What Is Pikuach Nefesh?

LeviticusThe book of Leviticus is one of those books of Holy Writ that is misunderstood. Most people cannot get past the prescriptive codes to discover the meat of the book … and this often includes the people to whom it was first written — the Jewish people.

Many Jewish people, especially among the Orthodox, “worry” (for lack of a better word) so much about the legality of Leviticus that they often overlook the core concept of the third book of the Torah — holiness. And while I could utilize any number of references from Leviticus to show this truth, I am going to focus on Leviticus 19:1-2 as the emphasis of this blog is from the 19th chapter of this book…

And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, Ye shall be holy: for I the LORD your God [am] holy. (KJV — Public Domain)

The idea of holy or holiness in this verse, and the concept is found throughout Leviticus, is that we must be like God. Now … this is impossible, you might say.  And it is … but we will get to that reality later. However, the word that God gives for holiness that we are to be is the same word that He ascribes to Himself —

קָדוֹשׁ — sacred, holy, set apart

We are not given an exception. We are not given an out because we are human. We are commanded to be as holy as God in Leviticus … even if it seems impossible. And, by the way, it is impossible. But we will get to that reality later.

Chapter 19 is set in the middle of a group of “chapters” (as there were no official chapters when the Torah was written) from chapter 11 to 25 in which every verse 1 begins just like chapter 19 begins, “And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying,SPEAK, …” Therefore, this section in Leviticus is exceptionally important as the word for speak (transliterated as dabar) is in the Piel Imperative form which indicates an intensity, an order, a command. These are important words that God wants to communicate to the people and it all begins with an order to be holy. An impossible task … but we will get to that reality later.

In chapter 19, we find several sections that are really commands and/or orders that end with the phrase, “I am the Lord.” We will focus in this blog primarily on the command/order from verses 15-16 because this is related to a Rabbinic Jewish concept called Pikuach Nefesh.

Pikuach Nefesh is the concept of being obligated to save a life that is in jeopardy (see here for a further explanation) even if k1472193saving the life requires one to violate the Rabbinic laws of honoring the Sabbath (see here for thoughts from Maimonides and the Mishneh Torah and here). Now this concept is valuable, honorable and something to be held in high esteem; however, does Leviticus 19:15-16 argue for Pikuach Nefesh? Let’s examine those verses and consider what they might truly say and mean…

Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: [but] in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbor. Thou shalt not go up and down [as] a talebearer among thy people: NEITHER SHALT THOU STAND AGAINST THE BLOOD OF THY NEIGHBOUR: I [am] the LORD. (KJV — Public Domain)

The concept in question is highlighted and underlined in the verses above. However, I would suggest that Jesus offers another opportunity for understanding these verses as well as verses 17-18 and it all goes back to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. For the question asked by the lawyer to Jesus was who is my neighbor and we discover that it is the person who loves enough to restore the fallen, to not judge based upon appearances, and who is no respecter of persons. The shocking aspect of the Good Samaritan being the true neighbor is that Samaritans were the unacceptable Jewish people of Jesus’ days. They were Jewish, dating back to the Diaspora of the 10 Northern Tribes, but they were not the “good Jews.” They were the ones who were what we might call “hillbillies” or “trailer trash” or the ones to show up on Maury Povich today.

However, there is even more to this story.  The idea of not being a “talebearer” is an interesting word in Hebrew and worthy of consideration and examination because this will help us get to that reality we have been promising to discuss! The word for talebearer could also be understood as a “[human] trafficker of lies” (רָכִיל) This is the key to understanding verse 16. Don’t lie to the people because otherwise you will be guilty of their blood. Wow! That is some responsibility and some obligation of holiness that God is asking us to uphold!

So … how can we fulfill that reality today? Yes. We can discover and fulfill Pikuach Nefesh. However, I would like to suggest that what God had in mind with these verses was more than a physical saving of life (while important and valuable) but was about a spiritual component which truly fulfills the idea of holiness.

I cannot prove it but I just wonder if the greatest Jewish scholar of his time, we call him Paul, had this concept and verses in mind when he wrote in Romans 9:3 that he was willing to be accursed for the salvation of the Jewish people? Is that not the truest reality of Pikuach Nefesh? Is that not what God had in mind when he called us to reflect His Holiness … self-sacrifice and caring about someone else’s spiritual condition more than our own?

Now Paul was not required to give up his relationship with Messiah Jesus, and neither are we, for the salvation of the Jewish people. However, would it not be nice and maybe even holy, if we cared enough about our Jewish neighbors to extend a little spiritual Pikuach Nefesh to God’s Chosen People?


2 Comments Add yours

  1. lisa says:

    Amy… The end of the blog seems to end before it finishes with the meaning of those verses… Otherwise I need to chat with you later, please, as I didn’t get the whole meaning:(

    We should chat anyway as I do not know what the Baptist preacher said on Tues pm after Calev finished speaking/Q&A.

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. I was seeking to focus on the Pikuach Nefesh approach. You have a valid point.

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