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When Safety Calls.

Written by שי טחן, 6/3/2024


When Safety Calls.

Rabbi Shay Tahan

Although the Shabbat day is holy and should not be desecrated for any reason, in a situation of danger and saving lives, the Torah commands us to desecrate it. We learn that from the pasuk: "And you shall live by them".  This halacha is not just for clear and present danger but also for potential danger, therefore, if there is a concern that a terrorist may be wandering around and could potentially carry out an attack, one is permitted and obligated to do everything possible to neutralize the danger, including calling the police on the phone, even though it involves a desecration of the Shabbat, and even calling a Jewish police force, even though they will be violating the Shabbat.

Shmirat Shabbat Kehilchata writes (Chapter 41, Halacha 36): "One who sees suspicious movement or suspicious individuals on Shabbat, and there is a concern that terrorists or criminals suspected of bloodshed are present in the area, it is permitted and a obligated to inform the police." The Mishna Berura (סימן שכט ס״ק טו) explains that we are not meticulous when it comes to saving a life.

Similarly, if one sees a thief breaking into a house and there is a concern that he may attack those inside, it is permitted for the homeowner, neighbor, or anyone else to call the police (Shmirat Shabbat Kehilchata, Chapter 41, Halacha 24). Likewise, it is permitted if one sees a thief breaking into an empty house, as it can be assumed he will break into another house where there is a person inside.

The poskim still differentiate between a doubtful danger, which still has some possibility, and a danger that is very far and unexpected with little likelihood.

The poskim point out contradictions, such as in one Mishna that says when a house collapses and there is a possibility of a live person, even though there might not be anyone there or even if there is, he might already be dead, we still remove the rubble on Shabbat and violate Shabbat to seek a person who might be alive. On the other hand, there are many instances where we don't violate Shabbat on suspicion that danger might happen. For example, we aren't afraid that the building we walk to for prayer will collapse, even though there is such a potential possibility.

The answer provided is that we differentiate between a danger which is existing and in front of us, like the collapse of a building, and that which is potential, like walking into a building(מנחת שלמה ח״ב סימן כט, ה) .

In the event that a person called the police and after they inspected the suspect, they found him not to be a terrorist or a cause of danger in any way, the act is not considered a violation of Shabbat since he was allowed to do so at that moment. Moreover, his act is considered a mitsva and its praiseworthy(שו״ע סימן שכח סעיף טו) .

Of course, the above applies only in cases where there is a suspicion of potential danger. However, if the scenario clearly indicates that the robber has no intention of harming the homeowner, for example, if we know the robber and know he is harmless, or if it is evident that he is not capable of harming anyone, such as a weak person who clearly does not carry a weapon, then in such a scenario, one should not violate the Shabbat since neither his life nor the lives of others are in danger(שש״כ סימן מא סעיף כד) .

In the case of apprehending a Jewish burglar, there is a distinction between a dangerous individual, in which case one may call the police and have them arrested. According to Shmirat Shabbat(שם סעיף כו) , it is permitted even on Shabbat to detain them until the police arrive. However, if the burglar is not dangerous, one should avoid calling, as explained by Rav Moshe Feinstein. The reason he gives is that according to halacha a thief is only obligated to return the stolen item, and one may not cause them to receive a greater punishment such as sitting in jail.

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