Halachic Musings: COVID-19 and Safek Pikuach Nefesh

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

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It looks like the government is headed toward a legal reopening of shuls, camps, schools, businesses, etc., regardless of the actual safety of doing so. This will invariably lead to more discussion and more differences of opinion. Some rabbis will rule permissively; others will be stringent. Some will say that it depends on their plan. We are in the first few weeks of reentering the shuls, and many are concerned about a possible resurgence of COVID-19 infections. The OU and Agudah seem to differ as to whether our shuls should wait an additional 14 days beyond what the government permits, or whether we should open right away.

What does halachah say about all of this? Also, what will happen on Day 15? Let’s say, chas v’shalom, that it gets worse, and more people get sick from COVID-19. Does that mean that it is now forbidden to go back into the shuls? What are the parameters of pikuach nefesh and what are the parameters of safek pikuach nefesh, possible danger to life?

Regarding Someone Who Is Ill

We know that in regard to someone who is ill on Shabbos and the danger is one of possible pikuach nefesh, the Shulchan Aruch (328:2, 5) rules that one must certainly violate Shabbos. One who first stops to ask a she’eilah on these matters is called “someone who spills blood.” Contemporary poskim have compared these halachos to cases of COVID-19 as well as the issue of vaccinations.

However, not every case and question is halachically to be considered as “safek pikuach nefesh.” The Chazon Ish (Ohalos 22:32) provides the following parameters:

If it is merely a possible future danger, but there is currently no reference to a danger at all, this is not considered “safek pikuach nefesh,” a possible danger to life [for which we would violate Shabbos and the like]. If there is a specific situation such as an epidemic or a war, where there is a concern that a dangerous situation may develop, then it is considered possible pikuach nefesh.

The matter is not dependent upon whether the dangerous situation is actually here or not. Rather, is it matzui (statistically not surprising) that the matter will be dangerous or possibly dangerous? Any issue that according to estimation of chachamim has a realistic possibility of danger is termed as a “yediah of sakanah,” an awareness of danger, even if it did not yet come or if there is a general situation such as a war, where many times it will yield dangerous situations. This is considered a “sakanah yaduah” — even if the actual sakanah did not yet arrive. These matters are given to the chachamim to determine.

Thus, according to the Chazon Ish, it is the rabbis’ call — based upon the input of doctors. If they think that the danger would be too great, then it would be forbidden to continue indoors. But what if the doctors themselves are arguing about it?

Doctor vs. Doctor

When you have a case of two doctors and one says that we should violate Shabbos for a particular patient and the other says that there is no need, if both doctors are equal in terms of their medical knowledge, then we violate Shabbos for the patient. If one is more expert than the other, we follow the more expert one (See Biur Halacha “V’im” in SA OC Siman 328). Even if the more expert doctor is arguing with numerous other less-expert doctors, we still follow his recommendation to violate Shabbos. If, however, there are a number of doctors and their knowledge is equal, then we follow the majority of the doctors’ opinion. If the expert doctor states there is no need to violate Shabbos but the other doctors state that there is, we follow their opinion since they are the majority (see SA OC 618:2 and Mishnah Berurah 10).

So there we have it. We follow the majority view of the doctors in such cases.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach’s View

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Minchas Shlomo Vol. II 29:4) also deals with the subject matter, and rules that the definition of a danger lies in the public perception of what people would do. If most people would not do it, then these are the parameters of what is forbidden.

[We are assuming that most intelligent people would take the advice of what doctors recommend. It is an unfortunate reality that there has emerged a group of people that can be termed as “Flat-Earthers,” who discount all medical advice and go against the views of gedolei Torah. When they are confronted with evidence of the views of gedolei Torah, they reject them as forgeries.]

In Chashukei Chemed Yuma 84b, Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein deal with a question of whether a doctor is obligated to attend to an ill person that needs him if the road that leads there is a dangerous one, in that Arab terrorists frequently shoot at cars that travel on it. Rav Zilberstein responds that, even according to Rav Shlomo Zalman’s parameters, if people would generally not travel on this highway but would do so to earn money, then the doctor must also go.

Hashem Watches Fools

The Gemara in Shabbos (129b) discusses the dangers involved in bloodletting twice and three times a week. It states that if someone has z’chus avos, merits of his forefathers, he may do so twice per week on account of kvar dashu bei rabbim — a significant amount of people have already done it so we apply the principle of shomer pesaim Hashem, Hashem watches over fools. The Gemara in Yevamos (72a) applies this dictum as well.

Does this heter, leniency, of kvar dashu bei rabbim just grant us permission to do something ill-advised, or does it remove the matter from the parameters of safek pikuach nefesh? Rav Yisroel Isserlin (1390–1460), author of the Terumas HaDeshen, in his responsum (#211) deals with the prospect of marrying a woman whose two previous husbands had died. The Beis Yosef in Even HaEzer (Siman 9) cites this Trumas HaDeshen authoritatively. His answer seems to indicate that a talmid chacham should avoid relying on “shomer pesaim Hashem.” Just because we have a case of dashu bei rabbim does not mean that the leniency should be relied upon.

Later Poskim

Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, published a responsum (Igros Moshe Y.D. II #49) saying we cannot pronounce that smoking is technically forbidden since great Torah scholars of previous generations smoked. Later on, his son, ylc’t, Rav Dovid Feinstein, shlita, stated that in light of the new statistical evidence, even his father would not have ruled permissively. The way that we may understand Rav Dovid is that he understood his father’s view as the empirical statistical evidence must be overwhelmingly high in order to counter the leniency of kvar dashu bei rabbim.

Not every posek, however, allows the leniency of kvar dashu bei rabbim to be applied across the board, regardless of proven statistical dangers. Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky (my great-grandfather’s rebbe) ruled in his responsa work (Achiezer Volume I 23:2) that when there is a known statistical danger, we do not apply this leniency. According to this view, it would seem, according to this author, that if the doctors were to state that the shuls should close and this is based on empirical statistical data, then the doctors’ opinion should prevail.

There are studies from both Japan and China that indoor incidents of transmission are more likely than outdoors. The study done in China of 318 clustered cases of COVID-19 of three or more infections showed that only one of them occurred outdoors — the other 317 occurred indoors. That study can be read at

The Chinese study could have been a fluke. There is another study that was done in Japan that had more balanced numbers. That study shows that the risk of getting infected indoors is only 19 times higher than getting it from outdoors.

If the incidence of an infection is extremely rare, the 1,900% higher rate does not matter. Rav Chaim Ozer’s position is also similar to that expressed by Rav Malkiel Tzvi Tenenbaum (1847–1910) in his Divrei Malkiel Vol. I #70 and by Rav Eliezer Yehudah Waldenburg (1915–2006) in the Tzitz Eliezer (vol. XV 39:1).

Conclusions

If things get worse, chalilah, and the doctors say to close up shop, we should do so. According to the Chazon Ish, it seems that the decision is up to the chachamim in that case — the majority view, not a minority view of one rabbi when it flies in the face of what doctors and the chachamim all say. According to Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, it would be OK to go along with what the majority of people are doing, but there would not be a problem to be stringent like the Terumas HaDeshen. According to the Achiezer, one should follow what the doctors recommend if it is based upon statistical evidence.

May Hashem save us from further harm and may we merit to re-enter our shuls safely and quickly.

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