Yoma, Chapter Eight, Mishnah Seven



Mishnah seven continues to teach that Shabbat laws are suspended in order to even potentially save someone’s life. 


Mishnah Seven

1)      If an avalanche fell on someone, and it is doubtful whether or not he is there, or whether he is alive or dead, or whether he is an Israelite or a non-Jew, they remove the debris from above him [even on Shabbat].

2)      If they find him alive they remove the debris, but if dead they should leave him there [until Shabbat is over].



Section one:  If we knew that the person was truly under the avalanche, and that he was alive, and that he was Jewish, it would obviously be permitted to remove the debris on Shabbat in order to save him.  Our mishnah teaches that even if we don’t know that these three things are true, we do remove the debris in an attempt to save his life.  This is because, as we learned in yesterday’s mishnah, even the potential to save a life overrides Shabbat.

As you may have noted, according to the mishnah, if we knew that the person was not Jewish, we would not save his life on Shabbat.  I will not deny that the mishnah discriminates against non-Jews, but I think that this has to be understood as a reflection of the times.  Jews and Gentiles often did not get along, and Jews experienced a lot of persecution.  Furthermore, the idea of treating all of humanity as equal was not a common idea.  All peoples of the ancient world discriminated against others.  We should not expect ancient rabbis to express the same exact liberal values that we (hopefully) espouse today. 

Section two:  If they find that he is alive, they remove all of the debris and do all they can to save his life.  However, if they find that he is dead they must stop the removal and let his body stay there until Shabbat is over.  The saving of a life overrides Shabbat, but removing a dead body from some debris does not.