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29.04.2015 09:40    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  parashah  aharei mot  kedoshim  

"You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live: I am the Lord" (Leviticus 18:5)

By Dov Levitan*

The principle of pikuah nefesh,[1] saving life, is central to Judaism. This refers to permitting non-feasance of a given commandment, or even acting in utter opposition to a commandment, when the situation involves saving life: "Commandments may be overridden on the Sabbath in order to save life, and the sooner the better, without need for permission from a rabbinical court."[2] This means that the value of human life takes precedence over observing the commandments of the Torah, and that saving life is preferable even when done at the price of transgressing an important precept, such as observing the Sabbath.

Regarding the phrase, "by the pursuit of which man shall live," the gemara in Tractate Yoma says: "Rabbi Judah said, quoting Rabbi Samuel… 'by which man shall live' and not by which he shall die."[3] In other words, when a conflict arises between the value of life and the value of obeying the commandments, the value of life is held more important. The gemara in Tractate Sanhedrin (74a) notes the only exceptions where man must not transgress: "…in every law of the Torah, if a man is commanded: 'Transgress and suffer not death' he may transgress and not suffer death, excepting idolatry, incest, and murder."[4]

According to Maimonides, except for these three proscriptions, the sanctity of life takes precedence. On the basis of the verse, "by the pursuit of which man shall live" (Ezek. 20:11, 21), he ruled that concerning all the other commandments of the Torah—regarding which it is said, "Transgress and do not sacrifice your life"—"if a person dies rather than transgress, he is held accountable for his life."[5]

Rabbi Aaron (Bernard) Davids

Rabbi Davids was born in Amsterdam in 1895 and was trained at the rabbinical seminary in Amsterdam. In parallel he also obtained a university degree in the Classics and Greek. He was one of the more important rabbis of Holland and in 1930 was appointed Chief Rabbi of Rotterdam. He was very active in Zionist organizations, serving inter alia as head of the Zionist student organization in Holland and a prominent leader of the Mizrachi movement.[6] He did not confine himself to activity among religious circles, but also encouraged general Jewish organizations such as B'nai Brith, with the aim of preserving the frameworks of Jewish life. Education was a subject close to his heart, and so he founded the Instituut voor Joodsche Ontwikkeling (Institute for Jewish Studies). He also encouraged parents to send their children to Jewish schools. Notwithstanding his openness, his ardent Zionism and his calling for immigration to the land of Israel, Rabbi Davids was all the same accepted in circles of Agudas Israel.

During the Holocaust Rabbi Davids continued faithfully leading his Jewish community and teaching them Torah. He invested great effort in finding halakhic solutions to current problems. Among other things, he formulated a provisional get that men who had been deported to the camps could give their wives in order to prevent their becoming agunot later on.[7]

In 1943 he was deported to the Westerbork transit camp,[8] and later to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.[9] Even while a prisoner in the camps Rabbi Davids assiduously observed the commandments as much as possible. On the Day of Atonement, 1944, he even arranged a secret Shaharit service before dawn.

Passover 1944

On the eve of the Seder, 1944, a group of Jews determined not to eat hametz gathered with Rabbi Davids in barrack 18 at Bergen-Belsen. He explained to them that in view of the severe starvation and concomitant danger to life, it was their duty to do everything possible to live, including eating hametz. In order to persuade them, Rabbi Davids took a piece of bread, recited the benediction of Ha-Motzi, and ate it. Before putting the bread into his mouth, he read aloud a special prayer which he had composed (along with other rabbis):

Heavenly Father, it is manifest and known to You that we desire to carry out Your will in regard to the commandment of eating matzah and strictly refraining from hametz on the Festival of Pesah. But we are sick at heart at being prevented in this by reason of the oppression and mortal danger in which we find ourselves. We stand ready to perform Your commandments 'that you shall live by them and not die by them,' and heed Your warning, as it is written: "Take heed and keep your soul alive" (Deut. 4:9). Therefore we beseech You that You will keep us in life and maintain us and redeem us speedily so that we may perform Your statutes and carry out Your will with a perfect heart. Amen.[10]

The next morning Rabbi Davids visited the sick in the infirmary barracks of the camp. Here, too, he reiterated his dispensation to eat hametz in order to maintain life, and again he set a personal example, assembling lehem mishneh (two loaves) of pieces of matzah and bread, eating of it himself and handing it out to the rest of the sick.


From the beginning of 1945 until the camp's liberation by British forces in April 1945 the number of inmates in Bergen-Belsen swelled from some 15 thousand to 60 thousand. Their condition deteriorated rapidly and tens of thousands of people died of exhaustion, starvation and epidemics that spread throughout the camp. In March alone over 18 thousand inmates died in Bergen-Belsen.

Among those who perished during this period was Rabbi Davids, who did not survive the last months of the war and died on February 22, 1945, less than two months before the camp's liberation.[11] Even during the first few days and weeks after the liberation former inmates continued to die by the thousands.

Rabbi Davids' son died a short while after the war, but his wife Erica and two daughters, Miriam and Shulamit, survived. The handwritten manuscript of the prayer which he recited before eating hametz was brought to Israel and is currently in the Ghetto Fighters' House Museum. Rotterdam's dignitaries named a square in the city after Rabbi Davids.


During the Holocaust, Rabbi Davids put into practice the deepest sense of the precept, "by the pursuit of which man shall live" (Ezek. 20:11). He did this out of a deep sense of faith and out of concern for the Jews incarcerated at Bergen-Belsen, to whom he related with the same measure of love for his fellow Jews as he had related to his congregants in Holland before being deported to the Nazi concentration camp in Germany.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

* Dr. Levitan teaches history of the State of Israel in the combined major in the social sciences at |Bar Ilan University and at Ashkelon College. He has published studies on immigration of Jews from Yemen and their absorption in Israel and recently published a book about Denmark's policy and involvement in the establishment of the State of Israel.

[1] The term pikuah nefesh is deriverd from Mishnah Yoma 8.7, where dispensation is given le-fakeah, i.e., to dig and take apart a mound of stones in order to save a person buried under it when there is a chance the person is still alive.

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 84b.

[3] Ibid., 85b.

[4] Indeed, Maimonides said: "All the above apply [only in times] other than times of a decree. However, in times of a decree—i.e., when a wicked king like Nebuchadnezzar or his ilk arises and issues a decree against the Jews to nullify their faith or one of the commandments—one should sacrifice one's life rather than transgress any of the other commandments" (Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 5.3).

[5] Mishneh Torah, Sefer ha-Mada, Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 5.1, 5.4. [MISTAKEN REF. IN HEBREW]

[6] Esther Farbstein, Be-Seter Ra`am: Halakhot, Hagut u-Manhigut bi-Yemei ha-Shoah, Jerusalem 2002, p. 297, note 49.

[7] Dan Michman, "Ha-Manhigut ha-Rabbanit be-Holland be-Tekufat ha-Shoah," Dapping le-Heker Tekufat ha-Shoah 7, 1989, p. 92.

[8] Polizeiliches Judendurchgangslager Westerbork was a transit camp where the Jews stayed temporarily before being deported to concentration camps and death camps further east.

[9] Bergen-Belsen was founded in 1943 as a "detention camp" (Aufenthaltslager) and transit camp, situated in northern Germany, south of Hamburg (in Lower Saxony). Among the inmates there were Jews destined for an "exchange program," the object of which was to gather small groups of European Jews with a view to trading them for influential German citizens who were held prisoner by the Allies. Beginning in March 1944 Bergen-Belsen slowly turned into a concentration camp in every respect, with the Germans transferring Jews there from other concentration camps. In June, 1944, a group of 1,684 Hungarian Jews arrived at a sub-section of the camp, the Ungarnlager (Hungarian Camp), in a transport arranged by Rudolf Israel Kastner (the "Kastner train"). These Jews were later transferred to Auschwitz.

[10] Before this prayer it says: "To be recited with great conviction." See: Collection of Issachar Davids and Wife, Erica Davids Feuchtwang: Prayer Book, "Dispensation to eat hametz on Passover in the Bergen-Belsen camp," Ghetto Fighters' House Archives, 11518/41.

[11] During the same period also Anne Frank and her sister perished, her family having been caught by the Nazis in Holland and deported to Auschwitz and later to Bergen-Belsen.

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