Talmudic Debates on the holidays: 3 Yom Kippur

Continuing with the summary of our classes on the subject of the holidays of the year as discussed in Talmudic texts, we turned our attention this past week to Yom Kippur.

The majority of the Talmudic sources on Yom Kippur deal with the Sacrifice of the High Priest on that day, a fascinating subject in itself, but we turned to the last chapter of the Tractate of Yoma (Yom Kippur) to discuss an issue which is brought up in connection with the fast day and then taken, as is typical of Talmudic texts, in a different direction.

The question we studied had to do with what to do when a person is hungry on Yom Kippur, hungry to the point of illness and desperation. The general principle in the Talmudic texts is that if a person claims to need food, we believe him or her and give them food. No one is allowed to second guess this decision, no matter how many “experts” might say that he or she is not in danger.  And, in the case in which a person says they don’t need food but there is an “expert” who says he or she does, we go by the word of the “expert”. It is not clear whether a person could be “force fed” but certainly it is the responsibility of those present to convince the individual that food is necessary.

This is not to be taken lightly as the commandment to fast is clearly one of the most important ritual commandments of the entire year. But, “pikkuach nefesh”, acting to counteract a threat to health or to life is a critical principle in Jewish law and overrides all of the ritual commandments.

We then read a section in which the Rabbis discuss a situation in which a life is in danger on Shabbat and there is a necessity, for example, to rescue a person from a collapsed building. There is no question that even on Shabbat or Yom Kippur, one does whatever is necessary to save a person. However, the Talmud is quick to point out that under no circumstances should this effort be assigned to someone who is not Jewish or not otherwise obligated to the law in order to allow a Jew who is obligated to not break the law. In fact, the Talmud records these actions must be taken in public by “gidolay Yisrael”, the most important people in the Jewish community in order to show the absolute priority given to life saving acts in Jewish law.

Finally, three cases were presented in which a person is obligated to act immediately without seeking permission from the Rabbinic court. They are cases which prove that pikkuach nefesh is of the absolute highest priority. The first case involves a young child swept away by the sea. We are obligated, of course, to do whatever it takes to save him or her even if,  in the process, we broke a law of Shabbat. Similarly are the cases where a child falls into a pit or finds himself or herself behind a locked door and unable to get out of a room or a closet. In all cases, adult Jews are required to do all it takes to save the individual then and there.

In an interesting twist, the Talmud then asks why all three cases had to be mentioned. The Rabbis point out that had only the first case been mentioned, one might think it was all right to leave the child in the pit because he wouldn’t go anywhere and one could come back after Shabbat to save him. The Talmud absolutely rejects this saying the rescue needs to take place then and there. Similarly, with the case of the child behind the locked door, even though one might sit and talk with the child throughout Shabbat and keep him or her amused while waiting for Shabbat to end, the Talmud says the child must be saved then and there even if laws have to be broken in order to do so.

This section and many others show how critical pikkuach nefesh, the saving of a life or the saving of an individual from serious harm, is of the highest priority in Jewish law.

Our next class will discuss some laws concerning Purim.

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