Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Pikauch nefesh - reading tshuvos accurately

I just came across a discusion of a teshuva in the Igros Moshe by Rav Zilberstein - and he seems to cite it inaccurately First I'll quote his discussion of the issue - and then the relevant excerpt from the Igros Moshe. This is a caution that even such a great talmid chachom occacionly makes errors. It doesn't necessary invalidate the halachic conclusion but it does show that his conclusion can not be learned from the statement of Rav Moshe that he cites. He says that it deals with a married couple that would need to divorce. Rav Moshe in fact is dealing with two people who want to marry and he says that it is significant whether they are married or only contemplating marriage. Secondly the issue involves whether there is a heter for birth control - when there are lenient and stringent view among the rabbis for this situation. Because of danger to the woman Rav Moshe allows the use of the lenient in their case. Thus it would seem that even if it were a condition of pikuach nefesh - if there weren't lenient views - Rav Moshe would not permit birth control. But in his conclusion he prohibits the use of birth control because with total bed rest pregnancy is not dangerous for her condition. The fact that total bedrest for nine months is a very stressful thing does not enter into the evaluation. Thus Rav Zilberstein's statement that pikuach nefesh overrules the entire Torah - is not the view expressed in the Igros Moshe where he doesn't even use the word pikuach nefesh and he gives leniencies only on a very circumscribed basis.

Rav Zilberstein( Assia Nissan 5747): In the Igros Moshe (1:67) concerning a young couple who are so much in love that if their marriage would be ended the woman would be in danger because of her severe upset which is equivalent to a condition of pikuach nefesh. It is also know that a woman who doesn’t have children for 10 years that according to the law of the Torah it is permitted for the husband to divorce her so that he can marry another woman and fulfill the obligation to have children. Nevetheless if there is a real concern that because of being divorced the woman will go into severe depression and danger – then this is pikuach nefesh which overrules the entire Torah.

Igros Moshe(E.H. 1:67):This concerns a 40 year old man who has never had children and he wants to marry a young woman whom he finds attractive and she is Torah observant. This is something which is difficult for him to find. However unfortunately she has kidney disease and therefore according to the doctors it would be dangerous for her to become pregnant at the present time. However at a later time when her condition has improved it would not be dangerous to become pregnant. The question is whether they can get married and have permission to use birth control methods to prevent pregnancy?… However nevertheless if you see that they are so much in love until it would possibly be a danger to one of them if they didn’t get married. In particular the concern is for the sick and weak young lady - who besides that she would not be able to marry him but also there is concern because of her condition that she would be prohibited to marry everyone and thus be in an very unfortunate situation – there is a basis to permit them to marry with birth control. But this is only on the condition that they are modest and reliable with many warnings not to publicize that they received permission [to follow the lenient opinions]. But on the other hand I have heard that if there is total bedrest during the entire pregnancy – there is no danger to a woman who is sick with kidney disease. Therefore in fact there is no permission to use birth control. Rather they should be advised that if she becomes pregnant that she should have total bedrest.


  1. i just read Reb Moshe's teshuva. I do not think that Rav Zilberstein has misread it, but he has not made so clear how he drew his conclusion. In the body of the teshuva, Reb Moshe states that a consideration which would permit a man who is married to a woman who cannot get pregnant due to medical risk is that the emotional harm in divorcing her will cause further sakkana. The fact Reb Moshe does not use the words "pikuach nefesh" is a red herring in my opinion. "Avoiding danger" is synonymous with pikuach nefesh, because the whole point is that she is a nefesh she-yesh ba sakkana. Yes the actual teshuva is about a man who did not yet marry, but Reb Moshe discusses the case of a married man. I am confused why you think that R. Zilberstein misread the teshuva.

  2. Michoel said...

    I don't chop
    What don't you understand? Rav Zilberstein cites an Igros Moshe as a source that depression and upset are pikuach nefesh which enables you push away the whole Torah. The Igros Moshe says no such thing. He initially says that since the couple has not married that instead of relying on a leniency he should marry someone else who isn't sick and and thus doesn't need birth control to protect their health. Rav Moshe acknowledges this despite that there are Rabbis who are lenient when life is in endangered. But then he says but if they are really in love and that it would be harmful for her health if they don't get married then you can rely on the lenient view.
    This is not a general heter based on pikuach nefesh but a limited heter to rely on kulas because of pikuach nefesh.
    Finally Rav Moshe says that there is no need for a heter since complete bed rest removes the danger. But it doesn't remove the depression and stress of total bed rest. If he were following Rav Zilverstein approach he would say that birth control is permitted to avoid the stress of pregnancy and total bed rest. He doesn't say that.

    In sum, Rav Moshe does not support Rav Zilverstein's thesis about pikuach nefsh.

  3. והאמת שאני הצעיר זה כט"ז שנה אשר הערכתי בזה תשובה גדולה בטעמים גדולים וראיות מוכרחות להכריע כדעת המתירין במקום סכנה באשה שכבר היא נשואה.
    אבל הוא רק כשהיא כבר נשואה
    שנתחייב לה בחיובי אישות וקשין הגירושין צריכין אנו ליכנס בהפרצה דחוקה ולהתיר להם כדעת המקילין

    I believe that Rabbi Zilberstein is correct, that in this teshuva, although it deals with a different case, also makes reference to the fact that the grief caused by the divorce will increase sakkana and therefore there is a tzad to permit a moch despite the obligation for reproduction.

  4. nachum klafter said...

    I believe that Rabbi Zilberstein is correct, that in this teshuva, although it deals with a different case, also makes reference to the fact that the grief caused by the divorce will increase sakkana and therefore there is a tzad to permit a moch despite the obligation for reproduction.
    It is true that Rav Moshe considers psychological stress as a danger and so does Rav Zilberstein. However Rav Zilberstein represents Rav Moshe as using this as a global heter to remove all sorts of restrictions - just as he does and as he cites the Brisker Rav for doing.

    Rav Moshe in fact only allows leniencies for danger in a much more restrictive way.


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