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Halakhic Commentary

Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn:
Enough said; here is this week’s commentary.

The First Halakhic Change in History
Jushua Kulp
The Halakhah in the Parashah

Although we’re not reading from the books of the Maccabees in our synagogues, my column this week will focus on this book and an important halakhic episode that is a crucial part of the story. In Maccabees I chapter 2, Mattityahu sets off the revolt in Modiin (my home city) by refusing to sacrifice to pagan gods and then killing a Jew who did. Pursued by Greek soldiers, Mattityahu’s followers are forced to flee. Hiding in caves, they refuse to come out and obey the king’s command. In response, we read in verses 35-37, “The soldiers attacked them immediately, but the Jews did nothing to resist; they did not even throw stones or block the entrances to the caves where they were hiding. They said, ‘We will all die with a clear conscience. Let heaven and earth bear witness that you are slaughtering us unjustly.’ So the enemy attacked them on the Sabbath and killed the men, their wives, their children, and their livestock. A thousand people died.” It is unclear whether or not the Greeks knew that the Jews would not fight back on Shabbat, but one can only imagine that once it was clear that they would not, the Greeks now had an easy way to defeat the rebels.

Mattityahu and his followers had a choice: They could fight on Shabbat and attempt to overthrow their Greek enemies, or die as martyrs for their cause. They chose the former. “When Mattityahu and his friends heard the news about this, they were greatly saddened and said to one another, ‘If all of us do as these other Jews have done and refuse to fight the Gentiles to defend our lives and our religion, we will soon be wiped off the face of the earth.’ On that day they decided that if anyone attacked them on the Sabbath, they would defend themselves, so that they would not all die as other Jews had died in the caves.” Mattityahu’s decision allowed them to fight the next Shabbat, eventually overthrow their Greek enemies and purify the defiled Temple. So powerful was their decision that it was really not questioned for the rest of Jewish history. In Hebrew we say, “פיקוח נפש דוחה את השבת”– “Saving a life overrides the Shabbat.”

But there is more to the story. The Book of Maccabees is not just a recording of historical facts. Like all books in the ancient world, it shapes its tale to convey a pedagogical message to the reader. The author here has carved out a careful message concerning which battles are worth dying for and which are not. When the Greeks command the Jews to offer foreign sacrifices or to eat pig (as we find in the tale of the seven sons in Maccabees II), Jews lay down their lives and are praised for doing so.  Life is of course an important value, but the struggle to physically survive does not take precedence when one’s entire way of living is threatened. Abrogating the prohibition of idolatry or the dietary rules at the command of the king are instances in which the Greeks were attempting to destroy Judaism itself. As such, the editors of these books advocate for martyrdom. However, the case of fighting on Shabbat is different. The Greeks were not commanding the Jews to break Shabbat. They were simply taking advantage of the Jewish reticence to fight on Shabbat. This was not a case of “martyrdom”–demonstrating one’s fealty to God at the cost of death. At certain times, commandments must be broken in order to achieve the higher goal of preservation of life and the Jewish people.

Following the precedent of the Maccabees, the rabbis were adamant that “pikuach nefesh” the saving of life, overrides the commandment to keep Shabbat – but only when it is not done as part of religious persecution (see Bavli Sanhedrin 74a; Maimonides, Foundations of the Torah 5:1-2). Today, Shabbat is routinely violated in hospitals throughout the Jewish world. Indeed in any case where there is even a potential threat to life, not only may Shabbat be violated, but it must be violated. The Israeli army violates Shabbat in order to protect its citizens. Today we take this for granted, but we can look back to Mattityahu and his embattled partners and thank them for this remarkable innovation–life is a more important value in Judaism than (almost) any particular commandment.


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