For donations Click Here

Pikuach Nefesh — Asking Questions


Last week’s article discussed life-threatening scenarios called Pikuach Nefesh, when seeking a rabbi’s approval to transgress a prohibition is inappropriate because the rabbi should have taught his congregants the laws. This week we will focus on the other side of the coin – when asking questions is a must. What was The Tractor War? Was desecrating Shabbos to win it acceptable? What were the debatable points? Are military commanders relied upon for non-combat-related issues, if there are grounds for suspecting non-professional factors are part of the decision? What is the difference between a border town and a one in the center of the country? Is saving someone from getting a heart attack by salvaging his possessions enough of a reason to extinguish a fire on Shabbos? Is demanding repayment permitted if the debtor might suffer a heart attack as a result? What did Rav Pinchas Epstein tell the widow who claimed that forcing her to pay in Beis Din would give her a heart attack? Is saving one’s handwritten pages of his magnum opus enough of a reason to permit Shabbos desecration? Of this and more, in the coming article.

Halachos Of Shabbos

In this week’s article we read the Ten Commandments, one of which is: “Remember the Shabbos day to sanctify it” (Shemos 20:8). Shabbos is a precious and holy day, and its statutes involve many halachos and myriad details. Saving a Jewish life, though, overrides all the halachos of Shabbos, under the title of Pikuach Nefesh. Last week, we discussed when calling emergency personnel was imperative, and asking questions was wrong because the local rabbi is held responsible for teaching his congregants the relevant halachos before emergencies arise. Therefore, he is criticized if they fail to act promptly and, instead, take the time ask for his guidance. This week, we will discuss issues that do, indeed, require rabbinic judgement; cases in which must be judged individually.


Last week we learned that every Jew in a life-threatening situation — even if the risk factor is only one to a thousand — must be saved, even if doing so involves engaging in forbidden activities on Shabbos.

Fires, even if the chances that the flames will reach the electric grid, gas lines, or cause a forest fire are very slim, must be extinguished at any cost.

The same is true for burglars or thugs, when the clash could possibly escalate into a life-threatening situation.

On the other hand, when the risk involves possessions but not life – if the fire threatens to burn a storage area, factory, or deserted house, and there is no danger of it spreading or becoming a forest fire, desecrating Shabbos to extinguish it is forbidden.

In this week’s article we will elaborate on some real situations in which the leading poskim were divided whether desecrating Shabbos was permitted or forbidden. This will assist our readers to appreciate how intricate the halachos of Pikuach Nefesh are, and which situations require competent halachic ruling.

The Tractor War

The Tractor War was one of the most interesting (and strange) battles that took place in the fields surrounding Kibbutz Shaalvim. The religious kibbutz, situated in the Ayalon valley was, in 1965, adjacent to the border. The Jordanians on the other side tried to annex the demilitarized zone by sending the Arab falahs to plow the no-man’s land on Shabbos Chol Hamoed Succos of 1966, which was shmitta. The plan was discovered, and Yitzchak Rabin, then Military General, demanded all the tractors in the kibbutz, along with tractors from neighboring kibbutzim, take part in the opposite plowing, with the goal to annex as much of the land as possible before the UN and the ceasefire committee intervened. On that Shabbbos Chol Hamoed, dozens of Israeli tractors plowed against dozens of Arab tractors, with firing rounds going back and forth between farmers and soldiers on both sides. Eventually, the UN security council intervened, all the tractors withdrew, and the threat of annexation was averted. The area quieted down until, during the Six Day War when the entire Ayalon valley was conquered.

Further details which were discovered only in 1967, illustrate the very real danger the kibbutz was in.

Halachic Debate

The Tractor War spurred a wide halachic debate. Is conquering land for security reasons permitted on Shabbos, or is it just land and therefore, forbidden?

Those opposing the move claimed the war was played on the ground and not in the diplomatic arena because of the stormy political election season, in which Ben Gurion ran for the first time as the head of an independent party. Desperate to demonstrate decisive military action, the government used this clash with the Jordanians to show their prowess. The move proved successful when they were elected with a sizable majority.

This brings another issue to the fore: are military commanders relied upon for non-combat related issues, if there are grounds for suspecting that the halachos of Pikuach Nefesh are not guiding their decisions?

Shabbos Plowing

The story of Kibbutz Shaalvim plowing on Shabbos raised a public outcry, led by the Steipler who famously pronounced, “Shaalvim has been (spiritually) burned down.”

On the other hand, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach supported the permit, encouraging Rabbi Meir Schlesinger to publish the sources for his heter in HaMe’ayen (volume 6, issue 2 Teves, 5726, p.12), and even edited the publication before its printing.

The reasons were as follows:

  • The Shulchan Aruch writes (OC 329:6) that when gentiles come to steal money, desecrating Shabbos to stop them is forbidden, unless there are lives at risk. However, in a border town, even thieves coming after straw and chaff must be chased away, even if doing so involves desecration of Shabbos, to prevent them from getting close or infiltrating the town. Letting them set foot in a town might give them knowledge how to conquer it at a later date. Therefore, eliminating them immediately is imperative.
  • Fighting back invaders does not necessarily have to take place with ammunition. If a war can be waged by plowing with tractors, that too must be done.
  • When a doctor orders a surgical procedure on Shabbos we rely upon his opinion because he is the authority in medical issues. Although the doctor might have ulterior motives, his opinion is seen as professional and followed, even if it involves Shabbos desecration. The same is true in military issues: military commanders on the ground are the professionals, and they have the tools to determine what is the best way to fight a war. Therefore, we are not charged to second guess their decisions.

On the other hand, the Steipler (Orchos Rabbenu I, p. 297) opines that there were other ways to prevent the Arabs from annexing the land without plowing on Shabbos, and the reason the army sent farmers to plow was in order to conquer new land, not to retain land that was already theirs. Conquering new land is not included in the Shulchan Aruch’s permit for border town, and therefore forbidden. (Later, interrogations of Jordanian POWs taught that the Jordanians only fired at the farmers because they interpreted the religious Shaalvim farmers’ ploughing on Shabbos as a declaration of war [Ha’Shabbat B’Shaalvim p.34].)

Rabbi Mordechai Imanuel (ibid, p.31) understands that the Steipler’s main concern was the kibbutz’s failure to approach leading poskim before Shabbos on the issue, despite knowing about it ahead of time. Rav Chaim Kaniyevsky agreed with this understanding, which also explains why the Steipler does not take issue with the fact that they plowed during Shmeitta, despite being fully Shmittah-observant.


The halachic debate on The Tractor War, highlights the controversy whether a commander’s decisions are reliable to decide to desecrate the Shabbos. While the Steipler maintains that only Gadolei Yisroel have the power to determine if another solution is necessary or not, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach sees a military person as the professional authority for military decisions, and, like a doctor, must be trusted in these issues, provided the instructions seem logical.

Giving a Heart Attack

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach presents an interesting discussion (Minchas Shlomo 1:7): A factory is engulfed in flames, and while not endangering anyone directly, the owner is at risk of getting a heart attack from the loss. Is extinguishing the flames permitted? Could extinguishing a fire be permitted on Shabbos so the owner doesn’t die from heartache? The Aderet mentions an actual case which resulted in death (Over Orach 334): Rav A. Charlap was a rabbi in Bialystok who died of heartbreak after his chiddushei Torah, which had not yet been printed, were consumed by a fire on Shabbos.

The Shmiras Shabbos Kehilchaso adds to the question (41:8): when delivering bad news, the laws of Pikuach Nefesh require the presence of a doctor and social worker to ensure the news is divulged properly. If that’s the case, why can’t we simply do what it takes (like calling the fire department) to prevent the disaster (where there is no direct risk to human life) in the first place?

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach answers (Minchas Shlomo 1:7): in regard to finances, one must trust Hashem and strengthen his emuna. A heart attack suffered due to lost possessions is equal to committing suicide. Since the loss did not kill its bereft owner, extinguishing the fire does not fall in the category of Pikuach Nefesh. This is similar to other Torah-mandated procedures which cause people discomfort (e.g. putting a sinner to death; requiring a thief to repay his theft) for which we do not take into consideration adverse side effects (such as the widow or parents dying from shame).

To make this point clearer let us take a look at a real-life example: Beis Din rules that a respondent owes a million dollars to his claimant. Halachically, the claimant is permitted to demand his money, even though people who lose a lot of money often suffer heart attacks. Once, Rav Pinchas Epstein ruled a that Jerusalem widow owed a large sum of money to someone else. The widow, not wanting to lose her money, countered that if they actually took the money she would die of a heart attack. The Rav, who wanted to make a point, told her that a Dayan is prohibited from taking such claims into consideration. “Indeed,” he answered, “Chazal said: ‘Better die innocent rather than guilty”.

To summarize this point: we are certainly required to make every effort, both financially and emotionally, to support our fellow Jews. One who decides to waive a debt because of the detrimental effect it could have on his debtor will certainly be rewarded in this world and the next, but no such halachic obligation exists. Demanding payment is permitted, despite the indirect effects that might result from it — whether it is a heart attack, depression, etc. Hilchos Shabbos, just like a Din Torah, does not take into consideration indirect risks to permit Shabbos desecration.

The Chazon Ish adds that considering indirect results for Shabbos desecration is a very slippery slope. Almost anything might eventually result in possibility of life-threatening danger, and all the mitzvos can be negated under this umbrella, if the halachos of Pikuach Nefesh are misapplied.


Direct risk of disease, fire, violence — even if the risk of death is very low — require immediate action, even actions that violate the laws of Shabbos or other mitzvos. Doing so is a mitzva, and no questions should be asked. Of this we are told – “he who asks is considered having shed blood.”

Even if during the week one would hesitate to call the fire department or police out of concern he might have to foot the bill or be fined because of illegal connections, calling emergency workers on Shabbos is permitted, since the situation involves a risk.

When the risk is low, and even during the week acting to avoid it is not an obligation, the issue requires consideration and a rabbi must  be consulted.

Pikuach Nefesh is a blanket title for many actions which, if applied incorrectly, can lead to severe distortions of the Torah and mitzvos.




Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *