Yoma 85a-b

August 31, 2006

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Although earlier (see daf (=page) 82) the Gemara took for granted that all mitzvot are "pushed aside" in the face of the overarching value of human life (with the exception of avoda zara, gilui arayot and shefikhut damim), the Gemara on our daf presents a question  - how do we know that piku'ah nefesh ? danger to life ? pushes aside the restrictions of Shabbat? Apparently the question here is a more difficult one because it involves not only a person saving his own life, but a source allowing others to desecrate Shabbat in order to save him, as well.


Several sources are suggested by the tanna'im and amora'im. For example, Rabbi Elazar finds a source in the mitzvah of brit milah ? circumcision ? which is performed on Shabbat even though it involves activities that are forbidden on Shabbat. Rabbenu Hananel explains this derivation by pointing out that someone who does not have a brit is liable for the punishment of karet ? of being "cut off" from the Jewish people ? which is considered the equivalent of death. Thus we find that to "save" the baby from possible karet we can perform the brit on Shabbat, similarly to save a life we can do the same. Rabbenu Hananel also points out that Moshe was threatened with death when he did not circumcise his son (see Shmot 4:24 ), which is yet another indication of the importance of this mitzvah, which, itself, pushes aside any Shabbat prohibitions.


Rabbi Shimon ben Menasyeh points to the passage (Shmot 31:16) that commands the Jewish people to "keep Shabbat" and to "do Shabbat". From this we can learn that Shabbat can be overridden if transgressing this Shabbat will allow the person to fulfill Shabbat many times in the future. Maharil Habib in his Tosafot Yom ha-Kippurim points out that what we derive from this pasuk (=verse) is the concept that we can "desecrate" Shabbat if the purpose is to fulfill commandments ? even if we do not have a guarantee that the person will be able to keep many Shabbatot ? since we rule that a person can be mehalel (=transgress) Shabbat even to extend another person's life for a brief period of time.


Perhaps the best known source is the suggestion made by Rabbi Yehudah in the name of Shmuel, who quotes the pasuk (Vayikra 18:5) "?and you should live by them" meaning that the mitzvot are given to the Jewish people to live by, and not to lead them to death. As the Gemara points out, this source includes not only situations in which we are certain that someone's life is in danger, but even cases where we are not sure whether there is danger to life. The Torah commands that we cannot allow someone to die because of the mitzvot of the Torah.


This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.  To learn more about the Steinsaltz Daf Yomi initiative, click here.

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Next: Yoma 86a-b