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Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

URL: www.scjfaq.org/faq/07-11.html
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Question 7.11:
What Medical Procedures May Be Performed on Shabbat?

Answer:

There is an over-riding principle in Judaism (every movement) that any Jewish law can be broken when it comes to saving a human life. The only exceptions are for idolotry, adultery, or murder. These are the only situation in which is Jew must choose death to avoid violating the law.

So, when looking at medical procedures, one must first ask whether the procedure must be done immediately (or at least during Shabbat) in order to save a life.

Let's look at one example: Rehabilitation treatment. In some situations, this treatment consists of music and dance and arts and crafts. These are not likely to be "life-saving", although some could be. On the other hand, if the treatment is physical and medical rehabilitation (for example, cardiac rehab after surgery, exercises for burn victims to keep their muscles from constricting, etc.) that is probably a different story.

Note that this isn't just a Reform view. Even in the traditioanl view, the definition of life saving is broader than one might assume. It includes preventing someone from being alive but immobile, or deaf (in the case of hearing aids), blind, or if it threatens sanity. Life means productive life. Also if the procedure would measurably lengthen life expectancy, one can be lenient.

The basic answer is to

  1. Talk to the physician to see if the treatment is absolutely necessary to save a life. If so, do it. No questions.

  2. Talk to the individual to see if s/he considers the activity work and if it is if his/her's movement prohibits it on Shabbat. Although this FAQ is geared towards the traditional viewpoint, the patient may be of one of the non-traditional movements.

  3. If time permits, consult with the individual's rabbi. If the issue is of concern to the patient, their rabbi will be glad to talk to you.

Note that some say that an observant Jewish doctor cannot attend to a Christian on Shabbat, based on the claim that Christians are idolaters. This is untrue, for three reasons:

  1. Tosafos rule that Christians are not idolaters. Noachides who believe that God has partners are not considered idolaters, they are viewed as merely mislead. They opine that the trinity assigns to partners to the Father who they identify with our God. This is the ruling followed in the jewelery industry, allowing Jews to sell crosses and crucifixes for wear by people who are presumably non-Jewish.

  2. Even if not, there is a concept of saving non-Jewish lives so as to reduce animosity. An idolater saved on Shabbos makes it more likely someone of his community would save a Jew. For that hypothetical Jew, he may violate Shabbos.

  3. There is a concept of "derech shalom"—ways of peace, part of the obligation of imitatio dei. It too requires saving people of all stripes. Note that unlike reason number 2, this makes saving a non-Jew an ideal no less than that of saving a Jew.


The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

[Got Questions?]Hopefully, the FAQ will provide the answer to your questions. If it doesn't, please drop Email to questions@scjfaq.org. The FAQ maintainer will endeavor to direct your query to an appropriate individual that can answer it. If you would like to be part of the group to which the maintainer directs questions, please drop a note to the FAQ maintainer at maintainer@scjfaq.org.

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