The Gemara (Shabbos 32a) states that you are forbidden to enter a dangerous situation and rely on a miraculous salvation. However, in five places the Gemara permits entering a dangerous situation because “Shomer pesa’I'm Hashem, God protects the foolish” (Ps. 116:6 – Avodah Zarah 30b; Niddah 31b; Yevamos 72a; Shabbos 129b; Kesuvos 39a). How do we resolve this contradiction? We can explain the permission of “shomer pesa’im” in two ways: Because people commonly accept this danger (“dashu beih rabim“), you are also allowed to accept it and rely on divine intervention. Such a situation is not considered dangerous. If the prohibition to enter a dangerous situation is biblical, then only a lack of danger can allow entering such a situation (i.e. explanation 2 above). However, if the prohibition is only rabbinic, then perhaps the Sages allow it in a case of commonly accepted danger (explanation 1 above).

Protecting the Foolish

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

I. Fitting Eulogies

Eulogies are full of exaggerated praise and empty of critical engagement, and rightly so. It is a time for tribute rather than evaluation. However, there is still much an astute observer can learn from eulogies, particularly when you look at a collection from many diverse people. What trait do people focus on? How do the eulogizers demonstrate the deceased’s uniqueness?

Le-Ovdekha Be-Emes, the collection of dozens of eulogies for R. Yehudah Amital edited by R. Reuven Ziegler and R. Reuven Gafni, is dizzying in its breadth. The editors grouped the eulogies by topic but the variety of writer and topic speaks volumes of R. Amital’s many qualities and his ability to influence diverse people. Rather than risk describing someone I did not know (although I met him once), I would like to summarize a halakhic analysis R. Yosef Tzvi Rimon provides in R. Amital’s name (pp. 151-154, also found in R. Amital’s Resisei Tal, vol. 1 no. 30).

The Gemara (Shabbos 32a) states that you are forbidden to enter a dangerous situation and rely on a miraculous salvation. However, in five places the Gemara permits entering a dangerous situation because “Shomer pesa’I’m Hashem, God protects the foolish” (Ps. 116:6 – Avodah Zarah 30b; Niddah 31b; Yevamos 72a; Shabbos 129b; Kesuvos 39a). How do we resolve this contradiction?

II. Two Explanations

We can explain the permission of “shomer pesa’im” in two ways:

  1. Because people commonly accept this danger (“dashu beih rabim“), you are also allowed to accept it and rely on divine intervention.
  2. Such a situation is not considered dangerous.

If the prohibition to enter a dangerous situation is biblical, then only a lack of danger can allow entering such a situation (i.e. explanation 2 above). However, if the prohibition is only rabbinic, then perhaps the Sages allow it in a case of commonly accepted danger (explanation 1 above).

The Terumas Ha-Deshen (211) asks whether a Torah scholar may rely on shomer pesa’im. Apparently, the Terumas Ha-Deshen considers such a situation to be dangerous but permissible, following the first explanation above.

III. Permissible Danger

If we accept this first approach, that such a situation entails danger but you may still enter it, then perhaps that danger still overrides Shabbos. Your permission to enter that danger does not necessarily mean that the danger does not override Shabbos.

R. Amital explains Tosafos (Yoma 85a sv. u-lefakei’ach) as stating that doubtful danger does not override commandments. Rather, the commandments do not apply when there is even a doubt of life-threatening danger. “And you shall live by them (Lev. 18:5) means that you are not obligated to observe a commandment that might endanger your life. If so, your permission to accept certain dangers does not necessarily remove this exemption.

The Peri Megadim (Orach Chaim 329 MZ 1) rules that even a doubt of life-threatening danger overrides Shabbos. However, elsewhere (ibid. 173 MZ 1) he suggests that perhaps you are allowed to enter a situation of double-doubtful (sefeik sefeika) danger even without the permission of shomer pesa’im. Apparently, he considers a sefeik sefeika of danger to still be danger because it overrides Shabbos yet he suggests that you may enter such a situation.

IV. Unconcerned

If you are concerned with the danger, you need not rely on shomer pesa’im and may refrain from entering the dangerous situation. What about the converse? What if you are unconcerned but others (e.g. family members) worry for your safety? Are you allowed to violate Shabbos to satisfy their concerns?

The Mishnah (Berakhos 1:3) describes how R. Tarfon stopped on the road, placing himself in danger of thieves, in order to recite Shema properly. Additionally, the Gemara (Berakhos 33a) states that if a snake crawls on your heel while you aree praying, you must continue and may not stop in the middle of a prayer. R. Elchanan Wasserman (Kovetz Shi’urim, Pesachim no. 32) explains that you may place yourself in a little danger in order to fulfill a mitzvah. Presumably, the two prior cases only involved a little danger.

V. Snakes on Shabbos

However, R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (quoted in Shemiras Shabbos Ke-Hlikhasah ch. 25 par. 15) rules that you may kill a snake on Shabbos even if it is not chasing you. Clearly he held that a snake constitutes a serious, and not minor, danger.

Similarly, the Rogatchover (Responsa Tzofnas Pa’anei’akh, no. 39) points out the following contradiction in the Rambam. The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Shabbos 2:23) rules that you may not kill a snake on Shabbos that is chasing someone else. However, the Rambam (ibid. 11:4) also rules that you may kill dangerous animals on Shabbos even if they are not chasing you. According to the Rambam, can you kill predators on Shabbos when they are not chasing a person?

VI. Subjective Danger

The Rogatchover answered based on a careful reading of the Mishnah (Shabbos 29b): “One who extinguishes a lamp because he fears gentiles, bandits, bad wind or a sick person is exempt.” Why does the Mishnah add the words “because he fears”? The Rogatchover answered that an objective danger certainly overrides Shabbos. But a subjective danger, a personal fear for your life, also overrides Shabbos. The case of the Mishnah is where there is no objective danger but you still fear gentiles, bandits, etc. In such a case, you are still allowed to violate Shabbos due to your fear of life-threatening danger.

With this, the Rogatchover also explained the apparent contradiction in the Rambam. When a snake is in your vicinity but not chasing you, and there is no little danger, your fear creates a subjective danger that overrides Shabbos. However, when the snake is in someone else’s vicinity, your fear does not create a situation of danger for him. He has to fear for his life in order to allow Shabbos violation.

This also explains R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach’s ruling that you may kill a snake on Shabbos. Your subjective danger is sufficient to override the Shabbos prohibition. And when the Gemara discusses a snake crawling on your heel, it must be referring to a situation where you do not fear for your life.

With all this in hand, R. Amital answered his question. Your subjective fear overrides Shabbos. But if you are not scared and just someone else is scared for you, you may not violate Shabbos.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

10 comments

  1. “The Mishnah (Berakhos 1:3) describes how R. Tarfon stopped on the road, placing himself in danger of thieves”

    The Mishnah describes how he lay down to fulfill the shittah of Beis Shammai and the Chachamim say he is worthy of death for it. Is the assumption that if he said it standing or sitting he would not have been worthy of death, but, since the danger from bandits would be the same, it is permitted to get into danger to fulfill a mitzvah? If so, that would be a false inference since according to Beis Hillel he could have said it walking, which, presumably, would have involved no more danger than walking whilst not saying it.

    In sum, I don’t see how the Mishnah tells us anything whatsoever about the permissiblity of putting yourself in danger to fulfill a mitzvah (as opposed to bbeing makpid liek Beis Shammai, although even here the Gemara seems to hint that the danger was a consequence of doing so not an antedendent reality).

    “Additionally, the Gemara (Berakhos 33a) states that if a snake crawls on your heel while you aree praying, you must continue and may not stop in the middle of a prayer.”

    The Mishnah states you may not interrupt tefillah because a snake is on your heel. The Gemara adds that you must if there is a scorpion. The same chiluk is made for being greeted by a Jewish king (who will not kill you for not responding) and a gentile one (who may). The point seems pretty clear: if there is pikuach nefesh issue you stop, if it’s merely an object of non-rational fear (snake) or awe (Jewish King) you don’t.

    “The case of the Mishnah is where there is no objective danger but you still fear gentiles, bandits, etc. In such a case, you are still allowed to violate Shabbos due to your fear of life-threatening danger.”

    I’m a bit wary of writing this without checking it up since it seems so obvious, but doesn’t the Mishnah state that one who extinguishes the light is patur from a chatos, not that it was mutar for him to do so?

  2. This raises a meta issue that I wonder if anyone has written about – why in some circumstances we say baatla daato (i.e. his subjective feelings/thoughts don’t count-e.g. chatzitza by tvila) and elsewhere (e.g. here) it seems they do.
    KT

  3. G: I’m not sure I understand your concerns. The Mishnah explicitly states that R. Tarfon endangered himself but does not comment further on it, nor does the Gemara, implying that it was acceptable behavior other than favoring Beis Shammai over Beis Hillel.

    I agree with your inference from the Gemara regarding a snake which raises the question why R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ruled to the contrary, that snakes are dangerous and may be killed on Shabbos.

    Regarding the Mishnah in Shabbos, see the subsequent Gemara which explains that while “patur” means exempt, in this case the Mishnah used it for literary purposes but meant permitted.

  4. “G: I’m not sure I understand your concerns. The Mishnah explicitly states that R. Tarfon endangered himself but does not comment further on it, nor does the Gemara, implying that it was acceptable behavior other than favoring Beis Shammai over Beis Hillel.”

    The Mishnah seems to make a pretty explicit comment to me and, further, the key point is that if he had followed Beis Hillel and kept walking, he would’t have endangered himself! The Mishnah comments that for endangering himself by following Beis Shammai he is worthy of death (or alternatively, that the bandits were a punishment for him doing so c.f. Rav Nachman bar Yitzchok amar at bottom of 11a). So all we really know from the Mishnah is you can’t be makpid like Beis Shammai re. standing up and lying down for krias shema (which is halacha). The Mishnah thus teaches either (i) you may not endanger yourself to fulfill a chumrah of Beis Shammai and/or (ii) by being makpid like Beis Shammai you bring danger on yourself. I don’t see how it has any bearing either way on whether one can endanger oneself to perform a mitzvah.

    “I agree with your inference from the Gemara regarding a snake which raises the question why R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ruled to the contrary, that snakes are dangerous and may be killed on Shabbos.”

    The Mishnah refers to a non lethal snake and we are not boki on snakes.

    “Regarding the Mishnah in Shabbos, see the subsequent Gemara which explains that while “patur” means exempt, in this case the Mishnah used it for literary purposes but meant permitted.”

    So I was right to be wary 🙂 Lesson learned and, hopefully, correct p’shat remembered.

  5. “The Mishnah explicitly states that R. Tarfon endangered himself but does not comment further on it”

    I think I just understood what you were saying, but I don’t agree with it. R’ Tarfon did NOT endanger himself to perform a mitzvah (Shema), he endangered himself by doing it according to Beis Shammai (by lying down). Reciting Shema, according to Beis Hillel, does not require stopping. Tefilah, on the other hand, does require stopping, and so whether or not one is obligated to daven in a place where there are bandits would be a proper test case. Such a case is dealt with in Perek 4 Mishnah 4.

  6. shaul shapira

    “This raises a meta issue that I wonder if anyone has written about – why in some circumstances we say baatla daato (i.e. his subjective feelings/thoughts don’t count-e.g. chatzitza by tvila) and elsewhere (e.g. here) it seems they do.”

    I think that this might be a case of melocho sh’eaina tzricha le’gufo b’makom tz’aar. If so, the tz’aar would a halachic desidaratum (hope that word means what I think it does) similar to Shinui or the like. Batla da’ato or no ba’tla da’ato, the fear is real, even if unfounded.

  7. “One who extinguishes a lamp because he fears gentiles, bandits, bad wind or a sick person is exempt.” Why does the Mishnah add the words “because he fears”? The Rogatchover answered that an objective danger certainly overrides Shabbos. But a subjective danger, a personal fear for your life, also overrides Shabbos.

    I suspect this mishna has nothing to do with danger overriding Shabbat. Rather, “because he fears” is contrasted in the mishna with “because he wants to save the lamp/oil/wick”. The latter is a creative action which is a melacha. The former is noncreative and is permitted. Fear is one circumstance in which a person would be motivated/likely to do a noncreative act, but there are many other circumstances that would be halachically equivalent, for example mitasek.

  8. R’ Moshe Feinstein and others have marshaled the aforementioned concept of Shomer P’soim Hashem when the danger is one that is generally disregarded (Dashu Bo Rabim), to justify the lack of a Rabbinic edict forbidding smoking despite it’s proven danger.

    However, the Tzemach Tzedek (of Lubavitch) in his commentary (I believe to the Sugya in Niddah), qualifies that concept as applying only in a case where the danger is a remote one, as in the case discussed there of marital relations during pregnancy. According to this rationale, smoking would seem to be prohibited despite it’s prevalence.

  9. The Rogatchover’s point may be relevant today for the fear of west nile virus and other diseases from mosquitos. i had a big mosquito enter my house last shabbos and i luckliy was able to shoo it out of the house without killing it, but if one is afraid for the danger (and there is a perceptable danger probably equal to a snake, and especially with respect to young children), can one kill the mosquito if he can’t shoo it out?

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter


The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter

Archives

Categories

%d bloggers like this: