Students at Roosevelt High School take part in a protest against gun violence on March 14, 2018, in Seattle. It was part of a nationwide school walkout calling for stricter gun laws after the massacre of 17 people at a Florida high school one month before. (AP Photo/Manuel Valdes)

As a rabbi, I will violate the Sabbath to help save lives from gun violence

(RNS) — I’ll be joining local teens on the March for Our Lives on Saturday (March 24), and by traveling, I will violate the Jewish Sabbath to get there. But in doing so, I’ll be fulfilling the greatest of Jewish religious duties — one that supersedes even the Sabbath itself.

Yes, this march is so important that I — a rabbi — am going to blatantly disrupt God’s holy Sabbath. But if the ancient rabbinic sages are to be believed, that’s precisely what God wants me to do.

The obligation to save lives overrules virtually all other Jewish laws, and this march, if successful, will surely save lives. I can think of no better way to dramatize both the historic magnitude and the religious significance of this march than to hop on the "Shab-bus."

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Countless lives are hanging in the balance right now. If this massive nationwide demonstration leads to real change, who knows how many lives will be spared the next time a deranged individual is denied that AR-15 because of strengthened, commonsense gun laws.

The last time I marched with the masses for stricter gun laws, in downtown Hartford two months after Sandy Hook, the result was dramatic. Realizing that the National Rifle Association's political clout was now being vigorously challenged by the popular will, the Connecticut state government proceeded to ban more than 150 assault-style gun models, along with magazines having a capacity greater than 10 rounds. The state also implemented a universal background check system and required a permit to buy guns and ammunition. As a result, gun homicides in my home state were cut in half.

That rally did not take place on Shabbat, so it was a no-brainer for me to go.

This one is different.

Students rally outside the Capitol in Washington on March 14, 2018. Students walked out of school to protest gun violence in the biggest demonstration yet of the student activism that has emerged in response to last month's massacre of 17 people at Florida's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

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The religious obligation in question is called Pikuach Nefesh in Hebrew, and is derived from Leviticus 18:5, which states, “You shall keep My laws and rules, by the pursuit of which people shall live; I am the Lord.” Other biblical verses reinforce the message that laws are intended to sanctify and preserve life, not to cause undue risk of death.

Judaism has always promoted a culture of life (it bears noting that in Jewish sources, human life is defined as beginning at or about the time of birth). The Talmud states that to save a single life is equivalent to saving the world. The children at Sandy Hook and teens in Parkland, along with the slain of Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, Orlando and so many other places, add up to tens of thousands of victims of gun violence per year — tens of thousands of worlds destroyed. These unbearable and intolerable losses have fueled my decision to become a one-time conscientious objector toward Sabbath rest. If so many victims are not resting in peace, how can I allow myself to rest at all?

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Pikuach Nefesh can be applied in many situations, but most often it is discussed regarding Shabbat. In the second century BCE, Seleucid armies adopted the strategy of attacking Jewish renegades on Shabbat. The Jews offered little resistance and were slaughtered. In 1 Maccabees, the Hasmonean patriarch Mattathias rejected that blind piety, stating, “If anyone comes against us on the Sabbath day, we shall fight against him and not all die as our brothers did in their hiding places.”

The Talmudic sages taught that one who is vigilant in saving a life on Shabbat is praiseworthy. The Talmud presents several scenarios involving permissible Sabbath violations, including rescuing a child from a pit or saving someone drowning in the sea. The rabbis applied the principles of Pikuach Nefesh both to saving the lives of Jews and gentiles and made it clear that the risk of death did not need to be certain or immediate.

The most famous case in modern times — and the one most analogous to the march — occurred during a cholera epidemic in 1848, when the great Lithuanian Rabbi Israel Salanter stood before his community on Yom Kippur and encouraged them to end their fast prematurely. He dramatized that plea by eating and drinking in front of them.

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In an account written eight decades later, Salanter is said to have stated, “There are times when one must turn aside from the Law, if by doing so a whole community may be saved. With the consent of the All-Present and with the consent of this congregation, we give leave to eat and drink on the Day of Atonement.”

Salanter’s advice did not directly save any lives, and in fact, contemporary opponents noted that many thousands of Jews in those same lands who disregarded his gesture survived. But it is conceivable that some who were in a weakened state would have become sick had they not cut short their fasts. The mere chance that his life-affirming act could have limited the spread of that deadly disease was sufficient to warrant his gesture.

My boarding that bus or riding in that car will likely not save any lives directly. But by linking the voices of Parkland to the Voice of Sinai, I can elevate the conversation on guns in our country, helping legislators and voters — and the teens themselves — to appreciate the urgency of now. Meanwhile, I’ll refrain from spending money or using my phone, and I’ll chant a psalm or two, and my rolling Sabbath may become — for me and the teens I join — the most meaningful Sabbath we’ve ever experienced.

At Selma, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr., remarked that he felt like he was praying with his feet. On March 24, I will be praying with my feet too. And while I walk, I’ll be praying that, in some small way, I’ll be saving lives, and thereby, just maybe, helping to save the world.

(Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., and author of “ Seeking God in Cyberspace.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.) 


  1. Mark 3:4 – English Standard Version

    And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent.

  2. I would opine that the rabbi is on very solid ground. Indeed, Jesus, the rabbi who was the founder of the Christian faith made similar arguments.

  3. “… (t)he Connecticut state
    government proceeded to ban more than 150 assault-style gun models,
    along with magazines having a capacity greater than 10 rounds. The state
    also implemented a universal background check system and required a
    permit to buy guns and ammunition.”

    The jury is still out on the effects of these laws. Connecticut has been a relatively low gun crime state for many years, and remains one.

    It seems unlikely that placing an “AR-15” in the hands of a heretofore rational sane person turns them into a homicidal maniac.

  4. Without derogation to Rabbi Hammerman’s view, it should be noted that several Jewish youth movements have been organizing ways to participate in the March within more traditional halachic [Jewish legal] bounds. This includes staying overnight Friday at people’s homes, having a very early Shabbat morning service Saturday, then walking to the event (far but not impossible).

  5. As the article notes, it’s unlikely Jesus’s rabbinic contemporaries would have replied with mere silence. More like a lot of arguing over precisely the circumstances in which healing could take place on the Sabbath. The Talmud talks about this at length.

  6. I used to have a copy of the Talmud, Arb. Gosh that was a long time ago. I wanted to investigate Judaism and don’t remember much of what I learned……

  7. #neveragain

    Enough inane chatter from you, Benchwarmer Bob.

    Get off your disgustingly fat backside already and start working to make gun control happen.

    Get on it already!

  8. Sandi Luckins, you lecherous old cougar and despicable bigot, you’ve never learned much about anything.

  9. Jesus predates the Mishnah by about 200 years and the Gemara by about 500 years.

  10. True, but the rabbis discussed in the Mishnah, and their disciples, were around in the first century. In other words, their comments were remembered and written down later — much like it is said of the Gospels.

  11. Time for a digression:

    The level of learning and education in Galilee exceeded that of Judea in Jesus’ day surpassing even Judea in its schools of learning, and most of the famous rabbis of Jesus’ day were from Galilee (Johnanan ben Zakkai, Hanina ben Doda, Abba Yose Holikufri, Zadok, Halaphta, Hananian ben Teradyon.)

    According to Professor Shmuel Safrai, Hebrew University Professor of Jewish History of the period of the Mishnah and Talmud, not only did the number of 1st century Galilean rabbis known from rabbinic literature exceed the number of Judean rabbis, but even the moral and ethical quality of their teaching excelled that of their Judean counterparts.

    In the New Testament, a great deal of space is given to Jesus’ birth; but then, until His appearance in the Temple at age 12, almost nothing; and from age 12 until He began His public ministry at about the age of 30, again, nothing. What was Jesus doing in His early childhood and in His adolescence?

    From the Mishnah:

    “At five years of age, one is ready for the study of the Scripture, at ten years of age one is fit for the study of the Mishnah, at the age of thirteen for bar mitzvah, at the age of fifteen for the study of Talmud, at the age of eighteen for marriage, at the age of twenty for pursuing a vocation, at the age of thirty for entering into one’s full vigor…” – (Avot 5:2l)

    Few Christians are aware that each synagogue usually had its own elementary school, or bet-sefer, and its own school, or bet-midrash, in Jesus’ time.

  12. first thing the jews did after they took over russia in 1917 was confiscate all firearms after thjat they started masacering christians,this is historical fact

  13. Note that the gun supporter, deluded Christian nutcase, and NRA shill presenting himself above in this thread as “Bob Arnzen” variously and dishonestly uses a variety of names on RNS such as Bob Arnzen, José Carioca, and others. However, there is actually no real Bob Arnzen, and there is actually no real José Carioca.

  14. LOL. Sandi Luckins, that leg rash is affecting your memory now too…

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