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Acharei Mot
Saving life supersedes the mitzvot Print E-mail
Friday, 01 May 2020

In memory of Miriam bat Elliya z”l, a gorgeous, authentic soul who comforted and warmed the hearts of all she had contact with. She made everyone she spoke to feel truly seen.

The Talmud, Yoma 85b, discusses the origin of the concept that saving a life overrides Shabbat. Rav Yehuda said in the name of Shmuel: It is written (Vayikra 18:5) “v’chai bahem”, “You shall keep My decrees and My laws which if a person obeys they shall live through them…” which implies that one should not die on account of observing the mitzvot.

The saving of life overrides any commandment. Yoma 82a explains that nothing stands in the way of “pikuach nefesh”, saving a life, other than the cardinal sins of idol worship, illicit relations or murder.

In Yoma, 83a, we are taught that if a person is sick on Yom Kippur, we feed them on the advice of experts since this is in the category of “safek nefashot”, uncertainty involving danger to life. In matters involving danger to life, we are bidden to rule leniently (safek nefashot lehakel). It is better to err on the side of treating the patient.

Rav Matya ben Charash taught (Yoma 84a): One who feels pain in his mouth, we put medicine in his mouth for him on Shabbat.

The rabbis derive from here that it is permissible to break Shabbat to prepare the medicine for him. If the medicine will be effective, it warrants the suspension of all of the Shabbat laws.

Why is it necessary for the mishna to add that every possible danger to life (safek nefashot) supersedes Shabbat?

Rashi explains that even if he will certainly not die this Shabbat, we are afraid that if we don’t treat him right away, he may subsequently die. If the doctor requests that a person start to take medication on Shabbat then they should take it right away and not wait until Saturday night.

We are taught in Yoma 84b, that in matters involving danger to life on Shabbat, one who is quick is praiseworthy. They do not need authorization of the Beit Din (court) to proceed.

Some examples that are listed in the Talmud: If a child fell into the sea, or into a pit, one can bring him up. If a child is stuck in a locked room, one may break the door to rescue him. If there is a fire, one can extinguish it on Shabbat.

We see from here, that when danger to life is involved, saving a life supersedes the mitzvot.

During these difficult times, one may ask how it is possible that most synagogues in the world are closed. Isn’t it important to pray with a minyan?

Since the health authorities feel that those who are packed into a synagogue can spread the virus, we must listen to them. Unfortunately, many were infected in Israel and throughout the world in synagogues over Purim as well as in daily minyanim and on Shabbat before the new regulations went into effect. Just as in the case of Yom Kippur, we trust the experts to determine if the person should eat or not, so too, we must trust the doctors who insist that we do not to open the synagogues at this time.

Although it is not easy to be away from the community for so long, we must also follow the view that even if there is a chance that there could be danger, we must take the lenient view and tell people not to pray with a minyan. In Israel, they are now allowing outdoor minyanim, where groups of nineteen can pray together outside if everyone is standing two meters apart. In some communities this may work. In others, people may not be able to resist socializing which could end up being very dangerous.

It is better to stay safe now and follow the orders, even if it means performing less mitzvot in order to keep the community healthy so that we will be able to observe more mitzvot in the future.

Living By the Commandments Print E-mail
Monday, 18 November 2013
In Parshat Acharei Mot (Vayikra 18:5) we are commanded: “You shall observe My decrees (chukotai) and My laws (mishpatai), which man shall carry out and by which he shall live (vachai bahem)- I am God.”


According to Ramban, “vachai bahem” refers to the mishpatim, the “mitzvot ben adam l’chavero”, the social mitzvot between a person and their fellow person. These laws were given so that man should live. Following these laws ensures peace among men so that no one should cause harm to his fellowman or kill him.


A society that does not observe these social mitzvot will not be able to function and people will literally not be able to live in that type of a society.


We also learn from the words “vachai bahem” that we perform the mitzvot in order to live. If there is an issue of pikuach nefesh (danger to life) then one can break Shabbat laws as well as most of the commandments in order to make sure that you can continue to live your life.


We learn in the Gemara in Shabbat 151b: Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: To save a live day old baby we may profane Shabbat…This is because the Torah said in Shmot 31:16, “B’nai Yisrael shall observe Shabbat in order to perform Shabbat throughout the generations”. Profane one Shabbat on his account so that (the baby) will live and grow to observe many Shabbatot .


During the Holocaust, the issue of “vechai bahem” unfortunately came up a lot. A case that really stands out is the prayer for eating Hametz on Pesach.


By 1944 there was no question that Jews must eat hametz to stay alive. Rabbi Avraham Levisson from Holland dealt with this issue in Bergen-Belsen. In 1944 Rabbi Levisson and his father, along with the Chief Rabbi of Rotterdam Rav A.B. Davids and a number of Jews gathered in a barrack to quietly hold a seder. The Dutch rabbis, seeing the Jews could not survive without eating bread on Pesach, composed a prayer to recite upon eating hametz.

To be said with utmost concentration before eating hametz on Pessah:

Master of the Universe,
It is manifest and known to You we want to fulfill Your commandment that we celebrate the holiday of Passover by eating matza and abstaining from hametz.
But to our great sorrow our servitude prevents us from fulfilling these precepts.
We are not masters of our own fate and our lives are in danger.
Therefore we are ready and willing to keep the mitzva: “So that you shall live by them” and not die because of keeping the mitzvot. Therefore we are commanded to do what we must in order to remain alive; thus by eating hametz we will be keeping Your other precept, “Be ever so careful with your life.” (Devarim 4:9)
We pray that You keep us alive and sustain us so that we merit to survive to fulfill Your commandments wholeheartedly in the future. Amen.

We learn from here that we must do what we can to live by the commandments and that at times it is even a mitzvah to transgress them.


Slave to Fashion or Slave to Halacha? Print E-mail
Friday, 23 April 2010

Chapter 18 of Parshat Acharei Mot starts off with the words:


God spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to B’nai Yisrael and say to them: “I am HaShem your God. Do not perform the practice of the land of Egypt in which you dwelled; and do not perform the practice of the land of C’naan to which I bring you, and do not follow their traditions- ‘ubechukoteihem lo telechu’. Carry out My laws and safeguard my decrees to follow them; I am HaShem your God. You shall observe My decrees and My laws, which man shall carry out and by which he shall live- I am HaShem.”


Sentence 3 ends with the words: “U’bechukoteihem lo telechu”, do not follow non Jewish traditions.


Rashi explains that the non Jewish traditions are their customs/ social obligations such as attending theaters and stadiums (ie avoda zara, idol worship, gladiators etc)


Rabbi Meir says that this refers to the ways of the Emorites- who followed superstitious practices.


Sifra adds that this prohibition would include attempts to make oneself look like the nations and imitate promiscuous practices.


How can this be interpreted today?


Can we shop for our clothing in mainstream department stores or is that considered “in the ways of the non Jews”?


I believe that it all depends on what you are buying and if you are a “slave to fashion”.


A slave to fashion is a person who must buy and wear everything in the latest fashion magazines, regardless of whether it is Halachically appropriate or not.


An educated consumer can go into a store and look with a Halachic eye to determine what to buy and what would not be considered modest or appropriate.


Not too long ago, I walked into a Jerusalem store called “Top Shop”. As soon as the saleswomen saw me walk in, she told me not to bother looking around because all of the clothing that they carry would not be appropriate for a religious woman. Since I was dressed modestly when I walked into the store she didn’t want to waste my time in a store that didn’t offer anything modest.