Question: If one desecrates Shabbat on behalf of an ill person and it turns out that the action one performed that desecrated the Shabbat was actually unnecessary, does one require atonement for this transgression?
Answer: If one desecrated Shabbat for no good reason, such as driving on Shabbat under non-life-threatening circumstances, certainly when one repents for one’s sin, one will need to go through a repentance process for one’s terrible acts of desecrating the holy Shabbat. When Hashem sees one’s great suffering and remorse, He will in turn accept one’s repentance and forgive him.
However, if one desecrates Shabbat in order to help save a Jewish person whose life is in danger, one has performed a great Mitzvah, as we have discussed in previous Halachot, and this is actually required by the Torah. Indeed, our Sages tell us in Masechet Yoma that in such cases, Shabbat should be desecrated for the ill person by the generation’s greatest Torah scholars and there is no reason to try and facilitate the desecration of Shabbat by simple Jews; it is indeed forbidden to do so, for people might come to believe that there is something wrong with Shabbat desecration on behalf on an individual who is ill.
Some women had the custom that after they would desecrate the Shabbat on behalf of a woman who has gone into labor or any other sick individual, they would fast afterwards in order to atone for the Shabbat desecration that they performed. Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l writes that this is a foolish and pointless thing to do, for the Torah commands that Shabbat be desecrated for the Mitzvah of Berit Milah (ritual circumcision) and we see many Mohalim (ritual circumcisers) who freely desecrate Shabbat in order to perform the Milah. Does it make any sense that a Mohel, who is commanded by the Torah to perform a Milah on Shabbat, would need to fast afterwards to atone for his sin?! The same applies here where one desecrates Shabbat in order to save the life of someone in a life-threatening situation, one has certainly performed a great Mitzvah and no form of atonement or repentance is required at all.
Even if it turns out later that it was not necessary to desecrate Shabbat for this ill individual, for instance, when a woman feels that she is going into labor on Shabbat and her husband rushes her to the hospital by car but she only ends up giving birth a few days later, the husband need not feel any remorse for what he has done, for he has acted in accordance with Torah law which dictates that Shabbat must be desecrated even when there is a doubt regarding a life-threatening circumstance.
This is indeed illustrated by Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch who writes that if an ill person needs to eat one fig (in order to restore his health) and ten people go and each one plucked a fig off the tree on his behalf, none of them are liable for Shabbat desecration, as all of them acted according to Torah law and “all of them will receive great reward from Hashem.”
In the Responsa Benei Tzion, the author was asked by a certain Torah scholar who was instructed by doctors to eat on Yom Kippur and after doing so and recovering, he began to regret what he did and he started doubting whether the doctors’ instruction were really accurate as he did not feel so weak to begin with and maybe he really did not need to eat on this holiest of days. The author responded that the Poskim write clearly that even if the ill individual states unequivocally that he does not need to eat but the doctors say that he does, he is entirely obligated to heed the doctors’ instructions. He continues, “And I am certain that he requires no atonement, as our Sages say that a sick person does not recover until all of his sins are atoned for in Heaven.” Thus, this question does not begin and the patient does not need to repent at all.
Summary: In a situation where there is a doubt regarding whether or not one is suffering from a life-threatening illness (or situation), Shabbat must be desecrated on his behalf. Even if later on, it turns out that there was no need for the Shabbat desecration, still, this does not constitute any prohibition, as this action was performed in accordance with Torah law which dictates that one must desecrate Shabbat even in instances of doubtful life-threatening situations.