Snow way to think about Torah law

For a while there, the idea of snow seemed so remote this year that there would be no opportunity to discuss how snow is a great example of the Torah’s continuing relevance in modern times.

Too many people argue that the Torah was written in another time, for another place, and for the most part has ceased to be relevant in our lives.

They offer many examples, but a popular one comes from last week’s Torah reading. “When a man opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a she-donkey falls into it, the one responsible for the pit must make restitution….” (See Exodus 21:23.)

Several years ago, I quoted the reaction one person had to this law. “I’ve never seen an ox in my life, except in movies,” the person said. “Or a donkey, for that matter, he or she. Face it, rabbi. The Torah is full of such useless pronouncements.”

And that is where snow comes in. The “open pit” is all about snow. It and another law, regarding the parapet, say nearly all that needs to be said about the responsibilities we have to clear away the snow from walkways and sidewalks, and to thoroughly clean them off our cars before we head out.

As I have noted in the past, the “open pit” has less to do with whether an animal falls into an open hole, and more to do with whether we create an obstruction of some kind that creates a public hazard. Parking in a crosswalk is considered an “open pit,” for example.

To dig into this pit a bit more deeply, we turn to a discussion in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Bava Kama 52a:

According to the Mishnah, “If [the owner of a pit] covered it properly and an ox or a she-donkey [nevertheless] fell into it and was killed, he would be exempt” from penalty. The pit owner, after all, took all the necessary precautions.

To the rabbis of the Gemara, though, the Mishnah has a huge open pit of its own. “But if he ‘covered it properly,’ how did an animal fall [into the pit]?” the Gemara asks. “Said Rabbi Yitzchak bar Bar Chana: [The cover] rotted on its underside [and thus wasn’t visible to the owner].” In other words, since he took every precaution and could not see that anything was wrong, he is exempt.

Wood, however, rots. A reasonable person should inspect a cover made out of wood every now and then to be certain it still is in good condition. So the Gemara needs to find another reason for the apparent contradiction.

An anonymous someone therefore asks, “What if he had covered it in such a way that it was able to hold [the weight of] oxen, but not of camels, and camels came by first and weakened the cover, and oxen then came and fell into it [the pit], then what?”

Comes the answer: It all depends on whether camels are normally found in the area. If “camels used to pass from time to time, he was certainly careless….”

Obviously, then, if camels are rarely seen in the area, or are never seen there, he probably was not careless.

In other words, it is a matter of anticipation.

That brings us to Maimonides (the Rambam). In his Mishneh Torah, The Laws of the Murderer and the Saving of Lives 6:4 and 6, he puts it this way:

“There is a person who kills unintentionally, whose acts resemble those willfully perpetrated. Specifically, these acts involve negligence, or that care should have been taken [with regard to a certain factor] and it was not….” We will return to this in a moment.

The laws regarding the goring ox that immediately precede the open pit (Exodus 22:28-32) make clear the need to anticipate hazards. If a person knows his ox is prone to harming people or property, but does not take preventive measures, he is as responsible as the ox for any damage, and even must pay with his life if life was taken.

In other words, if you know a problem is likely to occur, you need to take precautions.

That brings us to the parapet, which is all about anticipating potential hazards. Torah law requires that when you build a house, you must build a parapet around the roof, “that you should not bring any blood upon your house, if any man falls from there.” (Deuteronomy 22:8)

The Sages of Blessed Memory gave this law the broadest interpretation possible. Thus, we are told in BT Bava Kama 15b that a person may not even keep a damaged ladder in his home because of it.

The commentator Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch went so far as to say that this Torah law even requires “local civil authorities to intervene to have anything at all which might be dangerous removed” from a person’s home.

Practically speaking, the Law of the Parapet means clearing the snow off from our vehicles before putting them on the road. Driving with snow on top of our cars is a violation of state law nowadays, although it was not always so, not here and not anywhere else. That changed following the death of a teenager named Jessica Smith in New Hampshire in January 1999. Ice and snow from one truck flew off and hit another, causing the driver to lose control, ramming into the car in which the teenager was traveling.

Another practical parapet derivative applies especially to snow birds. If a person decides to leave the snow zone and winter in Florida, he or she nevertheless must arrange for snow removal back home. Before the monster storm that fell earlier this month, a neighbor went on a family vacation. The family made sure to arrange for the snow to be removed, so that no one approaching the house would be in danger.

So, if you think the Torah’s laws are anachronistic, just think snow.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at