Endangering oneself in order to save another person from mortal danger
The Torah commands us not to stand idly by while someone’s blood is being spilled (Lo Saamod Al Dam Re’acha). We must therefore do everything in our power to save another Jew from a life threatening situation. If one is able to save another person and does not he has transgressed this commandment. However, there is also a ruling of Chayecha Kodem, which teaches that your life takes precedence and therefore one is not allowed to place one’s self in a life threatening situation to spare another from a life threatening situation. The question that the poskim deal with is one required to enter a potentially life threatening situation (Safek Sakana) in order to save another Jew from an absolute life threatening situation. For example a man is drowning and if no one jumps in to save him he will die. However, the torrent is pretty strong and it is possible that the person jumping in may be in danger himself of drowning. The question is is he allowed or required to jump in the water?
Harav Yosef Karo zt”l, in his Sefer Kesef Mishnah (Rotzeach 1:14), cites the Hagahos Maimon who rules in accordance with the Yerushalmi that one is required to place himself in a Safek Sakana in order to save another Jew from an absolute life threatening situation. He explains that because the other person will definitely die and the rescuer will only potentially die, we worry about the definite and not the potential. This was also the view of the Tiferes Yisroel (Peah 1:5). The Kesef Mishnah and Hagahos Maimon do not tell us where in the Yerushalmi can this ruling be found. The Netziv (Emek Sheila Shelach) explains that the Yerushalmi they are referring to can be found in Meseches Terumos. The Yerushalmi records that Rav Imi was captured by robbers and was in a life threatening situation. Rav Yonasan said that there is nothing we can do and we must accept his untimely fate. However, Reish Lakish said, “I am going to rescue him and either I kill them (the captors) or they kill me.” Reish Lakish actively placed himself in danger in order to save his friend and this is the source of the ruling of the Hagahos Maimon.
Harav Yoel Serkes zt”l (Sma C.M 426), in his commentary on Shulchan Aruch, noted that the Rama and Shulchan Aruch both omit this ruling from their writings. It is in no doubt due to the fact that the pillars of halacha, the Rosh, Rif, and Rambam, all omitted the ruling of the Yerushalmi. It also seems that Rabbeinu Yona, in his Sefer Issur V’Heter (59:38), disagrees with the Hagahos Maimon and rules that one is not required to enter a potentially dangerous situation in order to save a person in life threatening danger. The Mishnah Berurah (329:19) also rules that one is not required to endanger himself in order to save another.
The Aruch Hashulchan explains that the reason all these Rishonim do not rule in accordance with the Yerushalmi is that the Talmud Bavli disagrees with the Yerushalmi. He does not, however, include a source from the Bavli that would imply a convey a view different from that of the Yerushalmi. See the Tzitz Eliezer (9:45) who cites potential sources from the Bavli that seem to disagree with the Yerushalmi.
The Radvaz (3:627) feels that according to the vast majority of opinions who do not require one to endanger himself in order to save another person. Not only is one not required to do so, one is not allowed to do so. He writes that one who places himself in Safek Sakana in order to save his friend is a “foolishly pious individual” and the potential risk out ways the mortal danger facing his friend. One is not allowed to endanger himself in order to perform a Mitzvah or in order to avoid a sin (except idolatry, murder, and sexual relations). Therefore, it is not permitted to endanger one’s self in order to avoid performing the sin of Lo Saamod Al Dam Re’acha. This ruling was also cited by Harav Yitzchak Weiss zt”l (Minchas Yitzchak 6:103).
Harav Moshe Feinstein zt”l (Igros Moshe Y.D. 2:174:4) disagrees with the ruling of the Radvaz. He explains that although normally one may not endanger himslef in order to avoid a sin, in this case one is permitted since his actions will lead to a Jewish person being saved. According to Harav Moshe zt”l the whole dabate is whether one is required to enter a Safek Sakana in order to save his friend. However, everyone agrees that one is permitted to do so.
Harav Ovadia Yosef zt”l (Yechava Daas 3:84) found a discrepancy in the writings of the Radvaz. In one response the Radvaz writes that one is not permitted to endanger himself in order to save his friend. While in another response he writes that one is required to enter a somewhat dangerous situation in order to save someone from a life threatening situation. Harav Yosef zt”l explains that there is no contradiction. If there is a 50%, or more, chance of death one is not allowed to save his friend. One is not allowed to perform an act with such a high risk of death, even in order to save his friend. If the chance of death is less than 50% one is required to save his friend. In this case the chance of death is so small that the reward of saving a Jew out ways the potential danger. He adds that the Radvaz, himself, seems to indicate such a distinction in one of the responses.
The Radvaz does add that there is no requirement to donate a limb in order to save another jew, even if donating a limb involves a small risk of death. He explains that the ways of the Torah are sweet and the Torah would never require someone to become mutilated and deformed. What if donating eyes could save a life, reasons the Radvaz, you would have half of Klal Yisroel missing eyes? The Torah cannot require such a thing. Although it is praiseworthy, the Torah would never require organ donation.
[It should be noted that the above discussion may not apply to a war or soldiers and a rav should be consulted, see Minchas Chinuch 425, Griz on Chumash Beshalach and Shu”t Mishpat Cohen of Rav Kook zt”l 143]
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