Pikuach nefesh

In Judaism, Pikuach Nefesh (Hebrew: פיקוח נפש) describes the principle in Jewish law that the preservation of human life overrides virtually any other religious consideration. When the life of a specific person is in danger, almost any mitzvah lo ta'aseh (command to not do an action) of the Torah becomes inapplicable.[1]

Biblical source

The Torah, in Leviticus 18:5, states "You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD."[2] The implication here is that Jews should live by Torah law rather than die because of it. Ezekiel 20:11 also states this phrase, "And I gave them my statutes, and showed them my judgments, which if a man do, he shall even live in them."

Talmudic discussion

The Talmud discusses a number of cases as examples in which biblically mandated laws can be disregarded for the sake of saving a human life. (B.Yoma 84b) All of these examples relate to Sabbath prohibitions: rescuing a child from the sea, breaking apart a wall that has collapsed on a child, breaking down a door about to close on an infant, and extinguishing a fire to save a life. The Mishna there discusses when one is permitted to break his or her fast on the Day of Atonement: "If one is seized by a ravenous hunger (ostensibly referring to something life threatening), he may be given to eat even unclean things until his eyes are lightened." (B.Yoma 83a)

Drawing the line

The principle of preservation of life, pikuach nefesh, has limitations. The individual whose life is to be saved must be a specific, identifiable individual, rather than an abstract or potential beneficiary.

There is disagreement about whether "pikuach nefesh overrides" would apply to halting a specific, identifiable, immediate, and well-known ongoing threat in a well-identified community, given the advent of public health, like the disablement of the Broad Street pump in the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak, as reported by John Snow. The Broad Street Pump posed an immediate risk to many lives, with no specific individual identified as at threat. Instead, everyone living close enough to the Broad Street pump to draw water from the infective source was in life-threatening danger any time they grew thirsty and craved a drink of water. John Snow identified the Broad Street pump as problematic on a Thursday (September 7, 1854), and the pump handle was removed on a Friday (September 8, 1854) by members of the community. To definitively disable the pump as the Broad Street community did that Friday after Shabbat began, an observant Jew, whether acting on confirmed conscience alone or short-handed, would have to suspend Shabbat under pikuach nefesh, remove the pump handle, surround, cordon off, and/or by some other means prevent use of the pump handle without interruption through the night and following day to guarantee that no further water was drawn from the deadly and infectious Broad Street Pump, as an immediate, ongoing threat to life. Under the narrowest interpretation of pikuach nefesh, an observant Jew must wait until a passerby makes contact with the pump handle, and clearly expresses an intention to pump, in order to suspend Shabbat on a pikuach nefesh (PN) override. (Historically, it is not known whether the community removed the pump handle before or after sunset, and the beginning of Shabbat. )

Another question is what constitutes a life-threatening situation. Some situations are clearly life-threatening, such as one who is dying of a disease and will die without medical intervention, or one who is drowning and will not be able to escape the water without help from another. But in other situations, it may be unclear if a life is truly in danger.

For example, if a person is feeling "extreme pain," this may be tremendously uncomfortable, but it is unclear whether it may lead to death. It is always considered preferable to err on the side of caution (e.g. "violating" Jewish laws), even if this retroactively turns out to be unnecessary.[3]

If one is in danger of losing a limb, mobility, eyesight, suffering the loss of some other function vital to one's future survival, or may be in danger of a new health problem developing that may ultimately shorten one's life, the situation is considered to be life-threatening.


If it cannot be ascertained whether or not a situation is life-threatening, the situation must be considered life-threatening until proven otherwise, thereby allowing action to be taken.

It is of prime importance that if one believes a life may be in danger, and seconds may count, that persons involved not delay helping the victim out of fear of violating halakha, or in order to determine if such a violation is permissible according to halakha.

If one takes action in violation of halakha to save a life when s/he believes the situation is life-threatening, but later learns that there was no threat to a human life, s/he has not sinned, and must not feel guilty over having made such a mistake.[4][5][6]

Who must help

In a life-threatening situation, when possible, it is necessary that the most qualified individuals available provide all assistance necessary during every moment of the situation. But when seconds count, there must be no delay in determining who is more qualified.[7]

If there is a choice between a Jew and a Gentile who are equally qualified, and there is clearly plenty of time to decide, it is preferable that the Jew provide the assistance[8] (with a notable exception of childbirth). But if there is a choice between two Jews, and there is clearly plenty of time to decide, it is preferable that the more observant of the Jews break the halakha. This shows the importance of breaking halakha when a life is on the line, and that less observant Jews are not permitted to serve the purpose of breaking halakha during non-emergencies.

Examples of pikuach nefesh that override other religious considerations

Organ donation

According to some halakhic rulers, organ donation in Jewish law is one classic example of the obligation to violate a commandment because of pikuach nefesh. Saving one's life can override the prohibition against desecrating a corpse. However, due to the limitation that a specific life must be in danger, a specific organ recipient must generally be identified before the organ is removed. Organ removal to organ banks for possible future use is generally prohibited by all Orthodox Judaism halakhic decisors.[9][10][11][12][13][14]

Shabbat and holidays

The laws of Shabbat and the Jewish holidays may be suspended for the purposes of pikuach nefesh. The earliest known example of this took place in 167 BCE, when Mattathias and the Hasmoneans declared that it was permitted for their followers to fight on the Sabbath day to defend themselves from attack. One is allowed to travel in order to save another’s life, and medical care may be provided to critically ill patients (see Driving on Shabbat). According to Moshe Feinstein, it is permissible to travel to accompany a woman in labor to a hospital because the Talmud is especially solicitous of health with respect to pregnancy and childbirth.[15] Shabbat laws can also be bent for a woman who has given birth in the last three days to make sure that she is comfortable and healthy.[15]

One is allowed to drive a woman to a hospital on Shabbat to give birth, since birth can be life-threatening without medical supervision. Similarly, one may sign a consent form for surgery on Shabbat if the surgery will otherwise be delayed.[15]

If one's close relative is transported to the hospital under emergency circumstances during Shabbat, one is allowed to drive or accept a ride to the hospital in order to provide company to their relative at the hospital, since this may be life-saving. One may also be needed at the hospital to sign potentially life-saving consent forms.


If a medical emergency is known or suspected that warrants placing a phone call rather than transportation in a motor vehicle, the telephone may be used. If the situation has a lower level of urgency, the receiver shall be removed and the buttons pressed in an unusual manner (by using the elbow or the knuckles, or a pencil). If the person involved is expecting a call to be returned to deal with the issue, answering the phone is permitted, and if another uninvolved person has placed the call, the person involved shall state that they are waiting for a call from the doctor (or similar).


Shabbat elevators

It is permissible for one whose profession it is to save lives (such as a physician, nurse, or emergency medical technician) to work on Shabbat in order to save lives. It is permissible even for such a professional to use a telephone or pager to be alerted to their need for a life-saving act or to communicate life saving information, or to travel by any means necessary to the location where the potentially life-saving act will be performed. Some hospitals, such as Mount Sinai Hospital, have a designated Shabbat elevator for staff and visitors to use on those days; the elevators automatically stops on every floor, so that the observant persons do not have to push a floor button, which would be work.

One is not allowed to work on Shabbat due to economic hardships, no matter how severe their circumstances are.


Extinguishing a fire on Shabbat or Yom Tov is forbidden under Jewish law. Extinguishing a fire or using the phone to call the fire department only in order to save one's property from damage is forbidden. However, it is still permissible to do so in most cases due to the danger caused to others unknown to the person who discovers the fire. Even if all people can escape a building, as long as the fire burns, there is a danger it can spread to other nearby buildings, thereby endangering the lives of others in them. Even in a rural area, where there are no other buildings nearby, there is the danger the fire can spread to a nearby forest, starting a more devastating forest fire, which may endanger others. Only if it can clearly be established that no such risks are present is it forbidden to break Shabbat.


Non-kosher food

Non-kosher food may be eaten under the following circumstances:

If necessary for recovery, a patient may eat non-kosher foods. In the Babylonian Talmud, Chapter 82a of Tractate Yoma mentions pregnancy cravings for non-kosher food (the passage discusses a pregnant woman who craves pork on Yom Kippur) as the paradigmatic example of a presumed life-threatening situation where a person is allowed to eat non-kosher food (and is permitted to eat it on Yom Kippur).


On Yom Kippur, the fast preferably may only be broken if one is advised by a physician not to fast, and then consults a rabbi regarding the physician's advice. The general practice is to eat only as much as is necessary in order to satisfy one's needs. If one is advised by a physician not to fast, but is unable to consult a rabbi, one should eat in accordance with the physician's advice.

If one senses they may have a health problem that may be aggravated by fasting, but no physicians or rabbis are available to give advice, they should use their own judgment, and is permitted to refrain from fasting. In such cases, one must not delay eating in order to speak with the appropriate authority, or feel guilty for eating in this situation.

One who must eat on Yom Kippur is required to eat only as much as is necessary to avoid aggravating a medical condition. Fasting, as much as possible, takes priority over prayer (and thus more should not be eaten merely to enable one to attend synagogue or pray with more concentration). All blessings normally recited before and after eating are recited as usual.

Fasts other than Yom Kippur are viewed more leniently. Anyone who feels unable to fast is permitted to break the fast without consulting a physician or rabbi.

On all fasts, one who is taking a medication for any reason is permitted to use food or water as necessary to aid in taking the medication. If the medication has instructions to consume food or beverage with the medication, one is not permitted to fast, and they need not further consult a physician or rabbi.

A person who becomes severely dehydrated during any fast shall consume sufficient fluids to restore his/her body to normal hydration levels.

Waiting for the proper time to eat

Rabbinical law prohibits eating at certain times even on non-fast days, such as prior to daily morning prayer, the recitation of kiddush on Shabbat or Yom Tov, and between the ending of Shabbat and Havdallah. In particular, these laws are to strictly be followed by adult males and should be followed by adult females who are not pregnant or nursing. While it is optimal to wait out these shorter periods of time rather than eating, even for one whose medical condition demands frequent eating, there are exceptions:


There are some Jewish laws that may not be violated, even when a life is in danger. In these cases, a life must be sacrificed rather than a halakha be broken. These include:

Defaming God's Name

Sins that involve Chillul Hashem (the defamation of God's name) may not be committed even to save one's life. These include idolatry, blasphemy, or denial of God's existence. Forbidden violations include:


Any act that intentionally causes the death of another person (considered to be an act of murder), that injures a person so the potential for death from the injuries is high, or that otherwise creates a dangerous situation that will very likely put one or more lives at risk, is not permitted for the preservation of life. Forbidden examples are:


An exception in which killing another person is permitted is the case of a rodef (aggressor), who may be killed in order to save the life of oneself or another. This permits wartime killings and killings in self-defense or to save another from an aggressor in Judaism. Also, abortion is permitted in Jewish law if the unborn fetus is endangering the mother's life, because the fetus is considered to be a rodef. The "rodef" assertion is also used to permit the separation of conjoined twins when it is likely or even certain that one will die as a result of the operation if this is necessary to save the other.

Biblically sanctioned executions may be performed, though they are not performed today.

Life for a life

While one is not permitted to automatically give up one's life in order to save the life of another (an act of suicide, forbidden in Jewish law), one may risk his/her life to save the life of another. It is, however, forbidden to place one's own life at more risk than the other person is already in.

One may not put another's life in danger, especially against that person's will, in order to save his/her own life or that of another.

Scholars have long questioned whether or not stealing is permitted in order to save a life. Most have concluded that stealing sustenance from a poor person is prohibited under life-threatening circumstances, since the life of a poor person who loses even a small portion of his/her sustenance is considered to be endangered. Also, operating a business or similar operation that intentionally robs or defrauds the poor of all or any part of their sustenance is strictly forbidden, even to save a life. Robbing or defrauding a large business, organization, or the government is forbidden if the poor will suffer as a result of the business, organization, or government losing these funds. If a business suffers the loss of money due to fraud or theft, it may pass the losses onto customers by raising its prices, and as a result, the poor may have to spend more. The government, if cheated, may raise taxes, even to the poor, or cut services from which the poor benefit.

Lashon hara is symbolically considered an act of murder, and therefore may not be spoken to save a life. However, most cases in which bad word must be spoken against a person in order to save a life are productive, and thereby do not constitute lashon hara.

The commandment to save life may also have reference to ethical arguments regarding torture.[16]

Contemporary examples

A ZAKA delegation, a rescue team made up of ultra-orthodox Jewish men worked in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince soon after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. They took time out to recite Shabbat prayers and continued to work throughout Shabbat.[17][18]

"We did everything to save lives, despite Shabbat. People asked, 'Why are you here? There are no Jews here', but we are here because the Torah orders us to save lives… We are desecrating Shabbat with pride…"
Mati Goldstein commander of the Jewish ZAKA rescue-mission to 2010 Haiti earthquake[18], www.ynetnews.com 01.17.10

See also


  1. George Robinson Essential Judaism: a complete guide to beliefs, customs and rituals 2001 p200"For example, as noted in Chapter 2, the principle of pikuakh nefesh, of saving a life, takes precedence over virtually all other mitzvot. ... Rather than commit any of these three offenses, a Jew is expected to give up his or her life."
  2. Leviticus 18:5 Hebrew "אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם"
  3. "Saving Lives on Shabbat". www.chabad.org. Retrieved 2016-08-29.
  4. Barry L. Schwartz Jewish Heroes, Jewish Values: Living Mitzvot in Today's World p68 1996 - 120 PIKUAJJ NEFESH - THE MITZVAH OF SAVING A LIFE "Saving one life is like saving an entire world. "
  5. Mel Berwin and Jennifer Sartori Making Our Wilderness Bloom: Women Who Made American Jewish History 2004 - p 191 "PIKUACH NEFESH Judaism values life more than anything else. We are commanded to preserve our own lives and those of ... potentially lethal drugs ... in a building or car on fire The Hebrew phrase pikuach nefesh means “saving a life.
  6. James M. Lebeau, Stephen Garfinkel The Jewish dietary laws: sanctify life 1983 p112 -"These situations demonstrate the flexibility of Jewish law. Some would argue that the many instances of martyrdom throughout Jewish history involving Kashrut observance, violate the principle of saving a life. There have been times when ..."
  7. Fred Rosner, J. David Bleich, Menachem M. Brayer Jewish bioethics p289 - 2000 "In the Jewish tradition the value with which human life is regarded is maximized far beyond the value placed upon human ... The mitzvah of saving a life is neither enhanced nor diminished by virtue of the quality of the life preserved.
  8. Mishneh Torah 2:3
  9. HODS - Halachic Organ Donor Society
  10. Goldie Milgram Living Jewish Life Cycle: How to Create Meaningful Jewish Rites of ... 2009 p209 "In our time, not to bequeath your organs has become a transgression of the mitzvah of pikuah nefesh, “saving a life,” a primary Jewish value. At any given moment, more than forty thousand people are on the waiting list of the United ..."
  11. Aaron Levine The Oxford Handbook of Judaism and Economics 2010 p330 "However, there is no prohibition when wounding is done for a constructive purpose, and saving a life certainly meets ... 44 See, for example, S. Resnicoff , “Supplying Human Body Parts: A Jewish Law Perspective,” in DePaul Law Review 55 ..."
  12. Richard Beck, David Worden GCSE Religious Studies for AQA B: Truth, Spirituality & Religion 2002 p29 - "Included is the donation of corneas, as the restoring of a person's eyesight is regarded as a life-saving operation. Judaism does not oppose the use of organs from animals. In Judaism, saving a life is paramount, ..."
  13. Steven J. Gold -Yoga and Judaism, Second Edition 2009 p150 "I don't know if Orthodox Jews would give blood or not. Certainly, non-Orthodox Jews give blood. ... There are two exceptions to the rule that breaking any other law is okay if it means saving a life: you can't save a life if it means ..."
  14. Fred Rosner Contemporary biomedical ethical issues and Jewish law 2007 p149 ".. and agrees with them that it is permissible to receive payment for an organ because the purpose is to save the life of the recipient, and all Jewish laws are set aside for the overriding consideration of saving a life.
  15. 1 2 3 Rabbi Yehoshua Neuwirth. Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchatah. Jerusalem: Mekhon Nishmat Aharon ve-Ya'akov, 1993.
  16. CHAPTER 10 Torture and Torah: Defense of Dignity and Life in Jewish Law Melissa Weintraub p123 in ed. George Hunsinger Torture is a moral issue: Christians, Jews, Muslims, and people of ... - 2008
  17. 8 saved during "Shabbat from hell" (January 17, 2010) in Israel 21c Innovation News Service Retrieved 2010–01–18
  18. 1 2 ZAKA rescuemission to Haiti 'proudly desecrating Shabbat' Religious rescue team holds Shabbat prayer with members of international missions in Port au-Prince. Retrieved 2010–01–22
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