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At What Cost Saving Lives?
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

At What Cost Saving Lives?

by Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz *

On May 16 in Chicago, 15 year old Christopher Sercye was shot twice in the chest while playing basketball. His friends brought him to a ramp 35 feet away from the emergency room. The friends and two policemen asked the emergency room personnel to come out and bring Sercye inside. They refused, citing hospital policy that prevented them from leaving the facility. While precious time elapsed, the police went out to drag the dying boy inside. Sercye was pronounced dead an hour later.

What is astounding is that the emergency room personnel did not violate any laws! In most of the United States, there is no obligation to help someone in danger. (Chicago is now considering adopting a "Good Samaritan" law which would require bystanders to provide help to victims of crimes and accidents.)

In Jewish law, there is a biblical obligation to save lives. The Biblical verse "You may not stand idly by your neighbours blood" (Leviticus 19:15) is understood by the Talmud to be an obligation to save people from danger (Sanhedrin 73a). However, it is necessary to define the parameters of this obligation. Does the bystander have to endanger himself to save the victim? Does the bystander have to spend money to save the victim's life?

The Talmud (Bava Metzia 62a) discusses the case of two people who are travelling the desert and only one of them has sufficient water to survive. Ben Petura is of the opinion that it is better that they divide the water and both die, rather than have one watch the death of the other. Rabbi Akiva is of the opinion that "your life comes first", that the owner of the water must save his life first, even if the other person will die. Rabbi Akiva's opinion has become the Halachic consensus. While it is clear that one may not sacrifice his life to save the life of another, there is some debate if there is an obligation to save lives when it will endanger the bystander. The Hagahot Maimoni (Rotzeach 1:14) is of the opinion that it is obligatory for the bystander to place himself in uncertain danger in order to save the victim from certain danger. Others argue that it is forbidden to do so, and that the principle of "your life comes first" applies to uncertain danger as well (Radvaz in Pitchei Teshuva YD 157:15). Based on this opinion, some authorities forbid a donor from giving a kidney to dying patient if it will place the donor in some danger (Tzitz Eliezer 13:101; Minchat Yitzchak 6:103). Rabbi Moshe Feinstein takes a middle point of view. It is not obligatory to place yourself in a situation of questionable danger to save another person's life; However, you may choose to take this risk in order to save a life. Therefore, he rules it is permitted to donate kidneys, even if there is some danger to the donor. (YD 2:174)

What about spending money? The Talmud (Sanhedrin 73a) requires the bystander to spend money in order to save lives. If the victim has money, he must repay those who save him (Rosh Sanhedrin 8:1). However, the bystander has an obligation to spend money even when the victim cannot repay. The Chofetz Chaim rules that the bystander is obligated to spend all of his money (Ahavat Chesed 2:20). One reason he gives is that when the Rabbi Akiva states "your life comes first" it implies that only your life comes first; your money does not. Rabbi Yoseph Shalom Elyashev disagrees, and says that the bystander does not have to give more than a fifth of his wealth to save a life (Quoted in Nishmat Avraham V, CM 426:1). He interprets Rabbi Akiva's statement differently, and argues that Jewish sources consider a loss of wealth as a partial "death". Therefore, the donor would not be obligated to impoverish himself to save the lives of others.

Christopher Sercye died while others stood by because there was no law obligating them to help him. Unlike American law, Halacha requires bystanders to expend time, money and effort to save someone in danger, and does not allow them to ignore someone who is 35 feet away.

Reprinted with permission of Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz


*) Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the spiritual leader of Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem in Montreal, Quebec. He writes a column on Jewish Law for the Canadian Jewish News, and writes a column and hosts an internet Jewish study group for the Microsoft Network. He is a member of the executive board of the Rabbinical Council of America, the Vice President of the Montreal Board of Jewish Ministers, and a member of the board of directors of the Jewish Educational Council of Montreal and Hillel-Jewish Students Center of Montreal. He recieved his ordination from Yeshiva University, where he was a fellow of the Gruss Kollel Elyon. He has a M.A. in Jewish Philosophy from the Bernard Revel Graduate School, and a M.A. in Education from Adelphi University.

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