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Missing the Obvious
Did it ever happen to you that something suddenly occurs which is so obvious, you wonder how you ever missed it? Then you wonder how everyone else is missing it! And then you start to worry and think, well, it can't be that everyone missed it, so I must still be missing something!
I had this feeling on Friday night, going over the Gemara which Poskim use as the primary source for determining death. The Gemara discusses a building which has collapsed on Shabbos, trapping people in the rubble. Rubble is muktzeh, but it can be cleared away in order to save lives. Upon discovering a person trapped in the rubble, a determination must be made as to whether the person is still alive; if he is, then all the rubble can be cleared off him, but if has died, then one may not clear any more rubble off him. The Gemara establishes that if one is uncovering him from the top down, then one may only proceed as far as his nose. If breath is detected at his nose, one may continue extracting him. But if no breath is detected at the nose, then he is certainly dead and one may not clear any more rubble.
The Gemara relates this to the passuk which says, "Everyone that had the breath of life in his nose." It is the formal halachah brought down in the Shulchan Aruch. And Chassam Sofer famously stated regarding this that "Once his breathing ceases, one may no longer violate Shabbos. This is the general principle for all who die, and this has been the accepted criterion in our hands ever since God’s congregation became a holy nation, and even if all the winds in the world were to blow, they would not budge us from the position of our holy Torah."
Now, for a while it has been known that even if respiration has ceased, it is often possible to restart it via cardiopulmonary resuscitation - CPR. It is therefore commonly stated that the Gemara was not referring to a person whose breathing has merely stopped, but rather to a person whose breathing has irreversibly stopped. Of course, Chazal did not know about CPR, but, it is claimed, their words did not rule it out.
On Friday night, I realized that this is not true. Furthermore, I realized that everyone is very clearly overruling Chazal in this.
Why? Because in order to do CPR, you need access to the person's chest. Which means that you are clearing more rubble away! But the Gemara is completely unambiguous that if there is no respiration at the nostrils, it is forbidden to clear away any more rubble. The Gemara forbids clearing away any more rubble, and yet every single Posek would say that this is mandatory!
This is significant on several fronts. First of all, it refutes those who say that Chazal never erred in science. Second, it refutes those who say that even if they did err in science, it is forbidden to change the halachah. Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhoffer claimed that "we are accustomed to assume that Chazal are the final arbiters of Halachah regardless of whatever thought process under-girded their rulings," and approvingly cited Rav Aharon Soloveitchik that he would have put Rav Yitzchok Lampronti in cherem (!) for saying that halachos based on belief in spontaneous generation should be changed. There are others who take a less aggressive line, but still maintain that, following the Chazon Ish's concept of "law being established in the Talmudic Era," any halachos established by Chazal cannot be changed. But the fact that we clear away the rubble to do CPR shows otherwise.
At this point I was wondering not only why this hadn't occurred to me beforehand, but also whether it had occurred to anyone else - and if not, then perhaps I was missing something! Fortunately I eventually came across a reference to this exact point in R. Nuriyeh Gutel's Hishtanut HaTevi'im, p. 77. He quotes Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach as saying that Talmudic prohibitions against violating Shabbos in an attempt to save someone who is not breathing, no longer apply now that we know how to save such people via CPR. And he notes that this specifically means that the Gemara's ruling about not clearing any more rubble does not apply.
Furthermore, this case arguably shows that Poskim today - even those who rely on respiratory death - are not following Chazal's exegesis. Chazal understood the passuk to mean that respiration equals life, and lack of respiration equals death. But these Poskim are understanding the passuk to mean instead that permanent lack of respiration means death. (This point can, however, be debated. But I think it's valid.) R. Gutel quotes Rav Shaul Yisraeli as pointing out that this means that our determination of the moment of death itself has changed since Chazal, with various other potential halachic ramifications. Chazal ruled that as soon as a person has stopped breathing, he has died. All Poskim today, on the other hand, rule that a person has not yet died until the period in which CPR is possible has elapsed.
Now, of course you can say that if Chazal would have known that pushing the chest can restart respiration, they would have interpreted the passuk differently and certainly they would have ruled differently. But, once you are going down that path, then you have to wonder what Chazal would have said differently had they understood the role of the brain and lived in a world where brain-dead people can have their heart and lungs maintained in operation for a while. Likewise, you have to wonder what we should infer from Chazal's words in light of their not having known those facts and not having lived in such a world.
So there's a can of worms which has, by virtue of the rubble-case, already been opened.
(On a different note - next Sunday I will be in New York, and I currently have no plans for that day. If anyone is interested in hosting a Rationalist Judaism get-together, and can arrange transportation for me - I'll be in Woodmere - please be in touch!)