Today’s daf (Shabbat 128b) contains a ruling with respect to the laws of childbirth on Shabbat which provides us with profound insight and considerable halachic precedent with respect to the permissibility of ‘breaking’ Shabbat for emotional, psychological and mental health reasons.
Having stated in the Mishna (Shabbat 18:3, 128b) that a midwife may travel in order to assist a woman deliver a baby on Shabbat, and that other Shabbat transgressions may also be performed to assist a woman in labour, the Gemara explains that the phrase ‘other Shabbat transgressions’ includes the fact that ‘if [the woman giving birth on Shabbat] needs a lamp to be lit, this should be done for her; and if she needs oil to calm her, this may be brought to her [on Shabbat]’.
On first glance, these additional rules seem obvious since, as Rashi points out, Shabbat laws are put aside to save someone in danger. However, as the Gemara proceeds to explain, the lamp rule would apply even if the woman giving birth is blind but still insists that the room be even more illuminated – since knowing that there is more light in the room ‘will put her at ease’.
Though there are a handful of halachic authorities who claim that this dispensation for Shabbat ‘transgression’ only applies when there is a measurable external physical benefit provided by the act (i.e. the light ultimately benefits those helping the woman give birth), as Rav
Yoni Rosensweigexplains in his Responsa Yishrei Lev (No. 90), most poskim take a different view and, consequently, this dispensation applies even when there is no measurable external physical benefit whatsoever (i.e. even if the midwife says she doesn’t need more light but the woman insists that the room be even more illuminated) other than the emotional, psychological and mental health of the woman in labour. On this basis he rules that:
“with respect to these laws… our Sages did not provide us with a measure up to which we can be lenient. Instead, they simply said that we should be particularly lenient with respect to [providing all that is asked by] a woman giving birth. Therefore, in every category where leniency is possible I believe that we should be strict in observing the laws of Pikuach Nefesh (any form of danger to life) and rule according to the lenient position.”
Of course, while this responsum addresses childbirth, and while our Sages emphasised the importance of leniency with respect to providing all that is asked by a woman giving birth, the broader principles derived from this Gemara, the codified halacha (see Orach Chaim 330:1), and the many halachic rulings on this and related topics reach beyond the realm of childbirth and, in doing so, they emphasise the halachic weight given to matters of emotional, psychological and mental health.
In conclusion, Shabbat is a blessing whose observance brings considerable ‘yishuv hada’at’ (peace of mind), but as this law teaches us, there are times when it is necessary to perform melachot on Shabbat for the sake of someone’s ‘yishuv hada’at’. Knowing when to balance the laws of Shabbat and the needs of people is not always a simple halachic calculation, and where possible and appropriate a halachic decisor should be consulted. Nevertheless, let us not forget that if there is any form of risk, “we should be strict in observing the laws of Pikuach Nefesh (any form of danger to life) and rule according to the lenient position”.