20-5770 Mitzvah N-82
Negative Mitzvah 82 – This is a negative commandment: do not refrain from rescuing one’s fellow man from danger.
Hafetz Hayim – As Scripture says: “neither shall you stand idly by the blood of your brother” (Lev. 19:16). For example, if someone sees another person drowning in the river, or in any other perils, he is duty-bound to save him in any way possible. Included in this is the duty to save one’s fellow-man from a monetary loss: for example, if he knows that a heathen or a bandit wishes to attack his fellow, and it lies in his ability to pacify him [the outlaw], he has a duty to pacify him.
This applies everywhere and always, for both men and women.
Just so there is no question, the law requiring us to save a life refers to all lives, men, women, children, Jews, non-Jews, all races and all social classes. We have a primary responsibility to save any human life that is in our power to save. The reason we have to save non-Jews is not one that I am especially proud of; we save non-Jews for the sake of peace. So that there will not be enmity between Jews and non-Jews. I would have preferred that we do it out of a sense of shared humanity but the net result is the same, we must save all human beings from danger.
There is only one limitation on this Mitzvah. We are not required to endanger our own life to save the life of another. If we do not know how to swim, or even if we do but we are not trained for lifesaving in the water, we are forbidden to endanger our lives to save another person. We can choose an alternative path, we can get a long pole to reach the person in danger, we can go out in a boat to effect the rescue or we can call a trained lifeguard to save the person. We can’t just stand there, but we must do everything we can to help.
Other rules of Judaism are suspended so we can save a life. If the person is drowning on Shabbat, we violate Shabbat to save a life. If the person is famished and needs to eat, the rules of Kashrut are suspended if that is all there is to eat. If stopping to pray will endanger your life or the lives of those with you (from bandits, weather etc.) you are not to pray until it is safe to do so. We are to “live” by the Mitzvot, and not to die by them. Our first priority is to save our own life, then we have to save the lives of others. A Jew can not turn the other way and say “This is not my problem” or “I don’t want to get involved”.
It is also the rule that we must try to protect the property of others as well. If we can, we must warn them of danger and do what we can to prevent a situation where one could lose his or her property.
I should also say that this rule of saving life also applies to animals as well. The only difference is that we are not to violate any other Mitzvot on behalf of animals. We can save a horse from drowning but not on Shabbat. We can help to prevent the death of the animal but not perform work to save the animal’s life. The rule to prevent pain and suffering to animals is a separate Mitzvah.
I have to admit that I am a bit surprised to see this as a negative commandment rather than a positive one. We have a obligation to save a life, yet here, the obligation is not to stand idly by when a person is in danger. I suspect that it is here because of the way the verse from the Torah is worded. (“you shall not…” )