Rosh Hashanah 2:5

By :  Daniel Nevins Former Pearl Resnick Dean of The Rabbinical School and the Division of Religious Leadership Posted On Jan 1, 2008 | Mishnat Hashavua

Should do-gooders be given special dispensations?

חצר גדולה היתה בירושלים, ובית יעזק היתה נקראת, ולשם כל העדים מתכנסים, ובית דין בודקין אותם שם. וסעודות גדולות עושין להם בשביל שיהו רגילין לבא. בראשונה לא היו זזין משם כל היום, התקין רבן גמליאל (הזקן) שיהו מהלכין אלפים אמה לכל רוח. ולא אלו בלבד, אלא אף החכמה הבאה לילד, והבא להציל מן הדלקה ומן הגיס ומן הנהר ומן המפלת, הרי אלו כאנשי העיר, ויש להם אלפים אמה לכל רוח.

There was a great courtyard in Jerusalem called Beit Yazek where the entire crowd [of potential new moon] witnesses would gather, and the court would examine them there. And [the officials] used to make them big feasts, so that the people would be eager to come. Originally, they [the witnesses who had traveled on Shabbat to testify] were not allowed to move [more than four cubits] from there all day. Rabban Gamliel decreed that they should be allowed to walk two thousand cubits in all directions [as if they had begun Shabbat there]. And not only these—but even the midwife who traveled [on Shabbat] to assist a birth, and also one who came to rescue victims of a fire, or from an army, or from [drowning in] a river or from [being crushed beneath] a collapsed building—all of these are considered like people of the city and they get to move two thousand cubits in all directions.


Rabbinic law restricted the movement of a Jew on Shabbat to two thousand cubits from his or her techum boundary—usually the town. If he or she left the boundary, the limit was a mere four cubits (seven feet). But there were established exemptions. In order to serve as a witness to the new moon, or to help save a life, all restrictions on movement were dropped. What next? Having testified or performed the rescue, could one travel home, or must he or she stay put until the end of Shabbat? Rabban Gamliel’s decree (takkanah) was apparently motivated by a social concern that people not refrain from helping others.


Can you think of examples in our day where a rescuer is penalized? Should so-called good Samaritans be exempted from liability for damages caused by their rescue efforts? Should Rabban Gamliel’s decree be used to permit rescue workers and physicians who travel to the hospital on Shabbat to drive home afterward?