The Zionist Conspiracy

A clandestine undertaking on behalf of Israel, the Jets and the Jews.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2006
Medical Residents and Shabbos

Given the supreme halachic importance of shabbos observance, I have always been amazed and disappointed at the dearth of consideration of the question of doctors working on shabbos, and, in particular, medical residents working on shabbos.

Two weeks ago in the Forward, Zackary Sholem Berger, who is in his final year of medical school and applying for his residency, wrote:

Without getting pedantic about the halachic or exegetical details of the principle, it's true that "saving a life sets aside the Sabbath," as does (broadly speaking) the treatment of a dangerously ill patient. But does doctors' work always entail saving lives? And are there Jewish reasons outside of Jewish law that might make it preferable for Jewish doctors to work on the Sabbath?

A resident doctor working in the hospital on the Sabbath does not spend all 25 hours, from Friday night to Saturday night, nimbly plucking the gravely ill from the mouth of death. Some of the time is spent dealing with busywork ("Sign this!" "Send that!" "Answer that intrusive page!"), while much of the rest is spent talking to patients, other caregivers and family members about matters that, while necessary, do not mean the difference between life and death. Not everything that a doctor does during a shift is lifesaving.

As Berger notes later in the article, some observant residents opt for a shomer shabbos residency, in which the resident has no shifts during shabbos (invariably paying the price with routine shifts on Saturday nights and Sunday). But for the majority who do work in the hospital on shabbos, there are a myriad of halachic issues. To begin with, is it acceptable to travel to the hospital? If so, can one drive, can one use public transportation, is it necessary to order a taxi driven by a non-Jew? Once in the hospital, can prescriptions be written, can charts be filled in, can the mundane aspects of residency be done despite the repeated violations of rabbinic (and often biblical) prohibitions relating to shabbos observance?

Amazingly, there is little discussion of these issues. Rabbis appear to be either woefully ignorant of the realities of what residents do, or extremely fearful of negative reaction from doctors who may not like what they hear about their halachic obligations.