Pesachim 25

How (not) to save a life.

Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 famously teaches that one who saves a life is credited with having saved the whole world. It’s not surprising, then, that Judaism’s ultimate value is pikuach nefesh, the commitment to saving human life. Right?   

Right?

Today’s daf complicates this truism with a discussion of forbidden medical interventions.

Rabbi Ya’akov said that Rabbi Yohanan said: One may heal oneself with any substance except for wood of a tree designated for idolatry (asherah).

What are the circumstances? If we say it is a case in which there is danger to a person’s life, then it is permitted to use even the wood of an asherah. And if it is a situation where there is no danger, then all the prohibited substances in the Torah also may not be used, as one may not derive benefit from them.

Actually, it is referring to a case where there is danger, and even so one may not derive benefit from the wood of an asherah.

Asherah is the name of a goddess who was prominent in ancient polytheistic religions in the region of Israel. She was the wife of the chief god of the pantheon, El, and served as queen and mother of the gods. Those who worshipped her frequently used a tree or pole to represent her.

The extensive criticisms that the biblical prophets launch against her worship (2 Kings 23:14Isaiah 17:8) offer lots of evidence that Asherah was worshipped within the boundaries of the land of Israel even into the time period of the first Temple. In fact, there is even evidence that some ancient peoples thought that Asherah was the wife of the God of Israel! A tree dedicated to Asherah being used in healing?! Where Rabbi Yohanan forbids its use in healing, the anonymous voice of the Gemara first allows it before moving to ban its use.

The Torah prohibits a lot of substances: fruit that grows on a tree in its first three years, hametz on Passovernon-kosher animals. And yet, all of these can be used in healing when a person’s life is at risk. But the wood of an Asherah, which is used for idolatrous purposes, is a bridge too far.

It’s worth noting that the rabbis aren’t arguing that this wood isn’t effective in healing. Even today, we know that certain plant compounds can play a prominent role in medications for a range of conditions. Here the Asherah wood is understood to be an effective healing agent for particular life-threatening conditions. And yet, even though it is an effective healing agent, the rabbis reject its use.

The Gemara then cites another teaching by Rabbi Yohanan which generalizes even further:

One may heal oneself with any substance from which one may not derive benefit, except for idolatry or forbidden sexual relations or bloodshed.

There are not only substances forbidden to be used in healing, but also actions.

Rabbi Eliezer roots this attitude in a verse from Deuteronomy that is well-known from the second paragraph of the Shema, the V’ahavta:

And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul. Why is it stated: “And with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5)? And if it is stated: “With all your might,” why is it stated: “With all your soul”? It is to tell you that if there is a person whose body is more beloved to him than his property, therefore it is stated: “With all your soul.” And there is a person whose property is more beloved to him than his body, therefore it is stated: “With all your might.”

Rabbi Eliezer’s interpretation insists that we must commit to working to save our lives, even if it is expensive or time-consuming, but that there are actions and substances that we cannot accept, even for the purposes of saving a life. Our bodies are important, but they are inextricably connected to our souls and both must be taken into account.

So is saving a life the ultimate value in Judaism? Well – Yes. But not life at all costs — actions that inflict serious harm on others or the relationship between God and the people of Israel are out of bounds.

Read all of Pesachim 25 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 16th, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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