Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXVII, p. 133ff.;
Chiddushim U’Biurim BeShas, Vol. III, p. 42ff.

When debating the rationale for the ruling that a threat to life supersedes the prohibition against doing labor on Shabbos, the Talmud states:1

Rabbi Shimon ben Menasia says: “[It is written:]2 'And the children of Israel will observe the Shabbos.’ The Torah is saying that you may desecrate one Shabbos for a person so that he will be able to observe many Shabbasos.”…

Rav Yehudah said in the name of Shmuel: “If I were among [the Sages mentioned previously], I would have said that my [method of deriving this concept] is preferable to theirs. [I would explain that it is written:]3 “And you shall live through them [the mitzvos],” i.e., you should live through them, and not die because of them.

Rava said: “All [the methods of deriving this concept suggested by the other Sages] can be disputed. [The method suggested] by Shmuel cannot be disputed…. For all the [methods of derivation suggested by the others can be substantiated] when one is certain [that a life will be saved], but when there is a doubt, the matter is left unresolved. [With regard to the method suggested] by Shmuel, even when there is doubt, there is no dispute.”

Our Sages agree that the halachah follows Rava who favors the method of derivation suggested by Shmuel. Nevertheless, we find that the later halachic authorities also quote Rabbi Shimon ben Menasia’s statements. Indeed, in his Sheiltos,4 Rav Achai Gaon mentions only the words of Rabbi Shimon ben Menasia. It is thus necessary to understand: What is the difference between these two approaches and why are they both cited by the later authorities?

The classic gloss to the Sheiltos, the Emek HaShaaleh, explains that the Rav Achai Gaon cites Rabbi Shimon ben Menasia’s words, because he follows the opinion of the Halachos Gedolos5 which states that one must violate the Shabbos laws even to save a fetus. The prooftext cited by Shmuel reads: “You shall keep My statutes… which a man shall observe and live through them.” A fetus cannot be considered a man. Hence, Shmuel’s approach would not apply in this instance. The logic suggested by Rabbi Shimon ben Menasia, by contrast, that by desecrating one Shabbos on a person’s behalf, one gives him the opportunity to observe many, would also apply in the case of a fetus.6

There is another difference between the two approaches. Shmuel’s approach applies to the entire Torah. Whenever there is a threat to life, it supersedes all the laws of the Torah except the prohibitions against idol worship, murder, and forbidden sexual relations. Rabbi Shimon ben Menasia’s approach, by contrast, specifically relates to the Shabbos. One Shabbos may be violated for the sake of others. Indeed, there are approaches which explain that Rabbi Shimon ben Menasia is concerned only with the observance of other Shabbasos, and when the person will certainly not live to observe other Shabbasos, even though he will live long enough to perform other mitzvos, his life should not be saved.7

Tosafos8 states that even according to Rabbi Shimon ben Menasia’s approach, the leniency is not restricted to enabling a person to observe other Shabbasos alone. Rather, the intent is that his life be saved so that he will be able to observe any other mitzvos.9

Nevertheless, even according to this conception, Rabbi Shimon ben Menasia places the emphasis on Torah observance. Why may the Shabbos laws be violated? Because the person will observe other mitzvos in the future. Shmuel, by contrast, operates from a different perspective. Life takes precedence over observance; the Torah and its mitzvos are means that enable the Jews to live in the most complete and fullest sense. When they do not lead to that purpose, they are overridden.10

Moreover, according to Rabbi Shimon ben Menasia’s perspective, by violating the Shabbos laws to save a life, a person has desecrated the Shabbos. To be sure, the desecration is licensed — and indeed, commanded — but it is a negative act. According to Shmuel, by contrast, the person has followed the Torah’s commandments, for first and foremost, the Torah teaches us “to live through them.” Thus, as will be explained, violating the Shabbos laws in such an instance can be considered as observance of the Shabbos.

On this basis, we can understand a difficulty that arises with regard to the Rambam’s treatment of this concept in his Mishneh Torah. In his Hilchos Shabbos, he writes:11

[The laws of] the Shabbos are suspended in the face of a danger to life, as are [the obligations of] the other mitzvos. Therefore, we may do everything that is necessary for the sake of a person whose life is in danger.

And he continues:12

It is forbidden to hesitate before transgressing the Shabbos [laws] on behalf of a person who is dangerously ill. This is reflected by the verse which states: “[You shall keep My statutes…] which a man shall observe and live through them.” [We must “live through them,”] and not die through them.

This elaboration is seemingly unnecessary. In Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah,13 the Rambam has already quoted this same prooftext to teach us that whenever presented with a challenge whether to violate a mitzvah rather than sacrifice our lives, we should violate the mitzvah with the exception of the three transgressions mentioned above. And he continues14 to explain that the same principle applies with regard to treating illnesses. If it is necessary to violate a prohibition of the Torah to save a sick person’s life, we must. Why then does the Rambam repeat these same concepts with regard to the Shabbos laws?15

The rationale depends on the difference between the approach of Rabbi Shimon ben Menasia and Shmuel explained above. According to Shmuel, the violation of the Shabbos laws is not merely permitted; in this situation, it is the way the Shabbos must be observed.16

By restating the leniency regarding overriding the Shabbos laws in the face of a threat to life, the Rambam emphasizes that the prohibitions are lifted entirely, for in this instance, the observance of the Shabbos involves violating its laws.17

To explain: With regard to Shabbos , it is written:18 “Keep my Shabbasos, for [the Shabbos] is a sign between Me and you.” Rashi comments: “[The Shabbos] is a great sign between us, that I chose you, by giving you My day of rest as a day of rest for yourselves as a heritage.”

When a Jew’s life is in danger on Shabbos , and the Shabbos laws are violated to the save that Jew’s life, we are affirming the covenant between G‑d and the Jewish people. Overriding the Shabbos laws emphasizes that G‑d has chosen the Jewish people and regards each one with special care. This is the same theme expressed by the observance of Shabbos. Thus in this instance, the violation of the Shabbos laws exemplifies the theme of the Shabbos itself.

Our Sages describe Shabbos as “a microcosm of the world to come.” May our study and observance of the Shabbos laws lead to the coming of “the day which is all Shabbos and rest for life everlasting,”19 with the coming of Mashiach.