eretz Yisroel, every security breach, break-in, or emergency situation must be reported immediately to the appropriate officials, even if doing so involves Shabbos desecration, and even if the police or armed forces will take additional non-essential steps that involve Shabbos desecration (Shmiras Shabbos Kehilchaso 41:29-38).


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