Dangerous Occupation

Is it permissible to engage in work which carries occupational hazards and even danger to life, such as a firefighter, rescue worker, construction worker, and the like?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

In general we may not unduly risk our lives or our health. Of course, there are a great number of ordinary activities which carry a small degree of risk, such as driving, swimming or crossing the street. The Talmud (Yevamot 12b) states that any activity which carries a slight risk, acceptable by the standards of society, is permissible. It bases this upon the verse in Psalms (116:6) “God protects the simple.” So long as a person is acting responsibly and going about life normally, he can trust that God will protect him from remote dangers (unless of course, God determines that his time has come).

When it comes to working, there is an additional leniency. It is understood that earning one’s livelihood carries its own dangers – which are justified due to man’s need to make a living. When the Torah obligates a hirer to pay his poor laborer on time, it justifies this by saying “because for it [his wages] he risks his life” (Deuteronomy 24:15). The Talmud (Baba Metziah 112a) comments on this: “Why does he climb up a ramp, hang from a tree, and risk his life? Isn’t it for his wages?” It is thus clear that work carries occupational hazards – which a worker is permitted to expose himself to.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, considered the greatest rabbi in America in the decades after the War until his passing in 1986, was once asked if a person could play professional ball in spite of the slight risks of injury or death – to himself or the other players. (He appears to be discussing basketball, what he calls “the throwing of balls.”) He permitted it based on the above (Igrot Moshe Choshen Mishpat I:104). He does base his leniency in part because injuries in such sports are relatively rare. It’s less likely he would permit a career in higher contact sports such as boxing or football. (In fact elsewhere R. Feinstein states that you may not injure another person even if he gives you permission (e.g. in a boxing match; Igrot Moshe O.C. III:78).)

Note that a firefighter and the like may only work on Shabbat in cases of danger to life. (He would not be permitted to operate a firetruck on Shabbat to save a cat from a tree.)

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