Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Pikuach nefesh and "land for peace"

The Big Three
Every child with a decent Jewish education knows about the "big three" sins, the only three for which we are required to give our lives rather than transgress. In the words of the Talmud:
R' Yochanan said in the name of R' Shimon ben Yehotzadak: "It was decided by a vote in the loft of the house of Nitezeh in Lod: For all the transgressions in the Torah, if a man is told, 'Transgress and you will not be killed,' he should transgress and not be killed, except for idol worship and sexual relations and bloodshed." (Sanhedrin 74a)

By extension, many modern rabbinical authorities have ruled that this applies to the question of whether the State of Israel may relinquish land for strategic reasons, even though settling the Land of Israel is a commandment and relinquishing land to the gentiles is a violation of it.

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef shlit"a is well known for arguing that land may - indeed must - be relinquished if the objective is to save lives. It is less well known that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe essentially shared this analysis of the halacha, though he believed that relinquishing land would only endanger Jewish lives, not save them. R' Soloveitchik zt"l apparently shared this approach as well, though there may be some subtle distinctions among halachists regarding whether one would be required to trade land for peace or merely permitted to, and regarding who one consults in assessing whether or not lives would actually be saved.

Speaking in 1967, Rav Soloveitchik argued that such decisions are ultimately not for rabbis to make but for military and political experts. Regarding the specific point of pikuach nefesh, the saving of lives, he said:
If pikuach nefesh supersedes all other mitzvos, it supersedes all prohibitions of the Torah, especially pikuach nefesh of the yishuv in Eretz Yisrael.
(Hat tip: My Obiter Dicta)

The exceptions
I would never presume to compare myself with Rav Soloveitchik, or indeed any of the rabbinic giants who have made this argument. I'm not a rabbi, nor anywhere close to being one. But as simple and compelling this logic may sound, it strikes me as seriously flawed.

The Talmud indeed prioritizes the saving of lives over all the prohibitions of the Torah (except three). But then it proceeds to qualify this ruling in crucial ways:
When R' Dimi arrived, he taught: R' Yochanan said, "This [that one should transgress rather than be killed] was only taught when not in a time of royal decrees [against the Jews], but in a time of royal decrees even for a minor commandment one should be killed rather than transgress."

When Rabin arrived, he taught: R' Yochanan said, "Even when not in a time of royal decrees, they only said this regarding actions in private, but in public, even for a minor commandment one should be killed rather than transgress."

What is a "minor commandment"? Rava bar R' Yitzhak said in the name of Rav: Even to change the lace of one's shoe.

And how many is "in public"? R' Yaakov said: R' Yochanan said, "'In public' requires at least ten people." (Sanhedrin 74a-b)

The Talmud goes on to debate finer distinctions between the possible circumstances in which one might be called to decide between saving lives and violating commandments. But this much is clear: The original ruling that saving lives takes priority applies to individuals in private.

Should a thug threaten to kill you unless you cook on Shabbat, you should cook. But if an oppressive regime demands that the Jews cook on Shabbat or be killed, you must lay down your life rather than violate Shabbat. Similarly, if the same thug threatens you in front of a crowd of Jews, you must lay down your life rather than submit. In either of these cases, violating the Torah would constitute a chillul Hashem, a desecration of God's name, and is forbidden.

The upshot
When terrorists threaten to kill Jews unless the Jewish state hands over parts of the Land of Israel, how can this possibly be viewed as a case where the saving of life supersedes the Torah? When the nations of the world deny our very right to our land, is it not a chillul Hashem to surrender to their demands?

One could certainly argue that none of these categories are relevant. All these cases deal with individuals who must either transgress or die. They may be acting in private or in public, in a time of oppression or a time of liberty, but they are acting as individuals.

I would argue that the question of "land for peace" is of a different nature, as it falls upon the government of the Jewish people, which much decide which course of policy is best for our current and future security needs. Sometimes, the nation must make a tactical retreat in order to preserve more vital national goals. The most recent example - disengagement from Gaza - may be one of them, though I do not believe that it is.

Regardless, I fail to understand how the question of "land for peace" can be classified among the cases of "transgress rather than be killed", which applies only to individuals acting privately. Since several rabbinic giants have indeed viewed it that way, there must be something I'm missing. Can anyone offer an explanation?

Hat tip: I came across some of the above insights about pikuach nefesh in an article by Prof. David Rokeach, emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


Soccer Dad said...

I know this is silly but, "When Rabin arrived, he taught" and what did Sharon teach?

Zman Biur said...

Oh, no! Now I'm hearing that line of the Talmud read in Rabin's voice....

Batya said...

Just a small point. I don't recognize the right of someone, anyone, no matter "how great a rav" who lives in chutz l'Aretz to posken on anything connected to Aretz. And that includes aliyah.

Zman Biur said...


While I appreciate how you feel, I don't think that's a realistic attitude. The halacha has always developed through interaction between rabbis throughout the Jewish people. Any rabbi sufficiently expert in the sources to be considered a posek should be capable of rendering a ruling on any topic in the halacha.

Would you reject the authority of the Babylonian Talmud on matters related to the Land? What about the Rambam? Rashi? etc.

Most rabbis since the destruction of the second temple have lived outside the land, and the halacha - on all subjects - is derived from their rulings no less than from those living in it. In fact, Rambam is considered the preeminent authority for mitzvot hatluyot ba'aretz.

I think the relevant questions here are about how to apply the halachic sources, not who is rendering the decisions.

Cosmic X said...


Land For Peace:


Netanel Livni's coments to the following Cross Currents post.

Soccer Dad said...

More seriously, a number of years ago (I think about 1989) I heard a shiur from Rabbi Frand. (I might have told you this in the past.) In short his conclusion was that it was a political decision. I mentioned this to a friend and he said that Rav Schachter said the same thing. I know that Rav Schachter now has a different view of things. Some idiots refer to him as "moving to the right." I suspect that he, like Rav Ovadia Yosef, has seen the results and concluded that surrendering land (at least under the current circumstances) is what's pikuach nefesh.

Zman Biur said...


Thanks. But your first link doesn't really address halachic sources. Many of the comments on your second link are excellent summaries of the halachic issues, though I don't think any of them quite address my question here: How can the concept of pikuach nefesh, which is relevant only to individuals, be legitimately applied to issues of public policy?


R' Schachter most recently set out his halachic analysis in this audio shiur. I wouldn't call it right-wing, but neither is it left-wing. He certainly accepts that society can legitimately decide certain parts of the land of Israel cannot be held militarily. On whose authority that decision can be made is a more complex issue. I don't remember him suggesting that pikuach nefesh is a determining factor, though. (I haven't listened to the shiur in some months now!)

ytba said...


Wow, this is one of the best comments I've read on the subject.

I am not aware that the Lubavitcher Rebbe EVER sanctioned giving Land for peace, in fact the opposite seems to be true, as we see here.

I share your apprehension in contradicting any of our Rabbis who support "land for peace," especially Rav Soloveichik, but if the Rebbe said it is forbidden I can't accept any other opinion (even though I don't feel free to criticize others). After all, the Rebbe said we can't seperate Pikuach Nefesh from holding onto the land. They are one and the same. If we give up land, we almost certainly will cause Jews to die who wouldn't otherwise, and that is always usser under any circumstances.

I have to hand it to you, the way you have thought this through. Much better than I could have done. Yasher Koach!

Zman Biur said...


Thanks for your kind words. I still wish I could find someone who can explain the central question of this post - how can pikuach nefesh possibly be applied to the land-for-peace question?

Regarding the Lubavitcher, I certainly never suggested that he sanctioned giving land for peace. What I said was that his analytical framework of the halacha is based on the priority of pikuach nefesh. The article you link to just supports that understanding:

In exactly the same way, the only person whose opinion is to be considered as regards retaining or returning parts of the Holy Land is a military expert, a general in the field.

That is, his opposition to land for peace is based on his understanding that it would endanger lives, and is therefore forbidden. (I wonder what he would say when faced with generals who support giving up land...)

That is, like R' Ovadia and R' Soloveitchik, he sees it as a question of pikuach nefesh; he just disagrees with them on which move endanger lives - holding on to land or giving it up.

jameshanley39@yahoo.co.uk said...

i'm very impressed by some of the articles i've read in your blog

Regarding the article on pikuach nefesh, I have heard your position backed before and since..

-Rabbi meir kahane,

in this video
(I think it starts at 14:17)

and here (this one has parts 1-4)

the google.com link i recall strongly concurs with your argument. A kid asks rabbi kahane 'isnt it true that we should live by the mitzvot and not die by them'.. and he answers in detail.

He takes the evidence further thna you , in that he gives arguments that it's -never- true for the klal

- rabbi david bar hayyim
in audio on his website machonshilo
in his 'land for piece' lectures

Your thought on this is very lucid. Far more than mine. I'm sure you'll find those links useful.