It was Shabbos Chanukah in Bialystok. The Charlap family was seated around the table, singing zemiros and enjoying the doubly festive day. All of a sudden, one of the Chanukah candles melted and fell over, starting a fire in the house. Chief Rabbi Charlap motioned to the members of his household to leave the house quickly and inform the neighbours, so that they too would be safe, lest the fire spread.
Once all the people were safe, the rabbi found himself in a quandary. ‘As I escape, what should I take with me?’ He was torn by the two choices that lay before him. He couldn’t imagine forsaking the volumes of manuscripts, elucidating the teachings of the Vilna Gaon, that he had been working on for many years. But then, how could he do that? They were mere Oral Torah writings, and the Written Torah takes precedence over the Oral! And so, with tears in his eyes, he kissed his manuscripts goodbye and picked up the Megillah, before quickly fleeing the burning building.
Sadly, Rabbi Charlap never recovered from the woeful event. His life’s work had gone up in smoke. He descended into a state of depression and eventually died of a broken heart. Upon hearing this tragic tale, Rabbi Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Teomim (C19 Lithuania) ruled that, should such a situation ever arise again, God forbid, safek pikuach nefesh – the potential danger to life – is paramount. The Oral Torah manuscripts must take precedence over rescuing even a Torah Scroll!
חַיָּיב עַל כׇּל מְלָאכָה וּמְלָאכָה: חִילּוּק מְלָאכוֹת מְנָלַן? אָמַר שְׁמוּאֵל, אָמַר קְרָא: ״מְחַלְּלֶיהָ מוֹת יוּמָת״ — הַתּוֹרָה רִבְּתָה מִיתוֹת הַרְבֵּה עַל חִילּוּל אֶחָד. הַאי בְּמֵזִיד כְּתִיב! אִם אֵינוֹ עִנְיָן לְמֵזִיד, דִּכְתִיב: ״כׇּל הָעֹשֶׂה מְלָאכָה יוּמָת״, תְּנֵהוּ עִנְיָן לְשׁוֹגֵג. וּמַאי ״יוּמָת״? — יוּמַת בְּמָמוֹן
בממון – לאפושי קרבנות
One is liable to bring a sin-offering for each individual act of prohibited activity [that he performs on Shabbat]. From where do we derive the division of labors? Shmuel said that the verse says: “He who desecrates shall surely be put to death (mot yumat)”. The double expression teaches that the Torah included multiple deaths for a single desecration. But wasn’t that verse written with regard to intentional transgression (and one cannot receive multiple capital punishments)?! The Gemara answers: Since it does not assist with understanding intentional transgression, as the Torah already states, “all who desecrate it shall die,” utilize it for the matter of unwitting transgression. And what, then, is the meaning of the term, “he shall [surely] be put to death? It means that he shall put to death by payment of money.
Rashi: He will have to pay for numerous atonement sacrifices.
When a person transgresses Shabbos intentionally, the Torah’s penalty is capital punishment. (It should be noted that it was extremely rare for the ancient beth din to execute any offender). The Talmud interprets the multi-use of the word ‘shall be put to death’ more broadly. Even unintentional sin necessitates an atonement. If one broke Shabbos unwittingly, he would be required to bring a sin-offering. Multiple unwitting offences would incur a liability of multiple sacrifices. That monetary liability, says the Gemara, could be financially ruinous, a near-death sentence unto itself.
The Torah recognizes that death has many different meanings. Sometimes it means the soul leaving the body. Other times, an individual can suffer such a great loss that the terrible blow is akin to death. That might be a monetary loss. Or it might be the loss of something that is very meaningful. Rabbi Rabinowitz felt that Rabbi Charlap had ‘died’ on account of his feelings of devastation, to the extent that he ruled that, in such circumstances, there is nothing more concerning than mental health risks. Despite countless stories of brave individuals who have run into the flames of a burning synagogue to save the Torah scrolls, Rabbi Rabinowitz ruled that mental health is of paramount importance and outweighs all other considerations.
Our political and religious leaders currently face unimaginable challenges. On the one hand, the best way to avoid the spread of coronavirus is for us all to stay home until the vaccine is created. That approach has been working and we’ve seen the death toll reduced significantly on account of the stay-home campaigns around the world. On the other hand, there are many things that cannot be done from home. Many people cannot work from home. Long-term isolation poses mental health and other intangible challenges. Financial and psychological ‘death’ must also be accounted for.
It’s difficult to balance these competing dangers from the top. All too often we sit and wait to hear the advice from our leaders, which can seem inconsistent as they endeavour to balance these competing needs. But we can do our part to help. Each person knows their own limits and capabilities. If you are able to stay home, then you should be staying home as much as possible. If you need to get out for whatever reason, then be sensible about it. Our leaders need us to partner with them in making the right decisions as we do what we need to.
And while we’ve been applauding medical professionals for all their courageous efforts on the frontlines (and we must continue to do so), we should also be grateful to those who have stayed home and been unable to work and make a living. The longer they’ve stayed home, doing their part to protect everyone’s lives, the more dangerous their own lives have become, as they get closer to the brink of financial ruin. Some small business owners struggle to eke out a living and things have really been tough for them. So when you finally get out and have your first haircut or manicure, take a moment to think about the income they’ve lost over these weeks and months. And give them the most generous tip you’re able to. In most cases, even if the tip were an amount equal to the fee itself, it still wouldn’t come close to the amount they’ve lost over this difficult period. But it will certainly go a long way to helping them pay their outstanding credit card bills.
There is no doubt that our greatest appreciation goes to those nurses, doctors, and hospital staff who have risked their lives day-in day-out to save lives and end this crisis. But a war-effort takes ‘soldiers’ on all levels assisting the efforts of our heroes on the battlefield, from the army kitchen to the backroom intelligence personnel. May you acknowledge every soldier’s effort and do your part to save lives!