Rav J.D. Bleich
Among contemporary decisors, the late Rabbi Moses Feinstein is the sole authority who permits violation of biblical prohibitions in the course of a return journey. (Rabbi Feinstein's views are recorded in contributions to Teḥumin, I (5740), reprinted in Iggerot Mosheh, Oraḥ Hayyim, IV, no. 80, and briefly noted in his contribution to Halakhah u-Refu'ah, III (5743)). Although he understands Tosafot and Rashba as sanctioning even the violation of biblical prohibitions on the basis of hittiru sofan mishum teḥillatan, Rabbi Feinstein recognizes that the Mishnah permits a midwife who has completed her ministrations to travel a distance of only 2,000 cubits even in order to return to her home. He proceeds to argue that such a limitation applies only to individuals who recognize that their life-saving mission, by virtue of its very nature, may be prolonged beyond the Sabbath. Such individuals, he argues, prior to setting out on their mission of rescue fully comprehend that they may not be able to return to their homes during the course of Shabbat. Since they have, in fact, embarked upon their mission, it is clear that such individuals are not deterred by the prospect of being discomfited by virtue of being away from their homes and families for the duration of the entire Sabbath. Nor, since they have correctly ignored considerations of personal comfort, is it to be presumed that such considerations will deter them in the future. Therefore, no special dispensation need be granted them in the event that they complete their tasks at an early hour. Others, such as a physician whose ministrations are usually not unduly prolonged, do not anticipate a delay which would prevent them from returning to the comfort of their homes for the balance of the Sabbath. Hence refusing to allow them to return to their homes because of Sabbath restrictions would have the effect of causing them to procrastinate or even categorically to refuse to undertake missions of mercy on the Sabbath. Individuals whose activities fall within this category, argues Iggerot Mosheh, may ignore Sabbath restrictions in order to return home on the basis of the principle hittiru sofan mishum teḥillatan.
Iggerot Mosheh similarly endeavors to show that R. Nachman bar Yitzchak's dictum permitting the carrying of weapons on the return journey when the enemy prevails, while forbidding such action when Jews prevail, is not predicated upon considerations of danger to the rescuers but upon the selfsame distinction with regard to application of the principle of hittiru sofan mishum teḥillatan. In direct contradiction to the understanding of all previous commentators, Iggerot Mosheh interprets R. Nachman bar Yitzchak's statement as permitting those rendering aid to return home only when "the hand of Israel is strong" but not when "the hand of gentiles is strong." This distinction, contends Rabbi Feinstein, is in conformity with his general thesis. He defines "the hand of Israel is strong" as meaning, not that the Jews are victorious, but as a description of a situation in which Jews are generally secure and protected by the government and hence the incident posing a threat to Jewish lives is an isolated occurrence and without governmental sanction. Under such circumstances, argues Iggerot Mosheh, those offering assistance to their beleaguered brethren have every reason to assume that the attackers will not dare to engage in a prolonged operation. Accordingly, those rendering assistance believe that the encounter will be brief in duration and that they will yet be able to return to their homes on the Sabbath. Rabbi Feinstein defines "the hand of gentiles is strong" as referring, not to a victory by the enemy, but to a situation in which Jews are generally insecure and cannot rely upon protection by the government. In such circumstances attackers have no fear of intervention by civil or military authorities and hence they perceive no need for haste in carrying out their act of aggression. Accordingly, since the rescuers have no reason to assume that the confrontation will be brief, they are not permitted to return to their homes even if the engagement is terminated quickly.
Quite apart from the absence of any clear talmudic evidence compelling the distinction drawn by Rabbi Feinstein, it is not at all obvious that the activities of those persons specifically restricted by the Mishnah to travel of no more than 2,000 cubits are of a nature requiring service over a prolonged period of time. The Mishnah enumerates "the midwife who comes to assist in birthing and one who comes to deliver from fire, from soldiers, from the river or from a ruin." Although a midwife is certainly aware of the fact that labor may be prolonged, in many cases labor is relatively swift. The midwife may well be willing to accept the possibility of not being able to return home on the Sabbath but not the certainty of not being able to do so. Moreover, it is only in unlikely situations that "rescue from fire" requires service over a prolonged period of time while rescue "from the river," i.e., from drowning, is virtually always swift.
R. Shlomoh Zalman Auerbach, Minḥat Shlomoh, no. 8, takes sharp issue with the position of Iggerot Mosheh and points out that even witnesses to the sighting of the new moon are forbidden to return to their homes if the return journey entails a trip of more than 2,000 cubits. There is no evidence, he argues, that people will be deterred from undertaking a mission of rescue because they are unwilling to accept the inconvenience of being away from home and separated from their families for the rest of Shabbat.
As noted earlier, R. Zevi Pesach Frank maintains that individuals engaged in life-saving activities, upon completion of their mission, are permitted to travel by foot within a radius of 2,000 cubits because such travel involves no abrogation of any rabbinic enactment. Rather, in ordaining a limit of 2,000 cubits the Sages provided that such individuals be deemed to have been domiciled from the commencement of the Sabbath in the locale in which they find themselves upon completion of their mission and are accorded the same travel privileges as inhabitants of that area. The concept of hittiru sofan mishum teḥillatan, as formulated by Tosafot and Rashba, is regarded by Rabbi Frank as limited to permitting such individuals to place themselves in a position of endangerment during the return journey with the result that violation of biblical prohibitions becomes necessary in order to avoid threats to their own lives. Thus, according to Rabbi Frank, there is no basis for permitting infraction of other rabbinic prohibitions on the basis of hittiru sofan mishum teḥillatan. Accordingly, Rabbi Frank rules that, while a physician may certainly walk a distance of 2,000 cubits beyond the inhabited area in which he finds himself, he may not direct or permit a non-Jew to drive him home in a motor vehicle. Most authorities, however, understand the principle of hittiru sofan mishum teḥillatan as rendering nugatory all rabbinic prohibitions under such circumstances, including the prohibition against directing a non-Jew to perform acts forbidden to a Jew