Torah or Threats
“וְלֹֽא שָׁמַע אֵלֶיהָ” (בראשית פל”ט פ”י)
The following is based on a true story, with the names changed to protect the identity of the people involved. Peninah received a call from her brother, Yossi, at work. “I can no longer bear living in this fashion,” he proclaimed. Yossi had been a successful businessman, but had made one horrible investment that sent him into heavy debt. Creditors were constantly knocking at his door, making his life miserable. Therefore when he told Peninah that he was going to end his life unless she could do him a certain favor, she listened carefully. “If you embezzle the amount of money I owe to my creditors from the bank (at which Peninah had a senior position), my life will be worth living. If you do not, it is all over.” She understood what he said all too clearly, but did not think her actions through in a clear fashion. Unquestionably, there were better solutions, but Peninah was unable to think of them. She didn’t want her brother to die, and therefore went ahead and embezzled the money to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Was this halachically permitted? Does the rule of Pikuach Nefesh apply in such a case?
The Gemara in Shabbos (4a) states the concept “Ain Omrim l’Adam Chatei Kdei she’Yizkeh Chavercha”—“We do not say to a person “sin!” in order that your friend should be justified.” The case dealt with in this Gemara is that one should not transgress a Rabbinic prohibition so that his friend should not end up transgressing a Torah prohibition (as a result of his putting dough into an oven so that it should bake on Shabbos, see Gemara at length).
However, when it comes to Pikuach Nefesh (danger of loss of life) we find more room for leniency. Some authorities permit being “Mechalel Shabbos”—“desecrating Shabbos” in order to save someone who tried to commit suicide, and is now in a life threatening situation (see Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasah 32:13). Does this apply to the case of the banker’s brother?
The Sefer Shimru Mishpat (#127) quotes many precedents which help decide the correct Halachah in this case. Here are two of them…
Precedent 1: Chachmei Amsterdam
The Sefer Eitz Chayim records that there was once a person who fell ill, and the doctors ruled that his only cure would be to drink donkey milk. The Halachah is clear that a person must drink unkosher liquids if they will prevent him from dying. However, this person abhorred the thought of having to imbibe unkosher liquids, and refused. His son tried to convince him to drink the milk, to no avail. One day, the son walked into his father’s room and said “Would you like some of this cow’s milk?” “No,” the father replied angrily, “I know you are just trying to get me to drink donkey’s milk.” When the son persisted that it was really cow’s milk, the father retorted, “I will drink some if you take a drink first!” Excusing himself for the moment by saying that he could not drink because he was fasting that day, the son quickly went to ask the Chachmei Amsterdam if he was allowed to drink from the milk in order to save his father’s life. They answered that it was forbidden. If his father refused to do what the Torah commanded in this situation, which is to drink the donkey milk, the son is not allowed to do a sin because his father will not listen to the Torah, even if this means that the father will die. We do not permit people to transgress the Mitzvos in order to help others who are purposely sinning. This is even if this means that they will die.
Precedent 2: Melamed l’Ho’il
An assimilated mother in Germany was upset by her son’s decision that he would not go learn in the gymnasium because he would have to desecrate Shabbos. She threatened that she would kill herself if he would not learn in the gymnasium. The Melamed l’Ho’il ruled that this was not grounds to permit the son to transgress Shabbos.
The Shimru Mishpat therefore concludes that the actions taken by this woman were against the Torah. It was forbidden for her to steal from her employer on the grounds that her brother was going to commit suicide, as it is forbidden to sin based on the whims of people who threaten to do something against the Torah (see his response at length). Unquestionably, if anyone ever encounters such a situation they should seek expert guidance from a Rav.