Category Archives: Massai

Taking risks and preventing harm

… they shall be cities of refuge for you, and a murderer who killed a person unintentionally shall flee there. (Bamidbar 35:11)

While contemporary health and safety laws may not be popular, the Torah strongly implies that killing someone through negligence, albeit unintentional is a serious sin. The Torah generally mandates the promotion of health and safety laws (Deuteronomy 4:9 and Berachot 32b).

These include the command to build a ma’akeh (guardrail) around one’s roof to prevent someone from falling off (Deuteronomy 22:8). This also applies to similar scenarios such as building a fence around a swimming pool or pond.

Other Talmudic examples include the father’s obligation to teach his children to swim (Kiddushin 29a), that it is prohibited to use a shaky ladder (Rosh Hashana 16b), slice bread or meat in the palm of one’s hand (Brachot 8a) or drink water without checking for contaminants such as leeches (Avodah Zarah 12b).

Contemporary prohibitions include driving recklessly (Rabbi Shmuel Wosner, Shevet Halevi 6:112) and smoking (Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg, d. 2006, Tzitz Eliezer 15:39).

The Chief Officer of Medical Ethics for the Israeli Ministry of Health, Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Halperin goes further to suggest that since every inhalation damages the lungs, smoking maybe akin to murder.

Passive smoking is also a major consideration. Since the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) rules that one may not injure another person (Choshen Mishpat 420:1), Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (d. 1986) ruled that those harmed by passive smoking were entitled by Jewish Law to sue for damages (Iggerot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 2:76).

Rabbi Feinstein also ruled that it is also forbidden to take illegal drugs. He indicates that becoming addicted is part of the prohibition since we learn from the ‘wayward son’ (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) not to develop damaging habits (ibid., Yoreh Deah 3:35).

In addition, indulging in unnecessary high risk activities such as extreme sports also constitutes reckless endangerment which would be prohibited under the same set of laws.

The Torah demands that we take responsibility for ourselves and others to prevent harm and promote health in every area of our lives. We must not only safeguard the spiritual, but the physical as well which is a prerequisite to responsible living.

Pots and sinners

Whatever is used in fire you shall pass through fire and then it will be clean; it must also, however, be cleansed with sprinkling water, and whatever is not used in fire you shall pass through water. (Numbers 31:23)

There are two separate areas of Jewish law which pertain to this verse. The first is the law of hechsher keilim, the cleansing of forbidden foods from kitchen utensils.

The Gemara (Pesachim 44b) explains that when food is cooked, its taste is transferred into the utensils used in the process. If the food is non-kosher, the taste transferred will also be non-kosher and the utensil will be rendered unfit for use in a kosher kitchen.

Our verse explains that for the utensil to become kosher again, it must go through the same process used in the cooking of the non-kosher food. Once cleaned, if the non-kosher food had been grilled with fire, the utensils used can only be purified with fire. If the food was boiled, the utensils used must be purified with boiling water.

The second principal is the law of tevilat keilim, which dictatesthat kitchen utensils (except those made from plastic or wood) acquired from non-Jews must be immersed in a mikveh (ritual bath) before use in a kosher kitchen in order to carry out a process of spiritual purification.

The first law of kashering kitchen utensils achieves a physical change in the utensil whereas the process of tevilah – immersion in a mikvahi, does not change the physical properties of the utensil at all.

The Gemara (Rosh HaShannah 17a) compares a sinner to a blackened pot. The process of teshuvah – repentance (lit. return) is a two stage process. First one must desist from the sinful act and confess which is similar to the process of hechsher keilim yielding a noticeable change in behaviour. Secondly the sinner must begin to make internal changes to their character to safeguard themselves from repeating the sinful act. This is similar to tevilat keilim which does not generate a physical change, but represents a profound spiritual transformation.