Daylight savings for life — it can save lives, too
JERUSALEM — Yet again, here in Israel we are embroiled in our annual struggle over daylight savings. Since 2005, Israel has ended daylight savings immediately after the first Shabbat following Rosh Hashana (Shabbat Shuva) in order, say the proponents of the timing, to ease the Yom Kippur fast for those who are fasting.
This year, that means daylight savings concluded on Sept. 12, almost two months ahead of the United States and Europe.
As usual, there is substantial opposition to this current Israeli “compromise” arrangement. More than 100,000 people have signed an online petition against moving the clocks back so early. It is likely that, were the matter put to a public referendum, those in favor of a longer daylight savings period would represent the majority.
For years, the argument has been couched as a sociological and economic one: those who want to make fasting easier versus those who want to enjoy more sunlight for longer, and reap the economic benefits of extended daylight savings.
Seemingly ignored in the whole discussion is a critical halachic issue, which, from a Jewish perspective, ought to be far more determinative than sociological or economic considerations: pikuakh nefesh — the saving of life.
Pikuakh nefesh is a halachic principle of such great importance that the priority to save life has the power to override almost every single law of the Torah (except three: the prohibitions on murder, idolatry and sexual transgression).
And daylight savings saves lives.
Despite erroneous claims from some leading Orthodox politicians that “nothing has been researched” in this regard, an impressive series of international studies shows that the extension of daylight savings saves lives by reducing traffic accidents. A painstaking 1995 American investigation concluded that “the results of this study provide strong support for the proposition that daylight saving time saves lives; extending it farther into the winter months could save additional lives. This conclusion is consistent with previous research conducted in the United States and Britain.”
This conclusion is also consistent with the research done since 1995. It is true that recent studies have shown an increase in traffic deaths immediately following the change back to standard time, when it becomes darker earlier. This has led some to propose the obvious: that the most life-saving policy would be year-round daylight savings. But, even acknowledging the brief increase in deaths after the clocks turn back, the net positive impact of daylight savings on the roads is not in doubt. In 2007, a U.S. researcher put it this way: “Benjamin Franklin conceived of daylight-saving time as a way of saving candles. Today we know it saves lives.”
There is not the slightest reason to believe that Israel constitutes some exception to this rule. While it is impossible to calculate the numbers with precision, this much seems sure: unnecessary deaths and injuries do occur on Israeli roads during every year that we farewell daylight savings earlier than is absolutely necessary.
A responsible halachic approach cannot be cavalier about this. Saving life – even if it is just one life — is so paramount in our tradition that even if many people need to violate Shabbat or kashrut observance to save one person, the tradition mandates that the one life be saved. How much the more is this true if the only competing factor with saving life is “making the fast easier,” a concept which has no halachic standing whatsoever. From a halachic perspective, even if every Jew in Israel wanted to end daylight savings earlier so as to “make the fast easier,” their desire should be countermanded if extending daylight saves lives.
There will be those who will claim that pikuakh nefesh only applies if there is an identified individual whose life can be saved “in front of us,” but not for the abstract purpose of “saving lives.” However, the majority of rabbis do not see this as a requirement elsewhere, such as for organ donation. In organ donation, if there exists a great likelihood that “somebody’s” life will be saved, it is sufficient to override potential halachic objections to organ removal. Here too, a responsible reading of the halacha would conclude that —since there is a great likelihood that more than a few lives will be saved every year by extending daylight savings — lengthening is the appropriate halachic path.
It is reasonable to assume that those politicians who are currently arguing to end daylight savings after Shabbat Shuva must be aware of the importance of pikuakh nefesh in the halacha. Therefore, one of two things must be true: either they refuse to accept the unambiguous conclusions of the research, or they have chosen to interpret the halacha in such a way that it cares less about death and injury than it does about an hour of hunger pangs. Either conclusion is not encouraging. The halacha deserves better.
Worthy halachic reasoning requires incorporating the best knowledge available to us, and interpreting it in the most life-affirming way possible, while remaining true to the tradition. Were they truly concerned with providing Jews with an elevated response based on traditional halachic categories, those worrying about fasting times would fight instead to “choose life” by extending daylight savings. The fact that the halachic conversation has been reduced to worrying about when a 25-hour fast should come to a close is a myopic diminution of our heritage.
(Rabbi Danny Schiff, the former community scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning and spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Israel in White Oak, lives in Jerusalem)