Rabbi Nechemya Taylor
Torani Advisor to Torah Mitzion
It is a clear, uncontested and cardinal principle of Judaism that people have an obligation to take care of their health and well-being, and to avoid placing themselves in dangerous situations. This principle makes it necessary for everybody to weigh their actions carefully – is this specific action dangerous or not, will this particular food contribute to my health or harm it, etc. These considerations are relevant to smoking, driving dangerously, driving under the influence of alcohol, unsafe hiking, and the like. In upcoming articles, God willing, we will explore the halakhic sources relevant to this principle. What is the nature of the principle, what are its parameters, and how far does it extend?
The Rambam writes (Hilkhot Rotze’ach UShemirat Hanefesh 11:4):
It is a positive commandment to remove, guard against, and warn against any life-threatening obstacle, as it says: “Take utmost care and guard yourself scrupulously” (Deuteronomy 4:9). If he did not remove the item but rather left dangerous obstacles in place, he has violated a positive commandment and transgressed a negative commandment, “Do not bring blood-guilt on your house” (Deuteronomy 22:8).
According to the Rambam, there is a positive comandment which obligates the removal of any potentially dangerous obstacle from the home. Therefore he calls this set of laws “Hilkhot Rotze’ach – Laws Relating to Murder” on the one hand, and “ShemiratHanefesh – Taking Care of Your Health” on the other.
The KessefMishneh suggests that the Rambam’s source is the Gemara in BavaKama 15b:
It was taught: R. Nathan says: How do we know that nobody should breed a bad dog in his house, or keep a broken ladder in his house? We learn it from “Do not bring blood-guilt on your house” (Deuteronomy 22:8).
The MinchatChinukh (547:11) challenges the KesefMishneh. While this Gemara does prove that one who does not remove an obstacle transgresses a negative commandment, it does not seem to support the Rambam’s assertion that he also violates a positive commandment. In response to his own question, the Minchat Chinukh writes, “He must have had a source for this which we are unable to locate.”
The Shulchan Arukh (Choshen Mishpat 427:8) echoes the Rambam’s words. Commenting on the spot, the Vilna Gaon (Bi’urHaGra) suggests that the source of this halakhah is the Gemara in Berakhot 32b:
Our Rabbis taught: Once a certain pious man was praying by the roadside, and an officer came by and greeted him, but he did not return his greeting. So the officer waited for him until he had finished his prayer.
When he had finished, the officer said to him: “Fool! Is it not written in your Torah (Deuteronomy 4:9), ‘Take utmost care and guard yourself scrupulously,’ and is it not also written (Ibid., v. 15), ‘Be most careful of your lives’? When I greeted you, why did you not return my greeting? If I had cut off your head with my sword, who would have demanded satisfaction for your blood from me?”
The pious man replied: “Be patient and I will explain it to you. If you had been standing before a king of flesh and blood and your friend had come and greeted you, would you have returned his greeting?”
“No,” he replied.
“And if you had returned his greeting, what would they have done to you?”
“They would have cut off my head with a sword,” he replied.
The pious man then said to him: “Isn’t it a kal vachomer (a fortiori argument)? If you would have behaved in this way when standing before a king of flesh and blood, who is here today and gone tomorrow, how much more so when I am standing before the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, who endures for all eternity!”
The officer immediately accepted his explanation, and the pious man returned to his home in peace.
Since the pious man accepted the officer’s application of the verses and answered him in kind, the Vilna Gaon deduces that these verses indicate an obligation to take care of one’s health.
The Minchat Chinukh objects that this Gemara is not a proof for the Rambam’s novel approach:
I do not understand. The verse cited, “Be most careful of your lives,” continues, “Because you saw no shape when the Lord your God spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, so you should not act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image” (Deuteronomy 4:15-16). This has nothing to do with taking care of one’s physical well-being! It is irrelevant that the officer quoted it as relating to the body, because [the Romans] were heretics who could take the words of the living God and turn them into heresy. Who cares what kind of explanation this wicked person gave to the verse!
The MinchatChinukh claims that the verse quoted in the story does not relate to an obligation to take care of one’s health but rather to the prohibition of worshipping idols. If this is the case, how can we prove from here that there is a halakhic obligation to take care of one’s health? The officer’s explanation cannot be brought as a proof, because he was not Jewish; though he can say whatever he wants about Torah, there is no reason to think the halakhah would follow him. Therefore, the Minchat Chinukhmaintains that the Rambam must have had a different source.
The Maharsha (Chidushei Aggadot) also objects to using this story and its verses as a source for the Rambam:
The verse of “Take utmost care and guard yourself scrupulously” (Deuteronomy 4:9) is speaking about forgetting the Torah, as it says immediately afterwards, “lest you forget the words” which you heard at Sinai. It says in PirkeiAvot (3:10), “If someone [deliberately] forgets even one word of Torah that he learned, his life is considered forfeit, as it says, ‘Take utmost care and guard yourself scrupulously’.” As for the other verse, “Be most careful of your lives” (Deuteronomy 4:15), its context is referring to the prohibition against idols. These verses do not speak about protecting oneself from physical danger at all.
In any case, the Rambam (and following him, the Shulchan Arukh) rule explicitly that there is a Torah commandment to take care of our bodies, and a prohibition against leaving obstacles around the home that can cause accidents. From the language of the Rambam, it would seem that the Torah commandment is pertinent only in cases where death could result – “a life-threatening obstacle.” This implies that an obstacle that could lead to bodily harm would be prohibited only rabbinically. Along the same lines, the Me’iri on BavaKamma 51a writes that the law requiring a railing on a roof is Biblically mandated only where there is a fear that someone falling from the roof would die. In contrast, if he would suffer an injury, the obligation is not Biblical. If this rule applies to a railing, it should apply to obstacles as well.
However, the Sefer HaChinukh writes, “We must not leave obstacles and traps lying around in our countries and in our homes, so that no one will be killed or injured, as it says, “Do not bring blood-guilt on your house” (Deuteronomy 22:8). We can deduce from this that the prohibition of placing an obstacle is also meant to prevent any possibility of injury (and not only death, as the Rambam and Meiri maintain). See too Devar Avraham (vol. 1, 36:25).
God willing, in the next article we will continue to discuss this Rambam, and will use a variety of sources to demonstrate that theSefer HaChinukh is correct that the commandment to look after one’s well-being is not only applicable in cases of possible death, but in cases of possible injury as well.