Giving a lesson recently on the laws of the Sabbath, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas and former Sephardi chief rabbi, ruled that the laws are different regarding Jews and gentiles in terms of violating the Sabbath to save a life.

Yosef, who is 91, said in the lesson, which was recorded by his adherents, that because the Torah teaches that its laws are for us to “live by them, not to die by them,” the saving of a life takes precedence over all of the laws in the Torah, but only when the life is that of a Jew. He said that the Torah does not permit the desecration of the Sabbath to save the life of a gentile.

Yosef has often sparked controversy in the past with rulings and comments on matters such as the Israeli legal system, Arabs, gentiles, and the Holocaust as divine retribution. Often, his adherents have subsequently explained that he was speaking in a theoretical sense or was misunderstood.

Yosef acknowledged in the recent lecture the untenable situation in which his ruling places religiously observant doctors, who have taken an oath to care for all who need, regardless of religion or race. Furthermore, doctors who refuse to provide patients with care risk punishment, including loss of their medical license.

To work around this dilemma, Yosef offered several possible solutions. He said that if the Sabbath violation is of a rabbinic nature (i.e., not directly from the Torah itself, but based upon rabbinic interpretation from the Talmud), then it is permissible to violate the Sabbath. If the violation is biblically rooted, for example, if the doctor must perform surgery to save the life of the gentile, a non-Jewish doctor or nurse can, together with the Jewish doctor, hold the scalpel with the Jewish doctor, thus enabling them to save the life.

Many Jewish legal scholars do not agree with Yosef’s ruling. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), one of the leading Orthodox scholars and Jewish legal adjudicators of the 20th century, ruled in his classic book of responsa “Igrot Moshe” (Writings of Moshe) that saving the lives of Jews and gentiles alike is equivalent in Jewish law. Rabbi Feinstein’s rulings are still widely accepted today.