When I taught middle school, every year when my eighth graders reached this week’s Torah reading, KI TETZE, I had all the students pick a Mitzva to report on to the class. It seemed to make sense, because this week’s reading is essentially a long list of Mitzvot. The project was informative, but also fun. There was always a young man who would choose the laws of execution, and dutifully report on all the many historical means of capital punishment (Devarim 21:23); there was always a young woman who would choose to describe gender clothing through the ages (22:5). Perhaps, my favorite mitzva to assign was the law to build a railing (or rampart) around a flat rooftop, because that student would then contact the local city hall to get info about safety regulations in building codes. There was this really nice (and probably bored) bureaucrat who annually gushed about the city’s concern about public safety. Well, good for him, but the Torah got there first.
The pertinent verse goes like this: When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it (Devarim 22:8). We know from ancient remains that houses in ancient Israel had flat roofs where things were stored and work was done. So, it’s very reasonable for the Torah to make this demand. I think that it’s cool when archology helps us better understand Torah.
Maimonides famously extends this mitzva to include other hazards. He states: There is no difference between a roof or anything else that is dangerous and likely to cause death to a person who might stumble. If, for instance, one has a well or a pit in his courtyard he must build an enclosing ring ten handbreadths high, or put a cover over it, so that a person should not fall into it and die. So too, any obstruction that is a danger to life must be removed as a matter of positive duty and extremely necessary caution (Laws of Murderers 11:7).
So, the Rambam is basically putting this Mitzva in the same category as the famous verse, Be very careful about your lives (4:15). It is a more general command to be very careful about issues of health and danger. This fits in very well with the Talmudic dictum, ‘Danger is more severe than Torah prohibitions’ (Chulin 10a). There ae many authorities who prohibit having shaky ladders in one’s home, because of the famous story in Kiddushin about the lad who obeyed his father’s instruction to climb a tree and send a mother bird to get eggs. The young man fell to his death, and the Sages were initially shocked. How could he die while performing two Mitzvot which promise long life? Simple: the ladder was rotten.
Our Sages were clear that we’re responsible for the consequences of our behavior, regardless of good or holy intentions. We’re forbidden from relying on miracles (LO SOMCHIN A’NISSA, Pesachim 64b). An influential Member of Knesset pushed through permits for this year’s Lag B’Omer commemoration over safety concerns, because ‘the merit of Reb Shimon bar Yochai will protect us.’ That may sound ‘FRUHM’, but it’s clearly against Halacha.
Of course, these considerations extend to health matters. We must be ever vigilant about all medical issues. But how do we know what to do? It’s really very simple: Get the best medical advice available to you. Hint: It’s not the internet. I remember as a child we trusted our GP, Dr. Saperstein OB”M. Today should be the same. Everyone should have a medical person to whom they can go with their questions and issues. It’s worth the effort to find an appropriate Primary Care Doctor, not to follow slavishly, but for sage guidance. No one should go a day without health insurance; no one should go a day without the phone number of a trusted medical person.
It drives me crazy when I read that Covid-19 vaccinations can be correlated to how people voted. That’s utterly ridiculous. Politics, and religion, for that matter, should have nothing to do with it. Everyone should ask a trusted medical authority if this vaccine or any medical procedure is right for them. That should be it.
Rav Moshe Shternbach, in response to a famous Rosh Yeshiva who came out against MMR vaccinations, wrote, ‘It is the law of the Torah to follow the majority view of experts. Certainly here, where the view of the overwhelming majority of doctors and the boards of health that one should vaccinate, certainly then the administration of the schools may demand that those children that were not vaccinates not enter into the Talmud Torah.
Rav Shlomo Avner was asked, ‘But don’t we have freedom in modern countries to do as we please?’ The respected Rav responded, ‘Real freedom is to guard the Torah and mitzvot…You also endanger others that are close to you, and there is in this the DIN RODEF (a murderous pursuer).’
Small Pox and Polio wouldn’t have been eradicated in our present social climate. It’s critically important that everyone check with trusted medical authorities before all of us find ourselves falling off the metaphoric roof into the abyss. It’s common sense, and it’s the Halacha.