Wearing Hatzalah Walkie Talkies on Shabbat

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

2nd Day RH Adar: R. Moshe Feinstein on Wearing Hatzalah Walkie Talkies on Shabbat

[Click for the audio version]

Hatzalah is a deservedly well-known organization, with volunteers available day or night for medical emergencies. A central dispatcher fields distress calls and alerts volunteers in the area through a walkie-talkie system. Shu”t Iggerot Moshe Orach Chayyim 4;81, dated second day Rosh Chodesh Adar 5739 (1979) discusses wearing the walkie-talkies on Shabbat.

Unless the answer is yes, those on call on Shabbat would have to stay home, near the walkie talkie, so they could hear the messages from dispatch. Few people would take on that task.

Swords as Clothing

Shabbat 63 records a debate as to whether a man may wear a sword on Shabbat (where there’s no eruv); R. Eliezer held that a sword was a tachshit, a decoration, for a man (it shows his ability to defend himself, which he sourced to Tehillim 45;4, chagor al yarech charbecha, gibor, fasten your sword to your thigh, hero). The majority disagree because when Yeshayahu predicts the Messianic future, he speaks of a time when people will no longer bear swords. If so, weapons are a genai, a sign of an unredeemed world.

R. Feinstein fastens on the fact that they don’t reject the concept of a decoration counting as a piece of clothing, only whether swords qualify. They seem to agree that that which shows the importance of the wearer could count as clothing. A sword would have been one such, since it showed the man to be someone we turn to for defense.

The Role of Swords in the Times of Mashiach

The Gemara has two versions of how R. Eliezer would explain why swords will no longer be worn in the Messianic future. One option is that since they won’t be needed anywhere in the world, they’re also not a decoration. As Abbaye puts it, a candle is useless in bright sunshine.

Or, R. Eliezer adopted the view of Shmuel, that nature won’t change fundamentally in the times of Mashiach. R. Feinstein points out that that can’t mean there will still be war for Jews, because Shmuel also held that the marker of the Messianic era is shi’abud malchuyot, that Israel will rule over other nations. The extent of that rule is not clear, but R. Feinstein assumes it must mean Israel will no longer be attacked.

He recognizes that one could argue that it means the Jews will be attacked but will always win, except that Eruvin 43b says that once Mashiach comes, all other nations will be avadim (a word that can mean full-on slaves, but can mean less as well) because of their great fear of Mashiach.

In addition, Tanach has examples of war without swords, such as David defeating Golyat, so it would seem that Mashiach, too, would not need weapons. True, Rambam writes that Mashiach will fight the wars of Hashem, but R. Feinstein assumes that’s the wars of Gog and Magog that kick off the Messianic era. Yechezkel’s description of even those wars focuses on Hashem’s beating Gog and Magog with fire and stones from the sky, and R. Feinstein thinks the Jews will destroy the weapons they capture from the defeated army.

Several commentators, such as Radvaz and Maharsha, suggested that Yeshayahu 2;4 (“nation shall not bear sword against nation,”) referred only to the Jews in Israel. Other nations would still have wars until the advent of Olam HaBa, the World to Come, a time beyond the Messianic era.

Unneeded Decorations

That could mean that R. Eliezer held that wearing an item unneeded in your society could still be decorative, as long as it’s needed in other societies, and a mark of distinction in those societies. That Mashiach will wear a sword is a good example, in that it will signify his skills even though those skills are in fact not needed in his society [dress uniforms today still often include a sword, despite its irrelevance to modern warfare].

The standard could then be that as long as there’s nothing negative about an item, we may wear markers of social status. Hatzalah walkie-talkies are then inherently permitted, whether or not the person will use his on that Shabbat, because it shows the wearer’s skills and public-spiritedness, that he volunteers to save others’ lives.

That’s true even though these, like swords, seem slated for irrelevance, since in Messianic times people will be so healthy they will no longer need medical care [that’s R. Feinstein’s assumption about the Messianic era]. Right now, when people still do need such care, the walkie-talkies are decorative according to all opinions.

He seems to mean volunteers can wear these walkie-talkies on Shabbat whether or not they are on call, since it still signifies this person’s important work. That’s pretty far-reaching, and would suggest that doctors could wear beepers—or today, perhaps, phones, if that’s how they get emergency calls– even when they’re not on call, since it’s a sign of the fact that they are so involved in saving lives that people want to get in touch with them urgently. But he does not say that explicitly, so maybe I’m extrapolating too much.

Making It Doable For Jews

Hanging over this entire responsum was the other option, to prohibit it. R. Feinstein agrees that asking people to stay home is too much, in principle and in practice, since it will lead to fewer people agreeing to join Hatzalah.  He also rejects the option (at least outside of Israel) of relying on non-Jews for medical care on Shabbat.

Yoma 84b says we cannot trust the alacrity with which non-Jews will work to save lives [R. Feinstein thinks this includes where we pay those non-Jews; money cannot stimulate the urgency of life-saving halachah teaches Jews to bring to the act of saving a life.]

So they can wear the walkie-talkies.

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