Amazing Online Shtar Harsha’ah Form from the cRc
March 19, 2020
Shabbat Without Shul: A Guide
March 19, 2020

Rav Herschel Schachter on Removing a Coronavirus Patient from a Respirator

March 19, 2020

I received a call today from the chair of a hospital Ethics Committee asking our position on a situation for which the hospital unfortunately feels a need to prepare: Would we permit the removal of a respirator from an end-of-life Coronavirus patient to be used by another patient whose life, in the opinion of the medical staff, could be saved?

I posed the question to Rav Schachter who responded in writing:
Click here for a PDF. 

Every legal system has a principle that the ends justify the means. The question however is, which ends and which means. If a woman is in labor and her husband is rushing her to the hospital at three o’clock in the morning on the highways where there are no other cars, the police will radio ahead to let the husband pass through all the red lights so that the woman would arrive in the hospital on time. The halacha considers the mitzvah of “v’chai bohem” (the mitzvah of pikuach nefoshosh) of supreme importance and it takes precedence over almost all of the other mitzvos in the Torah. Sick or elderly people whose life might possibly be endangered by fasting on Yom Kippur are required to eat. Likewise, if one’s life may be in danger we all know that we must violate Shabbos by driving to the hospital even if there is only a sefek sefeka of a sakonah and even though driving a car on Shabbos constitutes a melocha d’oraisa.

The halacha however, has three exceptions to the rule where pikuach nefesh does not take precedence. One of the three is murder. We may not kill one person in order to save the life of another person. We may not make calculations that the life of one individual is more valuable than the life of another individual (see Mishnah end of seventh chapter of Oholos and see Gemorah Pesochim 25B). Even if one individual is on a respirator and his chances for survival are very slim, and even if he survives he will not live that many added years, and another person is in need of the respirator whose chances of survival are much better and will probably live many more years, the halacha declares that we have no right to make such calculations. Even if the individual on the respirator is a goses, the din is still the same. One who kills a goses b’yidei shomayim, is given the death penalty (Sanhedrin 78A). 

The Rash in his commentary on the last Mishna in the eighth chapter of Terumos, quotes a passage from the Talmud Yerushalmi which has been codified both by the Rambam (Yisodei Ha’torah 5:5) and by the Shulchan Aruch ( Yoreh Deah 157:1 in the Ramoh). The Yerushalmi states that if murderers surround and capture the city and threaten to kill all the people in the city unless they will hand over on person whom they will kill, this is not permitted.  The Kesef Mishna in his commentary on the Rambam points out that this Yerushalmi is adding a chidush that even if the situation is such that at the end of the day, we will be saving more lives by killing the one person, the halacha still forbids this act of murder. Even if the murder is only in the form of Gram R’zicha, which would not deserve a death penalty, the halacha still does not permit it.

Mark Dratch
Mark Dratch
Rabbi Mark Dratch was appointed Executive Vice President of the RCA in September, 2012. In 2005, Rabbi Dratch founded JSafe: The Jewish Institute Supporting an Abuse Free Environment, an organization addressing issues of domestic violence, child abuse and institutional and professional improprieties in the Jewish community. He served as Instructor of Jewish Studies and Philosophy at the Isaac Breuer College of Yeshiva University from 2002-2012. Rabbi Dratch served as a pulpit rabbi for 22 years at Congregation Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT; Shaarei Shomayim, Toronto; Kehillath Jesurun, New York, NY, and other pulpits. He served as both a Vice President and Treasurer of the RCA and a member of the Executive Board. He served as chair of Task Force on Rabbinic Improprieties, which worked to establish policies and guidelines for the RCA in dealing with allegations against one of its members, and was author of the Resolution on Rabbinic Improprieties. In addition to JSafe, Rabbi Dratch was involved in combatting abuse a member of the Leadership Council of the FaithTrust Institute, Seattle, WA, and is featured on a number of its training videos on issues of abuse in religious communities. He was a member of the Clergy Task Force of Jewish Women International and a member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Abuse and Religion. He served as Camp Rabbi at Camp Morasha and was a member of the Board of the American Friends of Nishmat. Rabbi Dratch served as the Orthodox Union's "Webbe Rebbe," answering “Ask the Rabbi” questions posed through their website. He has published many articles in scholarly, rabbinic and popular journals in English and Hebrew. Rabbi Dratch is a graduate of Yeshiva University (1979), its Ferkauf Graduate School (Jewish Education), Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (semicha) (1982), and Wurzweiler School of Social Work (MSW). He is married to Rachel Levitt Klein and is the proud father of four children, four stepchildren, and a grandfather of one.

Leave a Reply