Does Jewish Law Allow a Nurse to Treat an Ebola Patient?

Am I permitted to put my life in danger to save another?

By Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin


I'm writing on behalf of my mother. She is a nurse and has been a nurse for 15 years. Her hospital is ready to accept Ebola patients from within a 100-mile radius. The problem is this: By caring for Ebola patients, she’ll actually be putting herself at pretty high risk. But if she refuses to care for them, she will obviously lose her license.

What should she do if/when the situation occurs?


Ebola is a serious matter, and your mother is right to have her concerns. Before addressing your mother’s situation, I need to preface with some general thoughts on this very important subject.

I cannot overstate the primacy the Torah places on saving a life. We are commanded not to stand idly by as the blood of our fellow is being spilled.1Indeed, our sages tell us that “he who saves even one life, it is as if he saved the entire world!”

Yet, there are limitations as to when one is obligated to save someone else’s life, especially when doing so entails danger.

Puting your own life at risk to save others

The Jerusalem Talmud relates that Rabbi Imi was captured and taken to a dangerous area. Upon hearing of this, Rabbi Yonatan stated, “Wrap the dead in his shrouds” (i.e., “He is as good as dead because we can’t save him”). RabbiShimon ben Lakish responded, “I will either kill or be killed; I will go with might and save him.” In the end, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish was indeed successful in rescuing Rabbi Imi.

Based on this precedent, some commentaries conclude that we are obligated to save a life even if in doing so we are possibly putting ourselves at risk.

However, the Babylonian Talmud offers another view. Based on the verse “You shall observe My statutes and My ordinances, which a man shall do and live by them. I am the L‑rd,” the Babylonian Talmud explains that the commandments are meant to be kept when there is a certainty of life, but not when doing so will subject us to the possibility of death.

As with other cases where the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds have differences of opinion, the law follows the Babylonian Talmud. In fact, according to some authorities, in many instances we may even be forbidden to endanger ourselves to save others.

Accordingly, the Code of Jewish Law rules that if a plague breaks out in a city, all citizens should try and evacuate the city before it spreads.

Healthcare professionals

However, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg writes that this injunction does not apply to healthcare professionals, who are permitted—and it is a great mitzvah—to care for those who are infected, even if it means putting themselves in harm’s way.12At the same time, the healthcare professionals need to do all they can to minimize the risk of infection. 

Other authorities take it a step further. Since the healthcare professionals entered their profession out of their own free will, knowing full well that there were some risks involved, they are not only permitted but obligated to try and save the patient, even if they are putting themselves at low risk. Additionally, as long as the hospital is adequately equipped to guard the staff from infection (as much as possible), healthcare professionals may not abandon their patients.

Since your mother is a trained healthcare provider, and she is able to protect herself from infection following the accepted guidelines, then even if there is some risk involved, it is a great mitzvah—and perhaps even obligatory—for her to stay on the job. If, however, there is a high probability of her contracting the lethal disease, she need not put herself in danger.

At the same time, when weighing the risk factors, our rabbis warn that one should not be overzealous in guarding one’s own life by ignoring the plight of those whose lives are in danger—for if one saves a Jewish life, it is as if he saved the entire world.