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What Does the Torah Say About Obamacare?

What Does the Torah Say About Obamacare?


The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, informally known as “Obamacare,” was passed on strictest party lines in the House and the Senate. Opposition to the law sparked a popular movement that resulted in one of the greatest congressional election turnovers in American history. And while the recent Supreme Court ruling may clarify for a time the constitutional issues involved, the policy issues still remain without effective consensus.

As Jews and citizens of this country, we owe it to ourselves to consult the Torah’s wisdom on this topic. The Torah is built on all-inclusive principles that offer the possibility of establishing a real consensus. It transcends party lines, and concerns itself with our common citizenship under G‑d. From that viewpoint we can expect to find some leads, and perhaps even some answers, to the problems that confront our communities, both small and great.

By examining the issue from the standpoint of Torah, we are not investigating whether or not the U.S. government has the authority to pass such a law. From the standpoint of halachah (Jewish law), such a law of the land has the force of Jewish law behind it, for dina demalchuta dina (“the law of the land is law”). We must abide by this law, and if the majority were to repeal the act, we would be obligated to abide by its decision as well. Rather, our question is: What would Congress do if it guided its actions by the principles of Torah?

Before getting to the larger question of whether a community has the right to require its members to buy health insurance, we first have to establish what the Torah has to say about the most basic questions: Is seeking medical treatment contrary to G‑d’s will? And if it is not, what are our personal and societal responsibilities in this regard?

Obligation to seek healing

Shortly after Israel had crossed the Reed Sea in their exodus from Egypt, G‑d showed Moses how to perform a miracle and sweeten the brackish, undrinkable waters of Marah. After the event, G‑d said to Moses:

If you will truly listen to the voice of G‑d your G‑d, do that which is upright in His eyes, listen to His commandments and guard all His laws, then I will not afflict you with any of the sickness with which I afflicted Egypt, because I am G‑d, your Healer.1

There are those who contend that since G‑d calls Himself “our Healer,” seeking medical help demonstrates a lack of faith. The truly pious person would entrust his health to G‑d’s care alone, and occupy himself by simply praying that he be healed. Indeed, whole religions have made this attitude a centerpiece of their belief system.

However, there are other verses in the Torah which most rabbis2 believe preclude us from taking such a stance.

The Torah decrees that one who injures another person’s body must pay five kinds of recompense. One type of payment he must make is for medical care:

If [the victim] should get up from his sickbed and walk about outside, even with a cane, then [the assailant] must pay him for the idle time, and to make sure he is healed (Heb., verapo yerapei).3

The Talmud elaborates on this verse:

The School of Rabbi Ishmael taught: “Make sure he is healed” (verapo yerapei)—from this doubling of the verb, we learn that divine permission has been given to the doctor to heal.4

Thus, the verse is telling us that if one caused injury to another person, he is required to pay the person’s medical expenses.5

The Talmud adds that this payment is not to be given to the injured man, but rather to the physician, because there is a concern that in the victim’s desire to save money, he will not heal himself properly.6

In their commentary, Tosafot explain that the permission given doctors to heal is sweeping in its scope:

Divine permission has been given—One might raise the question that this could have been learned, without the doubling, as the simple meaning of ‘healing.’ The answer would be that the simple meaning would cover only an injury caused by another human, but that we would still not have permission [to heal] illnesses and injuries coming from heaven, for it would seem as if we were contradicting the decree of the King. This doubling, therefore, teaches us that this is not so.7

From the above, it is evident that the Torah permits us to receive medical treatment.

Whose life is it anyway?

Not only may we seek medical help when needed; we are required to do so. This is not just one law of many found in the Torah, but expresses a fundamental principle which underlies much of Torah thought.

In Genesis, G‑d sets down the terms under which human life will be conducted after the Flood. These principles have become known as the “Seven Noahide Laws,” the universal system of law which is meant to govern the entire world.

Near the end of this crucial section, G‑d says:

But for your own lifeblood I will require a reckoning.8

This is understood to refer specifically to suicide.9 G‑d tells us that we may not kill ourselves.

This prohibition carries a powerful message: If a person is not free to end his own life, he is not sovereign over his physical being.

The idea that all life belongs to G‑d is found even more explicitly in the Prophets, where G‑d proclaims, “All lives are mine.” 10

This prophetic teaching finds legal expression in one of the commentaries to Maimonides’ law code:

A person’s life is not his or her own possession, but the possession of the blessed Holy One.11

Accordingly, not only may one not impose physical harm on another person, but one may not harm someone even if that person himself asks to be hurt.

It is forbidden to strike one’s fellow. Even if he gives permission to strike him, no person has any such authority over his own body to have it struck.12

G‑d has the title deed to our physical life, which gives Him the right to be heard. And since His desire is that we be alive and healthy, both suicide and self-injury are forbidden, though these two points do not mark the end of His concerns. This is expressed in general terms by the Talmudic dictum, Chamira sakanta me’isura—physical danger is a graver issue than mere prohibition.13

Just as various prohibitions of the Torah mold our lives to the pattern that G‑d desires, even more so should consideration of the body’s health mold our lives.14 In this light, care of our health is a mandate from above, not an optional matter.

Preventive measures

The Torah forbids us to destroy even an inanimate object, unless the destruction serves a useful, positive purpose. How much more so, then, must we preserve the body.

After Rabbah had let blood, they chopped up a footstool for firewood to warm him. Abbaye said to Rabbah: “But is the master not violating the prohibition of bal tashchit?”15

Rabbah answered: “Bal tashchit applies even more to my body [than to the footstool].”16

The above exchange appears in the Talmud in the middle of a discussion of when the Shabbat prohibitions are set aside for the sake of health and preservation of life. That preservation of life is set above even such an emblematic mitzvah as Shabbat observance is telling. Maimonides himself uses this as his first example of the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem, sanctification of G‑d’s name. Not only is health a matter of G‑dly concern, it is a matter of G‑dly concern at the highest level, trumping almost every other mitzvah if their observances should clash.17 If the concern for the preservation of life is so important as to override even G‑d’s other concerns, it is certainly something that must override our far less authoritative desires, and be considered mandatory.

Maimonides points to other verses in the Torah where the obligation to preserve life and health is found:

It is a positive Torah command to remove any stumbling block that poses a danger to life, to be watchful of it and be extremely careful of it, as it is said:18 “Be very careful and guard your life (nafshecha).”19

Similarly, the phrase “Guard your souls (lenafshoteichem) very carefully”20 is read as referring to the mitzvah to guard one’s life and health.

For this reason, the Talmud tells us that one should not live in a city that does not have a physician as well as other health amenities:

A scholar is forbidden to live in any town that does not have these ten things: a court, a charity fund, a synagogue, a bathhouse, a latrine, a doctor, a bloodletter, a scribe, a kosher butcher and a teacher of children.21

Of these ten necessities, at least five are associated with health: the doctor, the bloodletter (bloodletting was considered an indispensable part of healthcare22), the bathhouse and the latrine for hygiene, and the local kosher butcher for fresh meat in the days before refrigeration.

Maimonides quotes this Talmudic dictum verbatim, and sets it as law in his Mishneh Torah.23 In the same section of laws, he also makes a broad statement which sums up the importance of maintaining one’s health:

Since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of G‑d—for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator, if he is ill—therefore, he must avoid that which harms the body and accustom himself to that which is healthful and helps the body become stronger.24

Am I my brother’s keeper?

It is clear that Jewish law makes maintaining our health a mitzvah of great importance. But to address the political issue of health care, we need to raise a further question: Am I obligated to heal others or help them care for their health?

The short answer, it would seem, is yes. The Torah commands us explicitly: “Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood,”25 and the Talmud points to additional places in the Torah from which we can derive the same obligation. The Talmud goes on to explain the need for the multiple sources:

From where do we know that if one sees one’s fellow drowning in a river, or a wild beast ravaging him, or bandits coming to attack him, that he is obliged to save him? Scripture states: “Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood,” but rather save him from death.

But is it indeed from here that this law is derived? Surely not! The law is derived from a verse in this other place. The Torah clearly states that a lost object must be returned to its owner, but from where do we know that we must return a lost body, i.e., that if the life of a fellow Jew is in danger, there is an obligation to save him? Scripture states: “And then return it to him.”26

Now, if this verse teaches that one must save his fellow’s life, then why would the verse “Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood” be teaching the same thing?

If we had learned this law from there, then I would have said that the obligation is only when he himself can save his fellow’s life; but if he could only save his life by hiring a rescuer, then I would say that one is not required to do so.

Therefore, this verse, “Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood,” comes to teach us that he must even hire someone to rescue someone in danger.27

In short, the additional verse “Do not stand idly by” adds to what has already been taught by the verse about returning lost objects. The Torah obliges us not only to strive ourselves to protect another person’s body—to “return it” to him if it is in danger—but also requires us to spend money to achieve that aim.

While we are obligated to spend money to help another preserve his life, he is not absolved from his responsibility to preserve himself. The Code of Jewish Law sets out the obligations of the various parties:

One who sees his fellow drowning in the sea or being set upon by gangsters—if he can save him personally or by hiring others to save him, then he is obligated to go to the trouble to hire people to save him. He may afterwards require reimbursement for his expenses, if [the one saved] has the money. If not, he should nonetheless not refrain from saving; if he does refrain, he is guilty of violating the prohibition of “Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood.”28

Here we see that the one in need of our help is still obliged to guard his own health, and must reimburse us for expenses we incur on his behalf. It is only if he cannot repay, even when he has recovered, that the responsibility devolves onto others.

Having ascertained that we are responsible for the health of others, the question arises whether the mitzvah that obliges us to save another obliges us as individuals, or only as a group. In other words, is the responsibility to help others primarily a personal obligation, or is it primarily societal?

To answer this, we will examine the case of a doctor who asked a rabbi if he was obligated to provide free medical care for everyone who walked in his door, whether they could pay or not. He is specially qualified to heal. Is he required to devote his healing powers for the good of the community, and bear the burden of the cost himself?29

Obviously, we cannot set our doctors an impossible task.30 But there is a legal reason as well to relieve them of such an overwhelming burden: the obligation not to stand idly by someone’s blood devolves on everyone equally, not just on doctors. Although not everyone can heal directly, most can contribute monetarily, and as we saw, this is a mitzvah that may require us to expend some of our wealth. Here we shall see how many of the factors we have mentioned are at work, either explicitly or implicitly:

If there is more than one doctor in a place, then it is impossible to cast the burden of providing medical care without fee on one doctor more than on another . . .

Accordingly, the right thing to do is either for the congregation to pay the fee from tzedakah funds, or to take up a collection for the required amount, or for the congregation and its beit din (rabbinical court) to set up a rotation during which each doctor will cover for free according to the need, each in his turn. And when the congregation has greater ability, the best way is for it to set up a set monthly wage for a doctor who will take on, at no charge, the poor of the congregation, who will come with documentation identifying them . . .

And how good and fine are those sick-care funds, in their widely varying sorts, which we have here in our Holy Land. They symbolize in a united way the three great traits by which our people are distinguished and by which we are identified: compassion, humility and practical benevolence.31

Just as healthcare is not the exclusive burden of the physician, so too is it not the burden of a specific group or class. Nowhere is there a suggestion in Jewish sources that healthcare costs should be borne by employers alone. Although Jewish law allows employers and employees to make the terms of their own agreements, it does not wish to weight the marketplace with concerns that belong no less to everyone else in the community.32 This obligation of the community comes in addition to the responsibility the Torah places on each person to provide for his or her own health needs.

My life, my choice?

Granted that under normal circumstances we are obligated to help someone who, despite a good-faith effort, is simply unable to deal with his medical care. But what about someone who willingly ignores his own health obligation? What about someone who says, “I want to die; don’t try to save me?” Are we responsible for someone who is not responsible for himself?

While there are those who raise the possibility that we would not be required to save one who does not wish to be saved,33 the overwhelming majority of halachic codifiers are of the strong opinion that we are obligated to try to help people even if they themselves do not wish to be helped. Most follow the idea set down by R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi that we cited earlier:

It is forbidden to strike one’s fellow. Even if he gives permission to strike him, no person has any such authority over his own body to have it struck.34

The principle is that our bodies belong to G‑d. That is why one cannot strike another, even with his permission. And that is why, even in the case in which someone has been negligent about his own health and brought harm upon himself, we are not only required to save him, but we are required to do so even if it necessitates the desecration of the Sabbath.35

The Torah requires more of us in the preservation of human life than in the preservation of possessions (such as the case of the fallen donkey36). Therefore, the communal obligation to help remains, even for an individual who has brought his difficulties upon himself. As we saw before, however, the individual must fulfill his obligation to help himself before the community’s obligation to help takes effect. Therefore, his own lack of concern does not relieve him of his responsibility to pay for his rescue, as we see from a similar case:

If a stingy rich man starves himself, even though we should feel no charity obligation towards him, and we allow him to go about in his foolishness, it seems to me that if he becomes ill from his hunger, we do feed him and force him to pay.37


Commenting on the verse “Cast your burdens on G‑d; He will sustain you; He will never allow the righteous to stumble,”38 one of the great Jewish philosophers writes:

If one does not trust in G‑d, then one is trusting in something else. And one who trusts in something other than G‑d removes G‑d’s protective governance from himself, and is abandoned to the thing in which he put his trust.39

In the light of this powerful principle, some rabbis40 ask the following question: Does insurance in all its forms not represent a lack of trust in G‑d? The prophet Jeremiah said: “Cursed is the man who puts his trust in man, making flesh his might, and pulls back his heart from G‑d.”41 If so, when I place my trust in the insurance company, does this demonstrate a lack of faith in the Holy One?

Although it is a cardinal principle in Judaism that G‑d provides for all His creatures—“You open Your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing”42—the work a human does is still considered essential. The Midrash describes how these two ideas fit together:

“G‑d will bless you in all that you do”43—you might think this would be so even if one were to sit and do nothing. Therefore the text adds, “. . . in all that you do.”44

This is the view of a partnership: G‑d provides for us as part of a joint endeavor, in which both of us have our responsibilities.45 Just as in a human partnership each must contribute his share for the venture to be successful, so too in the larger picture: we may expect G‑d’s blessing when we ourselves are working to the best of our ability.

Working to the best of our ability usually entails using tools. The tools we devise to aid us in our work are one of the most distinctive aspects of human culture. Jewish law considers these tools so essential that a workman who is compelled to liquidate his possessions to pay off a delinquent debt is not compelled to sell his tools.46

The more abstract tools that human ingenuity devises are also important. Modes of financing, contracts, and the like are all allowed and even encouraged, as long as they follow the Torah’s rules governing commerce.

In some cases, halachah even requires participation in such an instrument. In early texts we are taught of arrangements in which people pool their resources and share risk. A classic case is that of the donkey drivers:

Donkey drivers can say that whenever someone’s donkey dies, all will collectively buy him a new donkey.47

The donkey drivers were allowed to create an industry-wide donkey insurance, so that anyone whose donkey died would be able to stay in business. Jewish law rules that all donkey drivers could be compelled to participate in this system.48

Not everyone drives a donkey, but most get married. The ketubah, the marriage contract required by Jewish law, is a kind of marriage insurance. It provides for the wife in the event of the dissolution of the marriage in her lifetime, due to divorce or her husband’s death. This financial provision for the future—and for an event that may not even happen—is not only allowed, but mandated.

In this reading, a great modern rabbi addresses the issue of insurance directly:

Regarding the question of whether there is any worry that it is forbidden to take out an insurance policy, as it might constitute (G‑d forbid) a lack of faith in G‑d . . . In my humble opinion, there is not a bit of lack of faith in G‑d in this, for it is like any other business matter in which a person is not only allowed, but required, to engage in commerce and work for his livelihood, and it is forbidden for him to say, “Even if I do nothing, G‑d will sustain me in some way.”49

Contemporary rabbis concurred with this view, and this is considered the accepted view in halachah.50

Individual mandate—entitlement vs. freedom vs. responsibility

We can see from the above cases that insurance is allowed, and might even be required, just as one is required to engage in some activity to secure a livelihood.

Could it be possible, then, that health insurance could be required too?

To approach this question, let’s look at a source that requires us not to be a burden on others. It is found among the laws governing charity. Even though charity is one of the greatest mitzvahs, and one should strive to give beyond the minimum requirements, the law still sets a limit on charitable giving, and specifies a telling reason for doing so. In the words of Maimonides:

A person should never consecrate or devote all of his possessions. He who does the reverse acts contrary to the intention of Scripture . . . Such an act is not piety but folly, since he forfeits all his valuables and makes himself dependent upon other people, who may show no pity to him.51

In a similar vein, Maimonides writes in another section of his law code:

A man should always exert himself, and should sooner endure hardship than throw himself as a dependent on the community. The sages admonished: “Make your Shabbat a weekday rather than become dependent.” Even one who is learned and honored should, if impoverished, work at various trades, even very lowly ones, rather than accept dependency.52

We can see that we are commanded not to allow ourselves to become a financial burden on the community. This is not confined to just one situation, but operates as a general principle. How can we apply this principle to the immense expenses of catastrophic medical care?

For many people, the answer to that question is health insurance. Some could satisfy this obligation to not be a burden by self-insurance, though with the expense of catastrophic medical care so high, only the very wealthiest could cover all medical costs from their own deep pockets. Some may not be able to afford insurance at all. But most cannot avoid becoming a burden without buying insurance to cover the risk.

Having outlined the Torah’s view on healthcare, we can now turn to the current political debate.

Today’s political argument frames healthcare as a right and an entitlement on one side, and as a free choice on the other.

The supporters of a mandate argue that everyone deserves healthcare, and everyone who can afford to pay for it must do so. Therefore, they argue, all are mandated to be a part of the insurance pool that will do the paying.53

The opponents argue that a mandate violates an individual’s freedom to buy or not to buy a product on the open market, in this case insurance, as he sees fit.

As we have seen, the Torah frames this question somewhat differently. The issues from the Torah’s perspective are the individual’s responsibility to care for the body with which G‑d entrusted him, and his responsibility not to be a burden to his community.

To illustrate, let’s take the case of coverage of pre-existing conditions. The law requires insurance companies to provide coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, something they try to avoid because of the cost. Backers of a mandate say that since all are entitled to medical care, we must cover the cost of those with greater healthcare needs by forcing everyone, even those who are healthy, to buy insurance. The young and healthy may not need the care now, but they will need it in the future, and of course they also must protect themselves from the risk of catastrophic expense.

Opponents of the mandate say that forcing everyone to buy insurance violates our freedom. Free competition will draw purchasers to the insurance policy that offers the best deal, and the exceptional cases can be dealt with compassionately as exceptions, and not as the basis for rules that restrict everyone.

Torah law would not allow us to deny treatment to someone who did not buy insurance when he became ill, because we are obligated to care for everyone, even the negligent. But those who could have provided for their medical needs by insurance, but did not, can be required to pay back the expenses they made us incur.

Thus we can see the outlines of the Torah’s approach to a mandate. One is free to buy insurance, self-insure or indemnify one’s future in order to fulfill the obligation not to burden others. And through a different obligation, one is responsible for caring for others, even if they were negligent. However, this is never a pure entitlement: those who were negligent remain under the responsibility to reimburse their providers.

Granted that the prime responsibility is the individual’s, however, the Torah does allow a majority in the community to address this problem by exercising its power through law to mandate participation.

Rabbi Sholomo ben Aderet (Rashba), one of the great medieval Spanish rabbis, sums up what the Talmud has to say about a community’s power:

A community can restrict, enact laws, and make agreements as they see fit. These have the strength of Torah laws. They can fine and punish anyone who violates any of their collective agreements . . .54

The community is indeed empowered to make such a law. But just because the community is empowered to make laws doesn’t mean that any specific law should be made. The rightness of providing for our own medical needs is already established by the Torah, as is the justice of caring for the lives of our fellows. Rashba teaches us that the community may then take such steps as it sees advisable to make the established good actualized in the lives of its members. The community is not precluded in Jewish law from mandating our participation in funding healthcare.

There seem, then, to be two possibilities open. The community has the power to cover this by requiring payment in advance; or it could allow it to remain optional, but emphasize the crucial power of the individual’s buy-in by saying, “You may choose as you wish, but you will be responsible to pay back the community for costs they will incur on your behalf.”

Jewish law sees economics as part of life, and the same law that rules all other aspects of our lives rules there too. Governments do have the power to intervene proactively, just as they are required to intervene reactively. That is, just as the community will be called upon under Jewish law to care for the person who was negligent of his health, it could actively require that person in advance not to be negligent. Just as Jewish law requires a person to work and not depend on others for a living, so too can it require a person to be responsible and participate in an insurance pool, unless he is wealthy enough to pay even catastrophic medical costs out of pocket.


See, however, commentary of Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra on this verse: “Because I am G‑d, your Healer—I will be your healer from all ills which I decreed to be in the world. You will need no doctor, just as with the bitter water none was needed, or had the ability to cure.” Elsewhere, in his commentary on Exodus 21:19 and 23:25, he quotes from II Chronicles 16:12: “Sick as he was, Asa did not seek out G‑d, but only doctors.” Ibn Ezra explains that G‑d gave physicians authority to heal wounds only on the outside of the body, but for any internal illness one must trust only in G‑d.
However, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Yechaveh Daat 1:61, citing R. Shimon Duran, Tashbatz 1:51) states that one should not follow the minority view of Ibn Ezra in the face of the overwhelming majority of rabbis. Furthermore, it should be stressed that the Code of Jewish Law does not differentiate between types of illnesses, and one would be required to heal both internal and external injuries and illnesses. See R. Joseph Caro, Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 336:1.


Talmud, Bava Kamma 85a.


See commentary of Rashi on this verse.


Talmud, ibid., cited by Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides) in his commentary on Exodus ad loc. This ruling is quoted in Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 420:23.
In addition to the concern that the victim may not end up using all of the money for medical expenses, the Talmud explains that we are concerned that if the victim is not properly healed, then people will continue to slander the assailant by saying that he injured someone and the victim has not healed properly, though the improper treatment is entirely the victim’s fault.


Tosafot, Bava Kamma ad loc., s.v. She-nitnah.
As mentioned in footnote 2, there remain, however, advocates of a more faith-based approach that does see something not ideal in seeking a doctor’s care. When Rav Acha proposes a prayer for someone who is undergoing a medical bloodletting, he praises G‑d as the true healer, and states of human efforts that “it is not the human way to heal, but it is their custom to practice medicine” (Talmud, Berachot 60a). Abbaye there upbraids him for his implication that we humans can’t really practice effective medicine, though no doubt today few would argue that bloodletting itself is a good example to the contrary.
Another important dissent is that of Ramban, who in his commentary on Leviticus 26:11 states that, ideally, G‑d will remove all illness and we will not need doctors. Moreover, he states, we have the example of earlier times, in which the righteous saw their illnesses as providential, and they went to prophets for healing rather than doctors, for they knew their illness came essentially because of their sins, and that the prophet could guide their return to G‑d. Nonetheless, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Yechaveh Daat 1:61) states that even Ramban would agree that nowadays, when the fountains of prophecy and miracles are hidden, one is required to seek medical help from a doctor. Indeed, it should be noted that both Ibn Ezra and Ramban were themselves physicians.


Rashi, ad loc.


Rabbi David ben Zimra (Radbaz), commentary to Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Sanhedrin 18:6.


R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Hilchot Nizkei Guf va-Nefesh 4.


Talmud, Chullin 10a.


An example: R. Ovadiah of Bertinoro (in his commentary to the Mishnah, Eruvin 1:10) uses this principle to require the observance of mayim acharonim (washing one’s hands after the meal) even when one is exempt from mayim rishonim (washing them before the meal), since the danger from the salt of Sodom (which mayim acharonim’s main purpose is to wash away) is a physical danger.


See Deuteronomy 20:19. The specific context there is the prohibition on destroying fruit trees during a war whose purpose is not defensive. However, this is understood to apply in the broadest fashion: any destruction, even of an inanimate object, is forbidden unless it serves a useful, positive purpose. This follows from the fundamental principle that G‑d’s providence extends to all things, and everything therefore has its purpose in the divine plan. Sefer Hachinuch (mitzvah 529) and Maimonides (Sefer Hamitzvot, Prohibition 57) see this as a Torah command. Additionally, while some are of the opinion that Maimonides reverses himself in his code and rules that its full extension is rabbinic (see R. Judah Rosanes, Mishneh Lamelech commentary to Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 6:10), Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi writes in his code (Hilchot Shemirat Guf va-Nefesh u-Bal Tashchit 14) that it is a biblical prohibition, albeit one punishable by lashes (makkat mardut) only rabbinically (see note 148 there).


Talmud, Shabbat 129a.


Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah, chapter 5.


Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rotze’ach u-Shemirat ha-Nefesh 11:3.


Talmud, Sanhedrin 17b.


And is still used, though rarely, in modern medicine.


Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot 4:23.


Ibid. 4:1.


See Deuteronomy 22:1–2: “You should not watch your brother’s ox or sheep stray, and turn a blind eye—return them to your brother. But if your brother is not near to you, or if you do not know him, you should bring it into your house, and it should remain with you until your brother seeks it out, and then return it to him.” When the rabbis explore this text in an early halachic midrash (Sifrei, Ki Teitzei 223), they add, “‘And then return it to him’—Even he himself you should return.” In other words, the obligation to restore something to its owner applies to the owner himself as well as to his property.


Talmud, Sanhedrin 73a.


R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Hilchot Nizkei Guf va-Nefesh 7.


Certainly, giving medical care is seen as an obligation on the one who is specially qualified to help—the doctor himself. And halachah does indeed make a doctor responsible to heal, even if patients cannot afford to pay. But there are both a simple, practical reason for not making a physician bear the entire burden of those who cannot afford care, as well as a more scholarly legal reason.
A simple reason for not making a physician bear the entire brunt is that this will discourage physicians from practicing, and even the most dedicated will burn out under the burden of much work with little or no pay. Easing the burden on physicians so that they will have no reluctance to engage in their lifesaving work is a real halachic concern. Consider Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s reasoning for allowing a doctor who has responded to an emergency call to drive home on Shabbat: “They are permitted to return, in order that they should not fail to respond to a Shabbat emergency in the future.” (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:80. See also Fred Rosner, “Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s Influence on Medical Halacha,” Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 20 (fall 1990): 47–75.)
If the concern of making sure the physician will not hesitate to practice can even override Shabbat prohibitions, it will surely carry weight against other, less weighty considerations.


See previous note.


Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg, Tzitz Eliezer 19:1.


If one makes the employer responsible, the price of healthcare will be reflected in the price of goods and services in this polity. In an era of free markets, this could put these businesses at a competitive disadvantage, and thus damage the community’s economic health.


Exodus 23:5 states: “If you see your neighbor’s donkey collapsing under its burden, should you hesitate to help him?! You must certainly help along with him!” The Midrash (Mechilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 23:5) notes that the phrase “along with him” implies that if your neighbor sits down and says to you, “It’s you who are commanded to help,” then you have no obligation to unload the donkey, and you may do as you wish. In other words, we are not entitled to demand from others without demanding from ourselves. One may be entitled to help, but not to a free ride.
Rabbi Yosef Babad (Minchat Chinuch, Kometz Minchah, mitzvah 237) extends this principle to the realm of healthcare. He looks at the extreme situation of an attempted suicide to show the effect of the “joint effort” principle: “It would seem that if someone were to attempt suicide, and someone else would be able to rescue him, he might not be bound by the prohibition of ‘Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood’; and how much the less would he be bound by the positive command of returning a lost object.” However, as noted in the text of the article, the vast majority do not share this view.


R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Hilchot Nizkei Guf va-Nefesh 4.


Rosner (cited in footnote 29), 49.


See footnote 33 above.


Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, Aruch Hashulchan, Yoreh Deah 253:17. The first part of this ruling is found in many codes and commentators; it simply expresses the boundaries of the mitzvah of tzedakah—if the person is not poor, we do not intervene financially. What Aruch Hashulchan adds comes from another command—that of “Do not stand idly by your brother’s blood.” (R. Shmaryahu Kanievsky, Derech Emunah commentary on Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Matnot Aniyim 7:9, note 156).


Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda, Duties of the Heart, The Gate of Trust, beginning.


Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, Miyam Hahalacha 85, “The Relation of Halacha to Insurance.”


The expression of being a “partner with G‑d” is found in the Talmud, Shabbat 10a and 119b.


R. Joseph Caro, Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 97:23.


Tosefta, Bava Metzia 11:25.


The Talmud connects this insurance arrangement with regulations that a town can put in place. This implies that since the laws for a town and a voluntary association are largely the same, that it would be within the powers of a town as well to compel participation in insurance arrangements.


Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Igrot Moshe Orach Chayim 2:111.


See R. Ovadia Yosef, Yechaveh Daat 3:88; R. Yitzchak Sternhell, Kochvei Yitzchak 1:22; Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, Miyam Hahalacha 85, “The Relation of Halacha to Insurance.”


Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Arachin 8:13.


Ibid., Hilchot Matnot Aniyim 10:18.


Understanding the mandate as an entitlement leads naturally to the imposition of a tax, but the proponents of this view found it politically inexpedient to connect the insurance mandate with taxes, and so opted to understand the mandate to buy as valid under the Commerce Clause. Accordingly, noncompliance would be subject to a penalty for breaking the law. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts ignored that framing of the issue, and chose to rule on the mandate and the charge for not following it as if it were a tax.


Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, Responsa 4:185.

Rabbi Nochum Mangel directs Chabad-Lubavitch of Greater Dayton, Ohio.
Rabbi Shmuel Klatzkin, a noted scholar, writer and educator, lives in Dayton, Ohio with Naomi, his wife of 29 years. They are proud parents of two grown children.
Artwork by Esther Rosen. Esther is a chief executive homemaker living in Brooklyn with her husband and young assistants. During quieter moments, Esther explores various art forms and creative processes, and welcomes opportunities to share her work with others.
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Charles McCullough Palm Bay FL July 14, 2016

Is this really about Torah or about Political world view as taught at Antioch College, probably the most liberal school in the country? Reply

Alan S. Long Island, NY July 14, 2016

Maybe not, Mr. Wiseman: Your comment has merit if one thinks of the new health care law in the strict context of "coveting". My issue with thinking along this line is that most government programs, essentially all government programs, are all variations of Ponzi schemes, predicated upon people coveting the line up; that is, you buy in at the bottom to keep going up, for the bigger payoff at the top. This is the essential way that most programs work, including the stock market. I prefer to think of it as just another government tax, to be collected to essentially help the less fortunate to buy health insurance. I am a doctor, and do not like the Obamacare programs for practical reasons, but not because of ethical ones. Reply

Shmuel Klatzkin Dayton OH July 12, 2016

Real life brings in all kinds of complications about which we must make moral decisions. One small article can only cover so much, and that does not take away one whit of the need to cover the topics you have raised. An important practical alternative that was not extinguished by this law is that for faith-based health cost sharing. These groups (Liberty Healthshare, for example) do not pay for those things you have mentioned, and have an excellent record of servicing their members. A Jew may have difficulty though with the faith affirmations required by some, so look at them carefully and consult someone knowledgeable in halacha as needed.

Mr. Wiseman's concerns are practical and real and it is good that he has raised them. Our article was meant not to be an incisive expose of the political sins of our leaders, but to open up a discussion of the issue of health care itself from a Torah perspective. We feel that is an important discussion to have as well. Reply

Aliza Brooklyn July 3, 2016

What about abortion, "sex change" operations and assisted suicide? What happens when the government obligates you to pool your money into an insurance fund that provide for abortion, sex change medication and procedures? From personal experience all I can say is that since Obama care reared its ugly head we've had to change med insurance 4 times! Reply

Rebecca Wolf Hirsh Tifton, GA February 14, 2016

Mr. John Wiseman,
You could not have written a comment more accurate Sir.
Thank you,

John Wiseman Amherst, Ohio October 26, 2015

Rabbi, your analysis is excellent except for some important beginning assumptions. Your first mistake is that Obamacare is about providing affordable medical care for the citizenry of the United States. You bought into the lie hook, line, and sinker. The Obamacare Law is about a government gaining control of the citizenry, and redistributing wealth from private citizens to the centralized controlling authority. What does the Torah teach us sir about covetous behavior? This is plainly and simply, economics based upon coveting the wealth of our neighbors, and not one thing more. The whole thing was pitched upon the concept of class warfare, hate your brother, because he can afford a doctor, and you can not. The proof of this of course is in the economic destruction wrought so far by this sink whole of a law. Your knowledge of the Torah is unimpeachable. For goodness sake, grab a book written by Adam Smith, Frederic Bastiat, Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, or Walter Williams. Reply

Anonymous MELBOURNE February 11, 2015

Shmuel Klatzkin Your arguments are based on the Torah, however, if we as a nation were to follow the Torah, then our government here in the US would need to follow the controversial Shemetah. I wish this were so as government would then retire for a year, and not use any of our money. Also, when was the time a congressman did a wave offering? Again, I believe in following Torah as close as possible in our personal and family lives, yet, I don't see how this is even remotely possible with our present day government, which was primarily founded by Christian ideals. Let us not forget that the newly formed government in the US also had just fought a war against unfair taxes, which after all is what Obama Care is really considered to be, a tax. It is a tax and an unfair one as far as I can see as it doesn't tax everyone or even every state.
Thank you Rabbi :) Reply

Susan Browne February 10, 2015

Dear Rabbi - On ObamaCare. Thank you for your excellent exegesis of the Torah on universal health care. What I am learning is that in Jewish Wisdom, rather than promote a Socialist/Communist system, it advocates providing a 'safety net' of necessary provisions in a society structure where talents and opportunities are unfairly distributed.

I may be a Pollyanna, but I believe this is a concept that all people in the USA could get on board to support. However, before we consider your excellent arguments in favor of ObamaCare, many fiscal conservatives wished first take a long look at healthcare in the USA to find if their might be to mend a system that was fraught with ghastly fiscal waste so that the universal 'safety net' might be based on a responsible policy of getting the most 'bang for their buck'.

I will continue by giving an example in the following post. Reply

Anonymous Palm Bay, FL January 23, 2015

One of the major problems I have with Obama Care is that it has set up a precedent where the Federal Government can force us to pay for something that we may not believe in. This amounts to slavery and sets up two classes of citizens. Those who have to pay, and those who don't. I don't see how this can ever be resolved? Are we going to have to make bricks for Pharaoh next? Reply

Michelle Fl January 17, 2015

I believed in Obama care until i was injured and forced to work less hours! Actually, i don't even make enough money to pay for Obama care since I've become permanently injured ! Currently, I don't qualify for Obama care since my income is to low and now that i need it most! This means no therapy no medications making me sicker! My life is in Gods hands now! My dream that G_d spoke to me reassured me that he creates all and that i will be protected if i trust in Hashem! I do trust in G-d with my life! Reply

Anonymous Palm Bay FL October 25, 2014

What Does the Torah Say About Obamacare? Typical, skewing of the truth. Yes, we are supposed to help others, but does Obama Care really do that? No, as a matter of fact it seems to limit the health care that they might receive. Before Obama Care, we were already providing Health Care through, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (started in 1997), and countless other Federal and State programs. Obama Care is not about helping the average man. It is about more Government control over our lives and growing the pharmaceutical industries pockets.

The good Rabbi's here mean well and their remarks are well documented. I'm sure that they were well intended, however, they don't reflect what the reality of situation is. Reply

jarred tampa August 3, 2014

So we are required to first acknowledge G-d for he is the only one worthy of praise! When the question of trade and security get's involved we must continue affording the same benefits administered by government officials and maximize the full potential of G-d. Reply

Shmuel Klatzkin Dayton March 9, 2014

Our goal has been to speak about the substantive issues from an authentic Jewish perspective. There is absolutely nothing here that even pretends to be an analysis of the effectiveness of the actual legislation. That is something that deserves full investigation, reportage and debate. What we are seeking is what ought to be done, according to our own Torah. We believe very much that instead of making our loyalties to be first to party or political identity or ideology, it should be first to G-d and G-d's instructions. That will inform us all, each of us being given by G-d a different sensibility and a different experience in life. The dedication to G-d is what makes the coherence of all possible, to actually be united, a one out of many, as in the motto on our coins. Reply

Anonymous March 5, 2014

After scanning over this It is good to see that those who cannot afford healthcare are still taken care of. That is not what this law actually does. What I have seen is based on the assumption that the claims of main stream news & the authors of the law are completely truthful. More people have lost their insurance than have gotten it, people with illnesses ARE being turned away, healthcare premiums are going up while covered treatments and medications are going down. Are you aware that up to 78 percent of any losses the insurance companies suffer through this law are required to be paid by the tax payers, some hospitals are closing their doors, insurance premiums doubling and tripling and if you want to talk about the law of the land being the law you forget about the Constitution which limits government and DOES NOT give congress authority to force citizens into any commerce and so it is AGAINST the law. Also it is causing employers to stop hiring, lay off employees and cut hours just an FYI. Reply

Shmuel Klatzkin Dayton January 8, 2014

practical results The difficulties of which you speak are important. While Torah cherishes good intentions, good results are even more important. Centralized bureaucracies are notoriously inefficient. They squander the priceless resource of local intelligence. Reply

Avi Keslinger Ofra, Israel January 7, 2014

What about efficiency? It should also be added that generally socialized health insurance plans are wasteful as they encourage people to use services even for minor aches and pains and even just to talk to someone. The result is long waits and boards that decide who gets what. Moreover, the larger the political body the larger and more complicated the bureaucracy. This is one reason why federalism is more appropriate to the United States. Reply

Shmuel Klatzkin Dayton December 19, 2013

The question of federalism is interesting and important, but not at the center of our analysis in this article. The question for Torah sources is simply what our obligations are as individuals who are also parts of a community upon whom we individually depend for many essential things and towards whom we have obligations mandated by the One who created us all.
An organization of government is evaluated by the Torah by how well it helps people accomplish what they are mandated to do. The conception of what federalism means that is held by the Supreme Court offers one alternative; you offer another; there are many more thoughts as well. We are only trying to hold up the goal by which the success of a system will be evaluated by the Torah, hoping that that will be helpful to all, no matter what their thoughts on what American politics ought to be. Reply

Michael Greensboro December 16, 2013

What about Federalism? Once again everyone always frames our problems as "either the Federal Government must rescue us or no one will." The issue is not should everyone have health insurance or not, but rather should the Federal Government be the insurer or enforcer of making people get insurance or not. If the Federal Government does not offer or mandate insurance why does everyone assume that it will not be offered? There are private charities, the people, religious organizations, and even the several States. Mitt Romney had an individual mandate in Mass., and even though I disagree with this, it is legal because this was in a State, e.g. the Tenth Amendment. This is really about the Law; about federalism. The Federal Government has no Constitutional authority to mandate its citizens to buy health insurance. In any case, it is always impossible to promote equality without infringing upon someones freedom. If we mandate that people buy insurance then we trample upon peoples' freedom. Life is about Free Will! Reply

Shmuel Klatzkin Dayton October 3, 2013

The 1% Torah recognizes that there were always be an uneven distribution of wealth. That in itself is no moral problem. What the Torah does require is attention to the needs of the poor, which at its highest level, involves helping the poor to find a job or a business opportunity by means of which they can support themselves. The Torah also requires us not to covet that which belongs to others, for our desires, unlike our needs, are unlimited unless we limit them ourselves.

The mention of extreme poverty is difficult to respond to. If it is based on the premise that wealth is a zero-sum game, and all who become wealthy do so by taking it away from others, then that is a debatable premise, not a good start for reasoned discussion.

Universal catastrophic coverage supplemented by a free insurance market for all the rest is a reasonable approach towards halacha's mandate to care for our neighbors. But one sentence can only pique our interest for further research and discussion. Reply

Anonymous Usa September 30, 2013

My annual wage is about $20000/ year. The average welfare recipient receives $26000/year in benefits. They tell me I make too much too receive welfare. Before the AFA, my premiums were $150/ month, now they are $300/month. Yet they say I make too much! It turns out that if I quit my job, not only would I receive healthcare, but my wage would go up! If I made $7.25/hr @ 40 hrs/ week my annual income would be $15000/year. Then I would qualify for food stamps at $2400/year, and medicaid at $3000/ year, and other benifits beyond that! That is already my income plus more! So anonymous from carnegie, please tell me about these impoverished people that the government MUST assist!? Reply

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