It was a strange time for the phone to be ringing. About 20 minutes before Shabbos, after all the children had already checked in, the house was quiet in anticipation. My mental checklist had been reviewed: food in the oven, Crockpot set to low, table set, hot water ready. My husband was in the shower and I took a few minutes to catch up on my Tehillim before candle lighting.
I did not recognize the caller ID name when the phone rang. I answered and the man at the other end identified himself as Shmuel. He asked with great urgency to speak to my husband. I said he was getting ready for Shabbos. He then reminded me that he used to work with my husband many years ago, and that this was a matter of pikuach nefesh. He agreed to tell me his story in total confidence.
For the next few minutes he shared with me details of his four-month-old cancer diagnosis, how he had beaten it, and its return in another spot. Because of its proximity to the lungs, surgery could not be performed; doctors would attempt to shrink the tumor with medication.
As I murmured words that I hoped were full of empathy, I still had no idea why he was calling my husband. Finally he explained that although Medicare covered his medication, some of his costs were not covered by insurance, and he was in desperate need of cash. I had no idea if we were talking tens, hundreds or even thousands of dollars, so I said I may not have a lot of cash on hand, but could he take a check? He said a check made out to the pharmacy would be fine. And how much were we talking about? Roughly $50. I told him this would be no problem, but he should know that we had moved in the years since we had been in contact. I then gave him directions to our new place. He thanked me profusely and said he would be right over.
By this time, my husband was out of the shower and I hurriedly explained the nature of the call. The clock was ticking down toward Shabbos, and I did not know what to do. Our apartment complex is quite large, and in order to get into the building, one needs to ring a buzzer that is answered through the phone system in the apartment. Obviously, if I lit candles I could not answer the buzzer. And for his part, my husband is an aveil and can’t be late for shul. As we watched the clock tick down, we both wondered who would determine that pikuach nefesh docheh l’Shabbos.
It is my family’s minhag, for many generations, to light the candles 30 minutes before shekiah, as opposed to the commonly held custom of 20 minutes. So I told my husband that those 10 extra minutes should not be an issue. And isn’t it also true, I wondered aloud, that I really had until shekiah before being considered to have been mechalel Shabbos?
Meanwhile, I wrote the check and paced back and forth saying Tehillim with great fervor for this troubled man. Time seemed to be rushing toward the latest permissible candle lighting time, while at the same time it seemed to be moving slowly, as I waited for the bell to ring while watching the minutes go by. At the moment he could wait no longer to leave for shul and still be on time for davening, my husband opened the door and heading down the hall was Shmuel. Someone else had apparently let him into the building.