1) THE OATH OF REBBI YOCHANAN
QUESTION: The Gemara relates that Rebbi Yochanan suffered from a certain tooth disease, for which he visited to a certain Nochri matron who treated him on Thursday and Friday. After his second treatment on Friday, he asked her to divulge to him her cure, since he would not be able to come to her on Shabbos. She told him that he would not need a third treatment, but he insisted that he might need it. She agreed to tell him the secret ingredients of her remedy only on condition that he swear that he would not tell anyone. He swore, "To the G-d of Israel, I will not reveal it," and she revealed the secret to him. The next day, he publicized the secret during his lecture to the masses. The Gemara asks how could he do such a thing if he swore that he would not reveal the secret. The Gemara answers that he swore only that he would not reveal it "to the G-d of Israel," but he did not swear that he would not reveal it to the people.
On what grounds was Rebbi Yochanan permitted to utilize such trickery to persuade the matron to reveal her secret to him? Clearly, the matron understood his words to mean that he would not tell anyone.
ANSWER: The REMA (YD 232:14) writes that if someone says that he was forced to make a certain oath, or that he made the oath only on a certain condition, he is believed to render his oath invalid provided that he reveals this information before he transgresses the oath. After he transgresses the oath, he may not render the oath invalid retroactively.
Does this mean that one may swear that he will do something for his friend, and then back out of it by saying that he swore under duress? The SHACH writes that the Rema's ruling applies only to the punishment one would receive for transgressing an oath which he accepted upon himself and which did not affect anyone else. The Rema's ruling does not apply to an oath that involves another person; one may not assert that it was done under duress or only under certain conditions. What, then, was Rebbi Yochanan's basis to ignore his oath to the matron?
The CHAVOS YA'IR (#69) explains that Rebbi Yochanan maintained that for the sake of a public need ("Tzorech Rabim") one may render his oath invalid, even when it involves another person, when there is a public need (Tzorech Rabim). His illness apparently was common and the cure was not known, and thus Rebbi Yochanan ruled that he was permitted to mislead the matron for the sake of the public welfare. (Y. MONTROSE)
2) HALACHAH: DESECRATING SHABBOS IN ORDER TO SAVE A LIMB
OPINIONS: The Gemara relates the tragic story of Shmuel's maidservant, who had an eye which "rebelled" on Shabbos. People assumed that her condition was not serious enough to warrant immediate medical attention on Shabbos, and her eye fell out of her head. According to another version, she actually died (see AVODAH BERURAH). The next day, Shmuel declared that for a "rebelling eye" one is allowed to desecrate Shabbos. The Gemara explains that this is because "the light of the eye depends on the diaphragm of the heart" (see TOSFOS DH Shuryani).
The Gemara implies that the eye is in some way connected in a vital way to one's life source. The Gemara's question and answer also imply that the risk of the loss of an eye poses a greater Halachic danger to life than the loss of any other limb. May one desecrate Shabbos to prevent the loss of any other limb?
(a) The ROSH (#10) writes that although we are Mechalel Shabbos for the potential loss of an eye and perform even Melachos d'Oraisa, we may transgress only d'Rabanan prohibitions for the loss of any other limb. The Rosh apparently understands that as long as there is no apparent threat to life, the risk of the loss of a limb does not warrant transgressing a Torah prohibition. This is also the opinion of the RITVA.
(b) The ME'IRI argues that the threat of losing the function of any limb warrants transgressing even a Torah prohibition on Shabbos. Why, then, does the Gemara say specifically that the eye and the heart are linked? The Me'iri explains that this is the Gemara's way of explaining that the person's vision can be lost very easily, even though the eye seems to be in no physical danger. The Gemara's statement is intended only to teach that there is more to seeing than meets the eye.
HALACHAH: The SHULCHAN ARUCH (OC 328:17) rules like the Rosh, that the risk of losing the function of any limb other than the eye does not permit one to transgress a Torah prohibition on Shabbos, although it does permit one to transgress a d'Rabanan prohibition without a Shinuy. (See there at length for the various opinions of when one is permitted to transgress a d'Rabanan prohibition.) This is the view of most Poskim (see MISHNAH BERURAH ibid. #57).
However, the NISHMAS AVRAHAM (OC 328, note 45) quotes RAV SHLOMO ZALMAN AUERBACH zt'l who rules that one is allowed to transgress a Torah prohibition when there is a danger of losing the function of a limb, as long as it is done with a Shinuy. Similarly, he rules that one may perform a Melachah she'Einah Tzerichah l'Gufah in such a case. One of the reasons for this leniency, he explains, is the opinion of the Me'iri and others who maintain that one is permitted to transgress even a Torah prohibition without a Shinuy in such a case. In a case of a Melachah she'Einah Tzerichah l'Gufah, which is primarily an Isur d'Rabanan, the fact that it is d'Rabanan combines with the opinion of the Me'iri and others to permit doing it with a Shinuy when there is danger of losing a limb. (Y. MONTROSE)