The Talmud, Yoma 85b, discusses the origin of the concept that saving a life overrides Shabbat. Rav Yehuda said in the name of Shmuel: It is written (Vayikra 18:5) “v’chai bahem”, “You shall keep My decrees and My laws which if a person obeys they shall live through them…” which implies that one should not die on account of observing the mitzvot.
The saving of life overrides any commandment. Yoma 82a explains that nothing stands in the way of “pikuach nefesh”, saving a life, other than the cardinal sins of idol worship, illicit relations or murder.
In Yoma, 83a, we are taught that if a person is sick on Yom Kippur, we feed them on the advice of experts since this is in the category of “safek nefashot”, uncertainty involving danger to life. In matters involving danger to life, we are bidden to rule leniently (safek nefashot lehakel). It is better to err on the side of treating the patient.
Rav Matya ben Charash taught (Yoma 84a): One who feels pain in his mouth, we put medicine in his mouth for him on Shabbat.
The rabbis derive from here that it is permissible to break Shabbat to prepare the medicine for him. If the medicine will be effective, it warrants the suspension of all of the Shabbat laws.
Why is it necessary for the mishna to add that every possible danger to life (safek nefashot) supersedes Shabbat?
Rashi explains that even if he will certainly not die this Shabbat, we are afraid that if we don’t treat him right away, he may subsequently die. If the doctor requests that a person start to take medication on Shabbat then they should take it right away and not wait until Saturday night.
We are taught in Yoma 84b, that in matters involving danger to life on Shabbat, one who is quick is praiseworthy. They do not need authorization of the Beit Din (court) to proceed.
Some examples that are listed in the Talmud: If a child fell into the sea, or into a pit, one can bring him up. If a child is stuck in a locked room, one may break the door to rescue him. If there is a fire, one can extinguish it on Shabbat.
We see from here, that when danger to life is involved, saving a life supersedes the mitzvot.
During these difficult times, one may ask how it is possible that most synagogues in the world are closed. Isn’t it important to pray with a minyan?
Since the health authorities feel that those who are packed into a synagogue can spread the virus, we must listen to them. Unfortunately, many were infected in Israel and throughout the world in synagogues over Purim as well as in daily minyanim and on Shabbat before the new regulations went into effect. Just as in the case of Yom Kippur, we trust the experts to determine if the person should eat or not, so too, we must trust the doctors who insist that we do not to open the synagogues at this time.
Although it is not easy to be away from the community for so long, we must also follow the view that even if there is a chance that there could be danger, we must take the lenient view and tell people not to pray with a minyan. In Israel, they are now allowing outdoor minyanim, where groups of nineteen can pray together outside if everyone is standing two meters apart. In some communities this may work. In others, people may not be able to resist socializing which could end up being very dangerous.
It is better to stay safe now and follow the orders, even if it means performing less mitzvot in order to keep the community healthy so that we will be able to observe more mitzvot in the future.