RIETS Rosh Yeshiva Calls for Communal Cheshbon Hanefesh: Follow the Torah’s Mandate of Hatzalas Nefashos

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Below is a translation of a plea by Rav Mayer Twersky of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan. Rav Twersky agreed to his talmidim’s presenting a translation, though he was not involved in its preparation.

The Rambam (Hilchos Shabbos 2:3) writes:

Furthermore, it is forbidden to delay such violation of the Sabbath for the sake of a person who is dangerously ill, for Scripture says: “Which if a man do, he shall live by them” (Lev. 18:5), that is to say, he shall not die by them (Sanhedrin 74b). Hence you learn that the ordinances of the Law were meant to bring upon the world not vengeance, but mercy, lovingkindness, and peace. It is of heretics – who assert that this is nevertheless a violation of the Sabbath and therefore prohibited – that Scripture says, “Wherefore I gave them also statutes that were not good, and ordinances whereby they should not live” (Yechezkel 20:25).[1]

In our family, we have a tradition regarding the following story: When Rav Chaim Soloveitchik’s oldest grandson (the Rav, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik) was an infant, he became gravely ill and the doctor came to examine him on Shabbos. During the examination, Rav Chaim asked the doctor if he needed more light. The doctor, neither accepting or dismissing Rav Chaim’s offer, replied, “nu, nu.” Immediately, Rav Chaim instructed the family member who was standing closest to the fire to tend to the fire to provide more light. The family member, however, was deterred by the doctor’s neutral answer, and did not immediately comply with Rav Chaim’s directive. Rav Chaim excoriated him: “du bist a am ha’aretz un an apikores — you are an am ha’aretz (ignoramus) and an apikores (heretic)!” Rav Simcha Zelig Rieger, who was also present, then hastened to fulfill Rav Chaim’s directive.

This story is both awesome and instructive; per Rav Chaim, Rambam’s designation —apikores!— includes even one who subscribes axiomatically to the preeminence of pikuach nefesh, but is remiss in acting commensurately. After all, of what value is one’s nominal belief if he does not act accordingly?

The Rav’s penetrating exposition is crucial to appreciating the full ramifications of Rambam’s formulation:

“The saving of a life overrides the commandments of the entire Torah; and he shall live by them and not die by them. Desecrate one Sabbath on his account that he may keep many Sabbaths” [Yoma 85b]. This law is the watchword of Judaism. “An authority who allows himself to be consulted [when a life is in danger] is reprehensible, and he who consults him (rather than speedily acting to save the life in danger) is a murderer” (Tur, Orah Hayyim 328). Maimonides, that master of conciseness, deviated from his regular manner and treated this issue with great elaborateness… [Rav Soloveitchik, in the original, inserts the previous citation of Rambam.]

The teachings of the Torah do not oppose the laws of life and reality, for were they to clash with this world and were they to negate the value of concrete, physiological-biological existence, then they would contain not mercy, lovingkindness, and peace but vengeance and wrath.[2]

One who makes light of the mandate of pikuach nefesh is not only making light of one isolated halacha. Rather, he is guilty of distorting and perverting the entire Torah. His flippancy depicts the laws of the Torah not, r”l, as “merciful, kind and just,” but as vengeful and vicious. It goes without saying that such a distortion constitutes a chillul Hashem.

I write the following without pretensions; I know all too well that I am sorely lacking in Torah, yirah, and ma’asim tovim, and am wholly unqualified to address — or take a stance on — issues which are the province of Gedolei TorahChazal, however, adduce a clear halachic mandate from the pasuk in Mishlei (21:30), “There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan against Hashem” that “in a situation of chillul Hashem, we do not defer (our attempts to redress the chillul Hashem) out of respect for the rav” (Sanhedrin 82a). Even one as lowly and insignificant as myself is still sensitive to, and pained by, the chillul Hashem which occurred recently as a result of the heretical (per Rav Chaim) flippancy regarding the dictates of pikuach nefesh, and, ipso facto, the concomitant distortion of Torah itself.

When the doctors with relevant expertise — some of whom are observant, God-fearing Jews — alerted us to the dangers of this extremely contagious, frightening disease, their warnings initially went unheeded, and we did not all immediately listen to their pleading. Baruch Hashem, we did merit that some gedolim and other rabbonim of stature acted to enforce social distancing with all due haste. It is, however, a matter of public knowledge that many prominent, leading rabbonim did not act in this manner. To compound matters, even when we belatedly heeded the calls for social distancing and isolation, we then characterized our compliance with these measures –regretfully!– as a concession to outside entities instead of our complying with the mandate of pikuach nefesh. This (mis)characterization of our motives also caused distortion and perversion of the Torah.

Moreover, mischaracterizing our compliance with social distancing as a mere capitulation to the standards of outside entities had significant practical ramifications. The standards of all outside entities do not value life as absolutely as does the Torah. Tosafos (Yoma 85a) comment, “‘You shall live through them and not die due to them’ [means] that we must under no circumstances allow for the death of a Jewish person.”Woe is to the eyes that saw, the ears that heard, what transpired in our midst. How can it be that others recognized the reality and hastened to save lives, while some of us were avoidant and resistant? How is it that some of us eventually had to be compelled by others to fulfill the Torah’s mandate of “v’chai bohem?” Isn’t our charge “lishmor v’la’asos — to guard and carry out” mitzvos? What of the Torah’s depiction of a universal recognition (an organic result of scrupulous performance of, and fealty to, the mitzvos) that Hashem‘s nation is a wise and discerning one, am chacham v’navon? This, too, has intensified the chillul Hashem. In addition to a perversion of Hashem‘s Torah, there has been a perversion of the image of Hashem‘s nation.

While nothing else compares to the gravity of chillul Hashem, we must not ignore other severe consequences of our failures on this front. The chillul Hashem stemmed from the flippant attitude adopted to an immense danger to life. Who can possibly measure the dreadful ramifications of this attitude? Only God Himself can truly know.

At this juncture, our obligation is twofold. We must mend — to the extent that such is possible — the mistakes of the past, while simultaneously, prospectively, charting a communal path which accords with the authentic Torah position.

Regarding the past mistakes, we are obligated to publicly declare our guilt in having been willingly blind and deaf to the manifest reality and being shockingly flippant about the immense danger posed by that very reality. As for the future, we must emphasize — clearly and decisively — that the Torah demands our absolute alacrity in the face of danger to life. We must not look for pro forma loopholes or so-called solutions which –at best– may mitigate, but certainly will not eliminate, the dangers of this disease. The Torah absolutely condemns and forbids acting in a way which – under any circumstances – may allow for the death of a Jew.

If we take these steps, perhaps we can demonstrate to the world that our previous intransigence, opposition, and tarrying in the face of mortal danger is not the derech haTorah, but that the laws of the Torah are merciful, kind, and just, and that we, Hashem‘s nation, the sheep of His flock, are in fact truly wise and discerning.

May Hashem, in His great mercy, pity and save us speedily in the very near future.



  1. Hgaon Reb Asher Weiss Shlita in a recent video states that he disapproves of the Israeli Government’s relaxing the restrictions as it puts elderly people in danger. Charedim ldvar Hashem will maintain all precautions so as not to sicken others c’v.

  2. I am fairly certain that per legend, the person to whom Rav Chaim Brisker was speaking in the story was his son, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, ZT”L (Father of Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi, ZT”L).

  3. veamech kulam tzadikim- cheshbon hanefesh yes but here are a few takeaways, without minimizing the tragic destruction.
    1. MESORAH;, for 1000’s of years when yidden were faced with plagues, famine… we ran to shul, yeshiva…i searched the otzar hachochma couldnt find precedent for closures on the contrary we were always taught the story of rabbi akiva & the fox telling the fish to come out of the water so here the fox was in the form of a doctor…saying shul is contagious leave bais hashem
    2. “mee yodea” – maybe we lost our shemira because we closed ( reb chaim kept saying sakana chamura harbeh yoser… in torah you can find proof for many approaches ” magne umatzli”
    3. RISK- what percentage does the risk have to be for a specific action to be asur see rabbi tatz book & rav moshe that by a mitzva needs to be ” shechichi hezeka ” – (we should ask rav bleich what % that is) ( rabbi akiva eiger cholera teshuva was after 15% of pozna died R”L – the frum death toll as horrible as it is is closer to 1/1000 ( do we diffrentiate between younger & seniors in the math)i think rav moshe is 4%)
    4. eiva- chilul hashem- how is that measured & how does the blame get divided ? are the ” frum sites” the biggest peddlars of “frum infractions” , i believe much of the secular press is getting there stuff from us, secondly if what am doing is not assur how concerned must i be for the ” optics ” of it
    5. NOBLE AMONGST US- say approx 800 frum yidden in the metro/lkwd..area were niftar the unusual high number of special people be it rabbonim,& ballei batim chashuvim .. is disproportionate
    6. finally if YOU hold of a certain godol ,than what he says makes sense & if not we have a whole speech & for others if a godol says what you believe than he is a ” real leader” otherwise you have a speech

  4. While on the subject of pikuach nefesh, can the leading rabbinical organizations do something about the pikuach nefesh of patients in certain hospitals in the New York area? And can they let us publicly know what they are doing so we know there is some action being taken now?

    “The Torah absolutely condemns and forbids acting in a way which – under any circumstances – may allow for the death of a Jew.”

  5. Now if people would only listen to him. or to the Klauzanberger Rebbe you presented a few days ago, or to the Bobov 45 rebbe who said this before Pesach or to many other gedolim.

  6. עיין רמב”ם הל, תענית
    The Cheshbon Hanefesh is supposed to be why the calamity came in the first place, NOT on gauging our reaction to it.

  7. This is NOT our Mesorah! In our Torah it says that the Metzorah tells others that HE HIMSELF is Tomei. During a time of Midas Hadin we must look inwards and and find what WE did wrong! Where I can and must I improve! Anyone who uses this midas hadin to say ‘see I’am right’ ‘YOU must do Teshuva’ is missing the point.

    If Rabbi Twersky and his students are not included in what he calls “leading rabbonim did not act in this manner” then he has is looking at the wrong glass. We all need to look in the mirror not out the window!

  8. Hagaon, Sar Hatorah Rav Chaim Kanievsky SHLITA, empathized the need for shmiras halashon and humility. Rav Twerski, I think, really elaborated on it. We didn’t take social distancing seriously because we only were looking out for ourselves. Our youth thought that since they were low risk even if they contracted the virus they would recover. They did not consider that they could infect the elderly or one with underlying conditions and possibly infect and kill them. They might not have been a malicious intent but, in any case, it was careless and thoughtless. That is no excuse, it is still manslaughter. We can claim that when we speak lashon harah we were acting thoughtlessly. But, we are still killing three people. If the Satan was prosecuting us for lashon harah, he had a greater case against us. He can say – they not only can’t get along among themselves; they don’t even care about infecting each other with a deadly virus. There are those who will say, I had to go daven with a minyan!! To them I answer – Bain Adam La’makom and Bain Adam l’chaveiro go hand in hand. If you don’t care about infecting another Yid, what does that say about your tefilah? Two months ago, more 100,000 Yiden gathered for the Siyum Hashas. That’s 10,000 minyanim. Now our shuls are shut, no minyan, no daf yomi shiurim. Maybe the Abishter is telling us that since we have shown that we do not care about each other He does not want our minyanim or our communal learning. He is telling us to stay home and think about our lack of “COVID” Habrios. Maybe He is fed up with the lashon harah and kiddush clubs in shul. Maybe He is telling us that it’s great that we “do the daf” but the daf should also do something positive to us. Hopefully, we will learn from this ordeal for if we don’t I shudder at what could happen in the future!!

  9. Chesbon Hanefesh should be done by Cuomo:


    March 24, 2020

    COVID-19: NYS Executive Order Temporarily Loosens Scope of Practice Restrictions on Non-Physicians, Grants Immunity, Relaxes Recordkeeping Requirements

    Issued yesterday, Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order No. 202.10 significantly loosened the scope of practice restrictions on many health care professionals to ensure there is adequate capacity within the health care system to treat COVID-19 patients. In addition, the order conferred immunity upon health care practitioners and relaxed certain recordkeeping requirements. These provisions are in effect until April 22.

    Nurse Practitioners

    Section 6902 of the NY Education Law places collaboration requirements on nurse practitioners (NP). An NP with less than 3,600 hours of practice is required to have a collaboration agreement with a licensed physician, and an NP with more than 3,600 hours of clinical practice must have collaborative relationships with either a physician or a hospital. The March 23 executive order now permits NPs to practice independently without a written practice agreement or collaborative relationship with a physician or hospital.

    Physician Assistants (PA) and Specialist Assistants (SA)

    Under Section 6542 of the NY Education Law, a PA may only perform medical services under the supervision of a physician within the scope of practice of the supervising physician. Under 6549 of the NY Education Law, an SA may perform medical services only under the supervision of a physician only when the acts and duties assigned are related to the designated medical specialty for which the SA is registered. Both of these laws have been temporarily modified to allow PAs and SAs to perform medical services without oversight from a supervising physician.

    Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs)

    CRNAs provide services in a hospital “under the supervision of an anesthesiologist who is immediately available as needed or under the supervision of an operating physician who has been found qualified by the governing body and the medical staff to supervise the administration of anesthetics and who has accepted responsibility for the supervision of the CRNA” (10 NYCRR 405.13). In free-standing and off-site hospital-based ambulatory surgery centers, a CRNA could only administer anesthesia “under the direct personal supervision of a qualified physician, who may be the operating surgeon” (10 NYCRR 755.4). The executive order now allows CRNAs to administer anesthesia without the supervision of a physician.

    Registered Nurses

    The definition of the practice of nursing under Article 139 does not allow nurses to issue medical orders. This has now been relaxed to allow registered nurses to order the collection of throat or nasopharyngeal swab specimens for purposes of testing from individuals suspected of being infected by COVID-19.

    Loosened Recordkeeping Requirements

    Recordkeeping requirements under professional misconduct laws and laws governing hospitals, nursing homes, and clinical laboratories have been temporarily relaxed. Health care providers are relieved of recordkeeping requirements to the extent necessary to perform tasks as may be necessary to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, including but not limited to requirements to maintain medical records that accurately reflect the evaluation and treatment of patients or requirements to assign diagnostic codes or to create or maintain other records for billing purposes. Any person acting reasonably and in good faith under this provision is afforded absolute immunity from liability for failure to comply with recordkeeping requirements.

    Other Immunity Provisions

    The executive order contains new and important immunity provisions protecting medical professionals. Professionals are granted immunity from both civil and criminal penalties for practicing without physician oversight or supervision as formerly required under their licensure. In addition, NY Education Law sections 6527(2), 6545, and 6909(1) have been modified to state that all physicians, PAs, SAs, NPs, licensed registered professional nurses, and licensed practical nurses will be immune from civil liability for any injury or death alleged to have been sustained directly as a result of an act or omission by the medical professional in the course of providing medical services in support of the state’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak, unless it is established that the injury or death was caused by the gross negligence of the medical professional.

    If you have any questions regarding the content of this alert, please contact Fran Ciardullo, special counsel, at [email protected] or another member of the firm’s Health Care & Human Services Practice Area.


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