By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Shabbos is an institution that has kept the Jewish people alive for thousands of years. Shabbos is also viewed as the flag of the Jewish people. Just as nothing should ever be done to abuse the flag of the United States of America, so too must the Jewish people never abuse the Shabbos.
That said, whenever an urgent, life-threatening situation arises, we Jews must be the first to save life. But what happens when the issue is not life-threatening? What happens if a young girl incurs a terrible gash on her face? May a Jewish doctor stitch her up on Shabbos?
This question is one that does not occur in the field, of course. Most people are not medically competent to determine whether or not an injury is truly life-threatening. The question arises only when the doctor is present. The halachah states that in such an instance we should ask a gentile to do the stitching. But what happens when the gentile is not nearly as good as the Jewish doctor? Or what happens when the delay will result in an ugly scar?
Rav Dov Lior, the rav of Kiryat Arba, recently issued ruling about this topic. This ruling is not only fascinating but also innovative. Consequently, our poskim in America should be consulted as to whether we may rely upon it.
Halachah discusses a case called sakanas eiver, danger to a limb, where, although there is no issue of life and death at stake, there is a concern that a limb will be lost or there may be a loss of function. In a case of sakanas eiver, the poskim have ruled that a Jew may perform melachah with a “shinui,” a change in the manner in which it is performed. When performed with a shinui, an act is not forbidden by Biblical decree, but rather by rabbinic decree. This entire matter is discussed in the Orach Chaim section of Shulchan Aruch (327:17), where three halachic opinions are cited and discussed. The Shulchan Aruch concludes in accordance with the third opinion that was explained above.
The danger to the limb need not be a full loss of use. Any change in quality of the performance of that limb would constitute a sakanas eiver as well. This is the ruling of Rabbi Chaim No’eh in the Ketzos HaShulchan (138:18 in the Badei) as well as the Shemiras Shabbos K’hilchasah (Chapter 33:1 footnote 8). Hence, if the Jewish doctor’s non-performance would result in a limp, then that too would be considered sakanas eiver. Indeed, Rav Chaim Kanievsky ruled that at times even if the injury might be a cause for the future need for glasses, it may be, accordingly, considered a sakanas eiver (see Ohr Yisrael from Monsey #44, p. 114).
It should also be noted that because of the danger of infection, current medical thought is that there are very few cases that are only sakanas eiver and not a danger to life. Most poskim agree with this position and view the classic cases of sakanas eiver as full and complete pikuach nefesh.
Getting back to our subject, however, Rav Lior ruled that a young girl’s or woman’s face is also considered a limb. A purpose of the face is to radiate the beauty of that girl or woman. Thus, according to Rav Lior, the presence of a more significant scar would cause a sakanas eiver to the young lady or woman, and the Jew may perform the stitching with a shinui. Of course, this is only if the gentile is not available or if there would be a delay in reaching him that would be significant enough to cause a serious difference. Most of the time this is limited to cases in Eretz Yisrael.
One may conjecture that Rav Lior’s ruling is limited to girls or women. To men, scars may be considered cool and a badge of manhood. However, if the scar or gash would affect the beard area, then the same leniency might apply to boys too.
The innovation here lies in viewing the face as a limb. The Gemara in Yevamos (72a), in regard to b’ris milah, seems to indicate that perhaps these extensions are not halachically warranted. The mishnah in Ohalos (1:8) lists 248 limbs, and many poskim might view this as a definite list of what can be considered a limb. However, it could very well be that the proof from this Gemara is limited to the view of Rashi, and perhaps the poskim may understand that Gemara differently. As stated before, our poskim here in America must be consulted before we may consider implementing this ruling. It is, nonetheless, quite fascinating. v
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.