I. Dangerous Computers
Dangerous objects abound in the world. We make room for some in our homes but not others. How do we decide which to accept and which to avoid? Jewish law has much to say on the subject and its answer affects how open we are to the internet.
anonymous book entitled Ha-Internet Ba-Halakhah, apparently emanating from an author in Monsey, NY by R. David Lichtenstein, addresses a variety of internet-related topics in Jewish law. Among them are using someone else’s wifi without permission, liability for damage caused by a virus you send and whether you are obligated to install a filter on your computer. An aspect of this last issue is the prohibition against retaining a dangerous object. The Gemara (Bava Kama 15b) derives a prohibition against having a dangerous dog or an unstable ladder from Deut. 22:8: “and you shall not bring blood into your house.” The term “blood” is understood loosely as anything dangerous. The anonymous author R. Lichtenstein analyzes this prohibition and applies it to maintaining a computer without a filter. The following is based partially on his study, albeit approaching the subject very differently and adding other views.
First, I must state that the entire application to installing a filter on a computer is questionable. As I discuss in my internet shi’ur (link), a filter is insufficient to remove the danger of the internet. Someone looking for trouble can bypass any filter or other type of computer security. If a computer without a filter qualifies as dangerous, so does one with a filter.
Second, regardless of whether halakhah obligates installing a filter, common sense does. While there may be reasons to refrain from installing a filter, there are many more compelling reasons to add the protection, as limited as it may be. My only point in noting the limitations of a filter is to emphasize the need to avoid overly rely on it. Everyone should install one.
II. What is Danger?
The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Rotzei’ach 11:4) implies that the prohibition of owning a dangerous object only applies to something life threatening. Any other type of danger does not fall under this prohibition. The Meiri (Bava Kama 51a), Rashba (ad loc.) and others adopt this position. However, the Sefer Ha-Chinukh (no. 546) states that the prohibition applies to any kind of danger. The Devar Avraham (vol. 1, no. 37 par. 25) argues that the Chinukh‘s is a lone view that is very difficult (tzarikh iyun gadol). However, the Maharam Shick (Responsa, Yoreh Dei’ah 335) seems to adopt the Chinukh‘s position and even includes within the prohibition a spiritual danger. According to the Maharam Shick, there is room to say that you are biblically prohibited from maintaining unfiltered access to the internet in your home.
III. Which Items?
This entire prohibition is difficult to understand. Nearly any object can be dangerous. Are we forbidden to own knives and forks, hammers and nails? R. Menashe Klein (Mishneh Halakhos vol. 5 no. 297) addressed a similar question. He asked how people can own dangerous electrical appliances and poisonous materials such as cleansing agents. He answered that the “danger” warning on the packaging allows the ownership. However, this answer is insufficient for all the many other dangerous items all homes contain.
R. Tzvi Spitz (Mishpetei Ha-Torah, vol. 1 no. 79 n. 1) offers an entirely different answer. He suggests that only something that is intended to be dangerous, that has a “name” of being dangerous, qualifies for this prohibition. Something with an ordinary, safe function is permitted.
Somewhat differently, the Chazon Ish (Yoreh Dei’ah, no. 214 on Chullin 136 sv. ve-nireh) states that only something which has a reasonable possibility of posing danger is prohibited. The classification is not a function of the item’s purpose but its likelihood of causing damage.
IV. Protecting the Fools
I suggest that this disagreement can be tied to a debate regarding why you are allowed to cross the street. Many people are injured or killed while crossing the street. How can you endanger your life when the Torah states (Deut. 4:15): “and you shall safeguard your life very much”? The Gemara (Yevamos 12b) answers that God protects people in normal activity — “God protects simpletons” (Ps. 116:4).
R. Elchanan Wasserman (Kovetz Shi’urim, Kesuvos 136) understands this to mean that we are allowed to live normally. Anything that qualifies as regular activity (minhag derekh eretz) is permissible even if it involves a certain amount of danger. In contrast, R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (Achiezer, Even Ha-Ezer 23:2, quoted and defended here) explains this as permitting activities with minimal risk. You might have thought that the Torah prohibits all risk but this Gemara teaches that it allows small risks.
According to R. Wasserman, acceptable dangers are determined by function while according to R. Grodzinski they are decided by probability. Similarly, according to R. Spitz, acceptable objects to own are determined by function while according to the Chazon Ish, by probability.
V. What is a Weapon?
Perhaps this is also connected to the earlier debate about what kinds of dangerous objects are forbidden, those that are life-threatening (Rambam, Devar Avraham) or that cause any damage (Chinukh, Maharam Shick). According to the latter opinion, the reason for the prohibition is clear. You are responsible, at least to some degree, for what happens in your house and must prevent harm by keeping dangerous objects out of your home. Since any damage is bad, you must avoid items that cause any such damage. If so, anything that might reasonably cause damage falls under this prohibition.
However, according to the first view, the prohibition cannot be due to a measure of responsibility for the objects in your home. Rather, it must simply be a prohibition to keep (unsecured) weapons in your house. What qualifies as a weapon is a matter of definition, reasonably determined by an item’s intended function.
VI. Are Unfiltered Computers Dangerous?
According to the approach we are linking to the Rambam, Devar Avraham, R. Wasserman and R. Spitz, only life-threatening objects fall under this prohibition. Certainly a computer, whether filtered or not, does not. According to the other approach, a coherent argument could be made that an unfiltered computer is prohibited for this reason. However, this would require determining that an unfiltered computer poses a sufficiently frequent and serious spiritual danger.
Either way, there are other considerations that lead toward requiring a filter. However, our purpose here was to study the prohibition of Deut. 22:8 (“and you shall not bring blood into your house”) and its theoretical implications.