Have you ever seen someone painting a tall bridge, walking a tightrope high above a crowd, or engaging in any other dangerous pursuit and wondered: Are they crazy?

Jews ask a second, but no less important question: Does the Torah have anything to say about this? As usual, the answer is “yes” (at least to the second question). Risk is everywhere -- an unavoidable part of daily life. What are the parameters of our obligation to protect ourselves from everyday dangers?

How do you balance the need to use the building with the need to protect it?

 

White marble campanile in Pisa, Italy, famous for the uneven settling of its foundation, which causes it to lean 17 ft (5.2 m) from the perpendicular. Begun in 1174 as the third and final structure of the city's cathedral complex, it was designed to stand 185 ft (56 m) high. Work was suspended several times as engineers sought solutions; the tower, still leaning, was completed in the 14th century. At present it is in danger of collapse despite efforts to strengthen it. (Britannica Concise Encyclopedia)

 

Imagine that you were the custodian of a delicate building, such as the recently re-opened leaning Tower of Pisa. You are asked to guard it from decay, destruction, and all other imminent threats to its future. Yet you know that the building will not last much longer without constant monitoring and upkeep. You could surround it with concrete barriers and steel girders, but that would hide the beauty of the building, making it virtually unusable. And even this could not prevent the eventual loss of the building. How do you balance the need to use the building with the need to protect it?

This presents an interesting metaphor. Judaism teaches God gave each person a body to use, but we are required to protect it. This is a difficult balancing act. If we are overly cautious, we miss out on much in life. Yet if we are reckless, we risk destroying the very body we were given to protect. What is the prudent course and what are the limitations?

FALLING IN THE BATHTUB

The Torah has several mitzvot regarding personal safety. For instance, we are instructed to build a parapet/fence around any flat roof, to prevent anyone from falling. Maimonides explains this to include any dangerous situation, such as an unguarded swimming pool. We must be proactive in eliminating all preventable risks.

In addition to removing hazards, the Torah twice commands us to protect our health, safety and well being. For example, the Talmud forbids walking near a shaky wall, lest it fall and injure the passerby. Similarly, all dangerous pursuits (bungy-jumping is an example) are proscribed.

But are we commanded to be agoraphobic, never leaving the safety of our homes? Even if we did stay home, we could fall in the bathtub! Maybe showers should also be forbidden. Obviously, there is latitude in evaluating how much risk is acceptable. The Talmud asks in several places why certain potentially dangerous actions are permitted. It answers that a person need not avoid small risks that are accepted by the rest of normal society without undue concern.

A person need not avoid small risks that are accepted by the rest of society without undue concern.

For instance, since automobile travel presents an element of danger, we might think that it should be forbidden. Nevertheless, it is a risk accepted by society and most people do not give much thought to the danger. Therefore, driving with normal caution (such as wearing a seatbelt and using the turn signal) is permitted by Jewish law, despite the inherent small risk.

The rationale for this ruling is that while we may not take indiscriminate risks, we may go about normal activities of daily living with the guarantee of heavenly protection. This is derived from the book of Psalms that states: "God watches over the simple." That is, I do not have to worry when I go outside that I may be the one in a million to be struck by lightning. Because I can rely on the promise that God watches over me -- as I do the simple activities of daily living.

CHAIN-SMOKING

With respect to risk, factual information is required to make halachic decisions. Several hundred years ago, smoking was permitted in Jewish law, because it was considered an aid to digestion and therefore healthful. Today, smoking is considered the leading preventable cause of death in the West. As a result of our clear knowledge of the dangers of smoking, most contemporary rabbis now forbid cigarette smoking.

Only with the advent of prepackaged cigarettes did the incidence of lung cancer and other smoking-related diseases skyrocket.

Interestingly, it is likely that the severe health risks were not present to the same degree several hundred years ago. Only in the 20th century did chain-smoking become possible with the advent of prepackaged cigarettes, and with it the skyrocketing incidence of lung cancer and other smoking-related diseases.

But if millions of people still smoke, why can’t we apply the concept of "God watches over the simple"? To apply this concept, the risk must be very small and it must be accepted by society. Scientific data suggests that smoking poses a significant health risk. Additionally, the number of smokers has declined as they appreciate the true risks involved, suggesting that society does not accept the risks. Even many smokers would like to quit, but it difficult due to the addictive nature of nicotine.

PAINTING THE BRIDGE

But what of our original reaction to the bridge painter and tightrope walker? Surely most people would not accept such risks. However, Judaism recognizes the need to earn a livelihood as a second mitigating factor in allowing risky behavior. The Talmud asks: "Why does the worker climb the tree and risk his life? Is it not to earn his wages?" Therefore, the least we can do is pay him on time!

Intrinsic in the Talmud's argument is the assumption that one may take risks to earn a living that would not otherwise be permitted. Someone has to paint the bridge, build the skyscraper, and dive for pearls. So long as the risk stays within "reasonable" parameters, such activities are permitted as professions.

The exact degree of risk in any endeavor always remains hazy. And the overarching rule is the obligation to protect one's health. Judaism considers these and other factors, employing a systematic approach to assessing danger and the circumstances of the individual who wishes to take the risk.