Medicine and Jewish Law

Should Sabbath Prohibitions Be Overridden to Provide Emotional Support to a Sick Relative?

Chaya Greenberger and Pnina Mor


Background: There is a consensus among the halachic authorities that life-saving actions override Sabbath prohibitions. They are painstaking in securing that the sanctity of the Sabbath is maintained but that not a single life be lost.

Objective: This manuscript examines if and when a relative’s presence at the bedside of a seriously ill individual is potentially life-saving against the backdrop of the scientific literature. It specifically addresses the permissibility of traveling in a motorized vehicle, generally prohibited on the Sabbath, to be with one’s relative in hospital for the provision of emotional support.

Methods: Discourse of the halachic issues in the context of the scientific literature.

Results: Stress, mental or physical, has been determined as a potentially life-threatening condition in many disease entities. The literature attests to both the patient’s and the professionals’ perception of the curative potential of the presence of loved ones by advocating for the patient and relieving stress in the hospital experience. Emotional support from a loved one is perceived by some patients as vital to survival. There is halachic consensus that a patient’s perception of the emotional need for a relative’s presence is sufficient to permit overriding rabbinic prohibitions. Torah prohibitions, which may be overridden for medical needs, may be overridden for emotional support, providing a health professional or family member attests to the fulfilment of this specific need as diminishing the danger to the patient’s life. In certain cases, the latter contingency is unnecessary.

Conclusions: Emotional support has an impact on the patient’s health status; the degree to which its impact is strong enough to save life is still being studied. As more data from scientific studies emerge, they may be relevant to sharpening the halachic rulings with respect to the issue at hand.

Rambam Maimonides Med J 2016;7(3):e0023