The resident at rest?
Saving lives: the Sabbath as a normal workday.

MEDICINE MENSCH: Good Shabbos, I'm Off to Work
By Zackary Sholem Berger

People outside the medical field don't understand the process by which beginning doctors are trained. Were I to start this column right off and say, "I'm interviewing for residencies now" (which happens to be true), many reading this would scratch their heads, wondering when, if ever, I'll finally finish my schooling. Let me explain.

Medical school is only the first step. A medical school graduate (which I will be this May, God and registrar willing) will get an M.D., but at that point the degree is only good for hanging on a wall, getting a nonclinical job or applying for further training. Any physician who wants to practice with a state license needs to undergo such training — in other words, a residency.

Residents are apprentices in the guild system that medicine still preserves: uniforms, vocabulary and work hours all set the doctor apart. To what extent these vestiges can be shed, without disrupting the core of the physician's identity, is a discussion that has lasted the past few decades. Uniforms (the white coats) haven't been abandoned, and medicalese is a thriving dialect. But my work hours as a resident will not be the same as the chain-gang days of old, when young doctors would stagger to and from the hospital — uphill both ways — at either end of a 36-hour shift. New York's "405 regulations," passed in the 1980s, placed restrictions on residents' total work hours and required minimum rest periods. These guidelines have now been adopted nationally, so that hospitals must now keep closer tabs on how long their residents work.

Work hours of a different sort will play a role in my decision of where to spend residency. (I'm in the middle of applying to residency programs in the subspecialty known as primary care, but I haven't yet come close to deciding where I want to be. What follows are just general principles, not pros or cons of any specific program.) The issue is this: Should I work on the Sabbath?

Most people's first response is: "But I thought doctors could work on the Sabbath." Without getting pedantic about the halachic or exegetical details of the principle, it's true that "saving a life sets aside the Sabbath," as does (broadly speaking) the treatment of a dangerously ill patient. But does doctors' work always entail saving lives? And are there Jewish reasons outside of Jewish law that might make it preferable for Jewish doctors to work on the Sabbath?

A resident doctor working in the hospital on the Sabbath does not spend all 25 hours, from Friday night to Saturday night, nimbly plucking the gravely ill from the mouth of death. Some of the time is spent dealing with busywork ("Sign this!" "Send that!" "Answer that intrusive page!"), while much of the rest is spent talking to patients, other caregivers and family members about matters that, while necessary, do not mean the difference between life and death. Not everything that a doctor does during a shift is lifesaving. This is a message reinforced by the changing work hours of medicine: If doctoring is a job like any other — with shifts, overtime and holiday bonuses — why shouldn't doctors get a regular weekend, or at least one day out of seven predictably free? In other words, the Jewish legal realities of the practice of medicine (the Sabbath "work" of the doctor is more often than not something less than lifesaving), coupled with the economic and family desiderata of the young doctor (it's nice to have some regular time off), has encouraged the development of the Sabbath-observant residency program in which residents work the same number of hours as their peers, but switch off their Friday-Saturday calls to others.

This development might be taken as a sign of the salutary tolerance that American institutions demonstrate for traditional Jewish observance, something that wasn't true in our grandparents' or even our parents' generation. I don't exactly disagree with this assessment; I find these programs to be quite attractive, and I'm applying to several of them.

But there's a downside here: Gaining your soul — not having to work on the Sabbath — might mean losing the world. Part of being a doctor is the relative cushiness of the profession itself, with its good salary and societal esteem. But part of being a Jewish doctor is something different: striking a balance between God's law and human law; between death, which might strike at any time, and the call to a life of rest and contemplation, which must be obeyed one day in every seven, lest it be snowed under by the detritus of the everyday. It's like being a religious Jew: Part of keeping the commandments is knowing when not to keep them, seeing where the boundaries are and when they might (or must not) be overstepped. How can you know what it means not to eat nonkosher food if you've never seen it on a menu? Spiritual concentration requires the rigorous exercise of contact with the nonspiritual; isolation can encourage a religiosity that does not allow itself contact with the outside world.

In short, being a Sabbath-observant resident might be the best of both worlds. But I'm not sure if a Jew is supposed to allow himself that.

Chicken soup and gefilte fish, preferably in vacuum-packed containers suitable for opening in trayf, unsanitary call rooms, may be sent, general delivery, to doctor@forward.com.


  1. I loved reading your blog! But it looks like you haven't posted anything since January. Are you going to update anytime soon, or has residency eaten your life?

  2. Glad you like it!

    No, I'm posting these days. I don't start residency until July, at which point my life will be well and truly eaten.