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When an end-of-life patient is hospitalized, may family members answer a phone call from the hospital on Shabbat?

That is a good question! As with many other similar questions, the answer is that every situation may be different, and therefore one must consult an expert Rabbi (before Shabbat, in order to be prepared should the phone call arrive!) about their own particular circumstances. Here are some points of Jewish law that form part of the background for the Rabbi's analysis of a question such as this:
  • Shabbat is a day of rest from "work", when Jews are commanded to observe a great number of laws (some that are Biblically derived, and others that are mandated by the Rabbis) prohibiting actions that belong to various categories of creative activity. Telephone use is one such activity that is forbidden on Shabbat.
  • However, when a person's life is in danger*, Shabbat laws unequivocally affirm that all Shabbat prohibitions must be overridden, and all "work" activities are permitted in order to save the person's life.
  • To clarify, "saving the person's life" does not imply restoration to full health. Rather, an action may meet the "life-saving" standard as long as its purpose is to stave off [the threat of] death even temporarily, and even for a short time.
Based on these laws, the answer to the question posed above (in some cases) may hinge upon the Rabbi's careful analysis of one issue: Is there a reasonable possibility that answering a phone call from the hospital on Shabbat may serve a life-saving purpose on behalf of the patient? Of course, the outcome of this analysis may vary greatly, depending on the individual circumstances of the patient, the hospital, and the family. For example, the likelihood of the following possibilities may be taken into account:
  • The hospital may be calling because the end-of-life patient expressed an urgent desire to speak to a family member. Additional frustration and/or anxiety may potentially hasten the patient's demise. Therefore, depending on the patient's condition, answering the phone may be considered a potentially life-saving action.
  • On the other hand, the patient's condition may be such that the only reasonable explanation for a phone call from the hospital would be to notify the family of the patient's passing. Therefore, answering the phone would not be considered a potentially life-saving action.
  • Unusual circumstances may certainly impact the analysis. For example, during recent months when New York hospitals were being overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients, Rabbis were advising families to always answer phone calls from hospitals on Shabbat. This guidance was a consequence of the unusual conditions, in which it was considered a reasonably likely possibility that Covid-19 patients would receive significantly better - and potentially life-saving - care from the hospital's overwhelmed medical staff simply as a result of any communication between the family and the hospital (and/or the patient).

* The above discussion applies to overriding Shabbat prohibition for the purpose of saving someone's life. It should be noted that when it comes to situations of illness that are not life-threatening, only certain categories of Shabbat prohibitions - depending on the type and severity of illness - may be overridden. The complex details of this subject are beyond the scope of this brief article.
For over two decades, CMC has been counseling patients and family members throughout the Chicago area concerning end-of-life issues such as those mentioned above. CMC connects patients and families with local Rabbonim who are expert in the end-of-life field, so that they may be reassured of having authoritative halachic answers that are tailored to their specific individual circumstances.

To request CMC guidance and/or support regarding an end-of-life issue or for any patient and/or family member struggling with illness, please call CMC or click this link to visit CMC's website.
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Rabbi Aron Wolf
Chicago Mitzvah Campaign
2939 W Touhy Ave
Chicago, IL 60645
1-866-MY RABBI (1-866-697-2224)