I am a nurse working 12 hr. shifts at night. When I began my current job my hiring boss allowed me to work 8 hr. nights on Saturday night, then two twelve hour nights Sunday and Monday. So I was always able to observe Shabbat because I didn't have to work until 11pm on Saturday night. Then that manager retired. Since then the eight hour shifts were eliminated. I must be off Tues. nights to prepare for lessons on Wednesday nights as I teach Hebrew school on Wednesdays. I requested to be off Tues, Weds, Fri, Sat. I was told I could have either Fri night or Sat. night off but not both. Since I am a nurse- and sick people don't take "time off", then as another Jewish friend reassures me, am I doing "divine work?" I happen to be Reform. I chose Fridays off so I can usher in Shabbat, but have to be at work by 6 pm on Saturday. What does Judaism say about this situation?
Judaism teaches that “pikkuach nefesh,” saving a life in danger must come first, and almost everything else, such as Shabbat or kosher, must be set aside to attempt to save that life or to prevent a health hazard. This applies to the nurse, the doctor, or to any category of person who is in the circumstance of helping to prevent the hazard.
But the emergency must be there now, not just a possibility it may develop.
On the other hand, you can proceed to set aside Shabbat if the possibility is feared right now, even it has not developed yet, since the average person is not an expert diagnostician, and one should not take chances if the danger is clear enough. The doctor himself or herself is bidden to violate the Shabbat in order to travel to where the patient is in danger, and, in order not to hesitate where a need is real, the doctor may take liberties to return on Shabbat, so that he or she shall be available
to serve next time.
Your question was reported as being, “What does Judaism say about this situation?” That was easier to answer than what your manager would say about it. It’s clear that Jewish law and morality would place prevention of a threat, or of a deterioration in
health, as coming first for action by the responder, even in violation of Shabbat. But to agree on a schedule of hours set by a nurse’s manager is harder to arrange according to Halachah.
Your struggle is a noble one as it is based on a serious commitment to both your relationship with God and your sense of obligation to others. In fact, saving the lives of others is a divine command (“Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Lev. 19) and takes priority over almost all other commandments: “‘And you shall live by them (Lev. 18)” and not die by them. (Talmud, Yoma 85b)” The exceptions to this rule are idolatry, murder, and forbidden sexual relations, all which require martyrdom. Many observant healthcare providers tend to patients on Shabbat and it is not considered Sabbath desecration. Nevertheless, the devil is in the details. One is permitted to perform all otherwise prohibited activities in life-threatening emergencies. In non-life threatening circumstances, not all restrictions are waived. There is much literature on the nuanced details of these practices.
Nevertheless, it may not be necessary to put yourself into this situation altogether. It is not clear to me why you need Tuesday nights to prepare your Wednesday night lessons. There must be other times during the week to prepare for your class. And if that is the case, and you are therefore able to work Tuesdays and have both Fridays and Saturdays off, that is certainly preferable.
Obviously, the ideal work schedule would allow you to be off for the entire 25 hours of Shabbat, but in your case—as for many people—it seems like that is not an option. Most health-care workers—doctors, nurses, EMTs, etc—are allowed to do lifesaving work on Shabbat based on the principle of pikuach nefesh, the saving of a life. As my colleagues have written, this responsibility supersedes even the stringent rules of Shabbat.
It sounds like your schedule is set in such a way that Shabbat for you can be Friday night and Saturday through 6pm. My advice is to make Shabbat in any way that your schedule allows. Since your shift begins at 6pm on Saturday, perhaps you can find time or space within your shift to make havdallah, the ceremony separating Shabbat and the rest of the week, in the hospital.And because you are off on Friday night and most of Saturday, you have the experience to observe a meaningful and connected Shabbat practice. Here are some suggestions, if you don’t already do this: Light candles on Friday night, have Shabbat dinner, attendservices, read, study…..Good luck.
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