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Rosh Hodesh Adar 2 Torah Essay

Dr. Sharon Galper Grossman

“If I am to perish, I shall perish!” (Esther 4:16).

Esther understood the risks of appearing before Achashverosh uninvited, but she put her life on the line to save her nation from annihilation.

Pikuach nefesh, the value of saving a life,[1] is so important that it overrides Shabbat, based on the principle of v’chai bahem – “And you shall live by them” (Vayikra 18:5). Halakha obligates us to save those in danger, while failure to act violates lo ta’amod al dam re’echa (Vayikra 19:17) – do not stand idly by when someone’s life is at risk.[2]  But if saving someone in danger will endanger the rescuer, chayecha kodmim – your life takes precedence.[3]

Are we obligated to place ourselves in possible danger to save others from a definite danger? Hagahot Maimoniot concludes from the Talmud Yerushalmi that this is indeed what halakha requires.[4] However, Rosh, Rif, Rambam, and later Shulchan Aruch and Rama do not codify this view. Radbaz rules that one who does so is a hasid shoteh – a pious fool.[5] Rabbi Ovadia Yosef sides with Radbaz: When the risk to the rescuer is high, we may not place ourselves in danger to save others.[6] Appearing before Achashverosh put Esther in grave danger. Was she a hasid shoteh?

According to Rambam, there is a halakhic obligation to fight in a milchemet mitzvah (such as a war against Amalek or an enemy who attacks Israel).[7] Why are those who are not in immediate danger obligated to fight if fighting might endanger them? Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein learns from Esther’s decision to endanger herself for the sake of the Jewish people that when it comes to saving the public, everyone has an obligation to give their life.[8] Tzitz Eliezer agrees:

… The rules of ‘and you shall live by them’ and ‘your life precedes others’ do not apply during war. Rather (in war) each individual is obligated to sacrifice their own life in order to save the other…

This suggests that Esther was required to risk her life to save the Jewish people.

Why is war different? Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli believes that in war we consider not the individual, but the nation, which functions as a single body. V’chai bahem then applies not to the individual, but rather to the common good. Rav Yaakov Ariel posits that just as one who faces life-threatening danger must sacrifice a limb to save his body, when war endangers the nation of Israel, individuals must sacrifice themselves to save the entire nation. Thus, Esther’s decision to endanger herself is not comparable to the risk taken by an individual, since it was a sacrifice to save the nation.[9]

The soldiers’ commitment to give up their lives for their comrades is essential for morale; it gives them the strength and courage to fight. Maintaining morale is so important that, according to Rambam:

If a person wants to leave the battle, the authorities have permission to chop off his legs, for flight is the beginning of defeat.[10]

Rabbi Yaakov Ariel suggests that in war we do not consider danger to the individual because war includes an inherent element of kiddush Hasehm, the sanctification of G-d’s name, which overrides the principle of v’chai bahem; any action necessary to win the war, raise morale, or increase commitment to the mission is considered kiddush Hashem, and warrants sacrificing one’s life.

According to Sanhedrin 74a, death is preferable to the transgression of the gilui arayot, forbidden sexual relations. How could Esther commit adultery even to save lives? Noda B’Yehuda answers that Esther was the exception, since she saved all the Jewish people, from young to old, all over the world, from Hodu to Kush.[11]

Esther teaches us that when the nation faces an existential threat, the rules of pikuach nefesh change. The obligation to save the nation of Israel overrides v’chai bahem and chayecha kodmim, and every action for the war effort qualifies as a kiddush Hashem.

The Baal Shem tov cites the statement in Megillah 17a, “Those who read the megillah, lemafrea, out of order, have not fulfilled their obligation,” as a condemnation of those who understand the megillah as merely a description of past events. In other words, one who does not recognize that the story and message of the megillah are still valid today has not fulfilled the obligation of reading the megillah![12] Megillat Esther helps us understand how Jewish law views the sacrifice of our soldiers.

The lessons of Megillat Esther feel especially relevant as we respond to our generation’s Amalek: worldwide antisemitism, contemporary calls for genocide, and a war whose sole purpose is our annihilation. This year, we are all Esther. More than 360,000 ‘Esthers’ performed the ultimate kiddush Hashem by responding to the call of duty, dropping everything to fight, risking their lives to save Am Yisrael. Outside of Israel, Jews around the world engage in other forms of sacrifice for their people: brave students on college campuses are standing up to lies and hypocrisy; fearless supporters of Israel are attending rallies and advocating on behalf of Am Yisrael in government chambers and the court of public opinion; and others raise funds and send equipment to assist the war effort.

May our contemporary ‘Esthers’ be worthy of Rambam’s blessing:

Anyone who fights with his entire heart, without fear, with the intention of sanctifying God’s name alone, can be assured that he will find no harm, nor will bad overtake him. He will be granted a proper family in Israel and gather merit for himself and his children forever. He will also merit eternal life in the world to come.[13]

May Hashem watch over our holy soldiers as they perform God’s work to save us from our enemies.

[1]  Yoma 84b.

[2] Sanhedrin 73.

[3] Bava Metzia 62ab.

[4] Kesef Mishneh, Hilchot Rotzeach 1:14.

[5] Radbaz 3:627 (53).

[6] Yechave Daat 3:84.

[7] Hilchot Melachim 7:4.

[8] Assia vol. 7, p. 3.

[9], Rav Yaakov Ariel, Beohala shel Torah vol. 4, p. 167

[10] Hilchot Melachim 7:4.

[11] Noda B’Yehuda, Tinyana Yoreh De’ah 161.


[13] Hilchot Melachim 7:14.


Dr. Sharon Galper Grossman

Dr. Sharon Galper Grossman

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship, Sharon is a Harvard-educated oncologist and a graduate of Matan’s Morot L’Halakha program and other Matan Beit Midrash programs. Her book is on Jewish Perspectives on Staying Healthy. It traces the development and evolution of the halakhic perspective from its earliest sources to contemporary decisors.