On Yoma 82, we established that the preservation of human life takes precedence over almost all other mitzvot. Today’s daf continues with that theme, presenting several cases of actions that would be forbidden on Shabbat but are acceptable, and even encouraged, if performed to save a life.
For example, the Talmud tells us that one may cast a net to rescue a child who fell into the sea on Shabbat, even though by doing so one is also engaging in the act of fishing. One may dig and build a step in order to rescue a child who fell into a pit, even though one may not ordinarily build a step on Shabbat. One may also break open a door on Shabbat if a child has been accidentally locked behind it, even if this results in the creation of boards that the door-breaker intends to use after Shabbat.
The Talmud then preempts a question that many readers may have at this point: Is it necessary to tell us all these specific cases? Someone — maybe even you — might have thought it was enough to tell us that saving a life takes precedence over observing Shabbat. Why bother mentioning each of these specific scenarios?
The Talmud explains that it is necessary to list all of them because each offers its own lesson:
If it had taught us only the law of the child who fell into the sea, we might have thought the ruling was only because one must act quickly in that case because otherwise the child will be swept away by the waves. But in the case of a child who fell into a pit, we might have thought the ruling doesn’t apply because there is no immediate danger. Therefore it is necessary to teach both cases (to show that even regarding this lesser danger, it is still more important to save the life than to observe Shabbat).
And if it had taught us only the case of the pit, one might have thought it is permitted because the child is scared, but in the case of a locked door, perhaps the child would just sit on the other side of the door and play with nuts until Shabbat is over (apparently, a common toy for children). Therefore, it is necessary to teach this case too.
The rabbis are emphasizing how each hypothetical case introduces a new leniency. The principle that saving a life takes precedence over Shabbat applies not only when the someone is in an obviously life-threatening situation, but even when someone is in a position that is scary enough to feel life-threatening, and in fact even when someone is in a position that is likely not life-threatening or scary at all, but still bears some potential risk of harm.
As much as the rabbis elsewhere are meticulous in their descriptions of how mitzvot such as Shabbat must be observed, here they demonstrate that people’s well-being will always be the more important consideration.
Read all of Yoma 84 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 4th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.