Mortal Danger

 As is well known, mortal danger overrides every prohibition in the Torah except for three major sins. In addition, in a public and governmental framework the definition of mortal danger is expanded, and even a remotely possible death threat for a community takes precedence over Torah prohibitions. However, it is important to minimize the number of violations of Shabbat laws. Whenever possible, a gramma device such as those made by The Zomet Institute should be used in order to avoid desecrating the Shabbat if this gives the same results as violating a Shabbat prohibition.

 "Let him live by them – and not die because of them" – this concept, referring to performance of the mitzvot, is an important principle within the framework of the entire Torah. "Desecrate one Shabbat for him so that he will be able to observe Shabbat many more times" – this is a form of the concept in terms of Shabbat. There are only three sins where we are told to die rather than perform them (idol worship, murder, and illicit sex). Not only does a mortal danger take precedence over mitzvot, even in a situation of doubt about the danger is sufficient to justify performing what would normally be considered a sin.

 As noted above, the definition of mortal danger is expanded with respect to the community as a whole. A personal medical question is not the same as the question of how to operate a hospital on Shabbat. Private protection against theft (for example, installing an alarm system) must be treated differently than general questions pertaining to the police force, the army, and fighting fires on Shabbat.

 On the other hand, even though the concept of a doubt of mortal danger is expanded with respect to the public, not everything is suddenly permitted! In hospitals, at a power generating station, and in the police force or the army, Shabbat should not be the same as a normal weekday.

 As an example, take the Shabbat phone that was developed for medical and security uses. One might think that it is completely unnecessary, since health and security are public needs, why not simply use a regular telephone? The answer is that in this matter as in many similar cases there is a "grey area" where the "essential" character of the action is not absolutely clear. The margins between simple "convenience" and "a possible mortal danger" are very wide, and in order to fill this gap The Zomet Institute has developed special purpose devices and halachic-technical equipment.

 In fact, even within the realms of medicine and security there are many examples of actions not related at all to mortal death but that are related to administrative needs. It is not at all easy to differentiate between such normal matters and essential activities. This complexity leads us to propose many different solutions, based on the opinions of prominent rabbis.

 Finally, there is a halachic principle, "Begin with the simplest approach." Thus, even if a sick person is allowed to eat on Yom Kippur, he or she should minimize the amount of food and eat very slowly. The same principle is valid for Shabbat – every effort should be made to minimize the level of desecration.


For more information (in Hebrew):

  • Rabbi Yisrael Rozen, Shabbat in the Police Shabbat – Halachic-Technical Innovations, Summaries of Oral Torah, 24 (5743).
  • Rabbi Yisrael Rozen, Security on Shabbat – Halachic-Technical Innovations, Summaries of Oral Torah, 39 (5758).
  • Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Neria, Mortal Danger in the Army on Shabbat, Techumin 3.
  • Rabbi Avraham Sherman, Mortal Danger on Shabbat with Respect to Those Who Do Not Observe the Torah, Techumin 3.
  • Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin, Guarding Fields in a Border City on Shabbat, Techumin 3.
  • Rabbi Zalman Koren, Military Security Instructions With Respect To Mortal Danger, Techumin 4.
  • Rabbi Yehoshua Ben-Meir, The Validity of Security Commands in the IDF, Techumin 4.
  • Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, If Somebody Goes to Rescue Somebody Else on Shabbat, When Are They Allowed to Return to Their Place? - Techumin 1.
  • Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli, A Terrorist Attack on a Settlement – Travel by a Social Worker and a Public Leader on Shabbat, Techumin 23.
  • Rabbi Mordechai Goodman, Reuniting Families After a Terrorist Attack on Shabbat, Techumin 24.
  • Rabbi Gad Navon, Evacuating Dead Bodies on Shabbat, Techumin 5.
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