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The Mitzva to Avoid Danger

This week we will discuss the chiyuv of “venishmartem” — the obligation to protect one’s body. What is the nature of this obligation – a Torah or rabbinic one? How is danger defined – coronavirus is dangerous, but so is crossing a street. Do circumstances count, or is the definition non-flexible? Does the purpose play a role? The fear of the spreading coronavirus raises additional questions – when can one place his faith in Hashem declaring “If it’s meant to be, it will be” and go about daily life; and when does one have to do to protect himself? And why are the prayers of one who endangered his life not accepted by Hashem?

Watch Yourselves Very Well

This week’s parasha mentions the chiyuv to safeguard one’s life: “But beware and watch yourself very well…” (Devarim 4:9), “And you shall watch yourselves very well” (Devarim 4:15). These obligations are doubly appropriate to our time – the rampant coronavirus as well as vacation season call for a refresher course in the lifesaving halachos of venishmartem.

When presenting a question to a rabbi, many meet up with conflicting answers – the same activity may be permitted when pursuing a parnassa, while being prohibited for recreational purposes. Is there one uniform answer? Are all halachos of venishmartem not applied when on the job?


The obligation to protect one’s life is learned from a story told in the Gemara (Brachos 32b):

The Sages taught: There was a particular pious man who was praying while traveling, when an officer [hegemon] came and greeted him. The pious man did not pause from his prayer and did not respond. The officer waited until he finished his prayer. After he finished his prayer, the officer said to him: “You good for nothing. You endangered yourself; I could have killed you. Isn’t it written in your Torah: “But beware and watch yourself very well…” (Devarim 4:9), “And you shall watch yourselves very well” (Devarim 4:15)? Why did you ignore the danger to your life? When I greeted you, why did you not respond with a greeting? If I would sever your head with a sword, who would hold me accountable for your spilled blood?”

The pious man said to him: “Wait for me until I will appease you with my words. Had you been standing before a flesh and blood king and your friend came and greeted you, would you return his greeting?”

The officer said to him: “No.”

The pious man continued: “And if you would greet him, what would they do to you?”

The officer said to him: “They would cut off my head with a sword.”

The pious man said to him: “Isn’t this matter an a fortiori inference? You, who were standing before a king of flesh and blood, of whom your fear is limited because today he is here but tomorrow he is in the grave, would have reacted in that way; I, who was standing and praying before the Supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, Who lives and endures for eternity, all the more so that I could not pause to respond to someone’s greeting.”

When he heard this, the officer was immediately appeased and the pious man returned home in peace.

The Roman in this story was certainly a learned man. He cited the psukim that teach of the obligation to preserve one’s life. But the context in which these psukim appear seem to indicate otherwise.


The Maharsha (Brachos 32) and the Mincha Chinuch (mitzva 546) both ask the same obvious question — the passuk, when read in context, seems to indicate something else entirely. This is the full quote of the psukim:

“But beware and watch yourself very well, lest you forget the things that your eyes saw, and lest these things depart from your heart, all the days of your life, and you shall make them known to your children and to your children’s children” (Devarim 4:9).

“And you shall watch yourselves very well, for you did not see any image on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Chorev from the midst of the fire” (Devarim 4:15).

These psukim indicate the obligation to preserve our spiritual wellbeing – to refrain from endangering ourselves in the spiritual sense: forgetting the revelation at Sinai or (according to Pirkei Avos chapter 3:8; Menachos 99b) the Torah itself, and idolatry. These psukim don’t seem to be referring to preservation of the physical body at all, as the Roman officer seemed to understand. The Minchas Chinuch adds that we cannot rely on the officer’s interpretation.

A Rabbinic Obligation

And indeed, according to the Levush (Yore Deah 116:1) and the Ya’avetz (Mor U’ketzia 3) the prohibition against putting one’ life in danger is rabbinic and the above mentioned psukim serve only as a hint. The Levush adds that the rabbinic prohibition is an extension of the Torah prohibition of taking one’s life, as learned from the passuk: “But your blood, of your souls, I will demand…” (Bereshis 9:5). This Torah prohibition includes, according to the Levush, any activity that has the potential of endangering one’s life.

A Torah-Obligation

The Rambam, (Hilchos Rotzeiach, chapter 11:4) though, is of the opinion that protecting one’s life is a Torah obligation: “Similarly, it is a positive mitzvah to remove any obstacle that could pose a danger to life, and to be very careful regarding these matters, as Devarim 4:9 states: “Beware for yourself; and guard your soul.” If a person leaves a dangerous obstacle and does not remove it, he negates the observance of a positive commandment, and violates the negative commandment: “Do not cause blood to be spilled.” This is also the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 427:8). The Biur Hagra indicates that the source is found in the above cited story from Maseches Brachos.

This is the opinion of most of the Achronim (Sma 426:12; Shela: Sha’ar Haosios Dalet; Ma’ase Rokeach De’aos chapter 4:22; Pri Megadim Orech Chayim 328:6; and others) —  the mitzva to protect one’s life includes the prohibition against placing oneself in danger.

The Chasam Sofer adds here (Avoda Zara 30a) that every dangerous activity is an issur m’doraisa as the passuk reads “Venishmartem me’od lenafshosichem – and you shall watch yourselves very well…”. Rabbonim and other leaders are charged with upholding this, as the passuk reads (Devarim 19:10) “…Deem you guilty of [having shed this] blood.”

Sefer Hachareidim even goes so far as to count this mitzva among the 613 mitzvos, explaining that the word “me’od – very well” indicates the added rule (mentioned in Maseches Chullin 10a) that danger is even more chamur than an issur. One must protect his body from harm more than he would protect his soul from sin.

Body and Soul Connect

Nevertheless, the question posed by the Maharsha and Minchas Chinuch remains – these psukim do not speak of protection of the body at all. The above-mentioned psukim only speak of preservation of the soul – making sure the neshama remains intact.

The Kometz Hamincha (mitzva 546) and the Aderet (Teshuva M’Yirah, Rotzeiach, chapter 11) solve the question via another quote from the Maharsha.

In Maseches Shavuos (36a) the Maharsha writes that cursing oneself with Hashem’s name is a transgression of a Torah-ordained negative commandment. This is derived from the passuk mentioned above (Devarim 4:9) “But beware and watch yourself very well, ” This is also the Rambam’s ruling (Hilchos Sanhedrin, chapter 26:23) and the Rema (Choshen Mishpat 27:1).

Kometz Hamincha and the Aderet both explain that any action that has the potential of harming either body or soul, is prohibited. The soul is to be protected, as is the simple understanding of the psukim. And the body is to be protected, as it is a vehicle for the soul to realize its potential in the world. Without the body, the soul has no tool with which to walk the world and as a tool, it must be preserved to our utmost capabilities.

The soul-body connection appears in other sources as well. We find this concept in the works of the Rishonim such as Rabbi Yonasan of Luniel (Shavuos 35a), Yad Rama (Sanhedrin 17b). There, the Yad Rama writes: “One should expend                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          every effort to cure himself so he will be able to learn Torah and fulfill the mitzvos and serve his Creator, as it is written: ‘But beware and watch yourself very well’.”

The Ran (Shavuos 10a) writes that one who endangers himself by fasting transgresses an explicit commandment mentioned in Bereshis (9:5): “But your blood, of your souls, I will demand”.

Do Yourself a Favor

The midrash (Vayikra Raba 24:3) quotes the passuk from Mishlei (11:17) “The merciful man does good to his own soul but a cruel one troubles his own flesh” — this refers to Hillel Hazakein who told his students he was going to fulfill a commandment. “And what commandment is this?” they asked. He said to them, “To bathe in the bathhouse.” “But is this really a commandment?” they asked. He said to them: “Yes. Just like the statues (lit. icons) of kings, that are set up in the theaters and the circuses, the one who is appointed over them bathes and scrubs them, and gives them sustenance, and furthermore, he attains status with the leaders of the kingdom; I, who was created in the [Divine] Image and Form, as it is written, ‘For in the Image of G-d He made Man (Bereshis 9:6)’ even more so!”

The Gra (Mishlei 11:17) explains this passuk in light of the above Midrash: every action a person does, even the simplest act of self-preservation such as taking a shower — if his intention is for service of Hashem that action is counted as a chessed. One whose entire focus is to do Hashem’s mitzvos and serve Him — his eating, sleeping and yes, even vacation if necessary serves to keep his body and soul healthy and vibrant. This kind of eating, sleeping and recreation is beloved by Hashem just like a korban.

“But a cruel one troubles his own flesh” – one who performs those same acts, but for the sole purpose of enjoying himself, brings trouble to his flesh. He not only loses the opportunity to perform the above-described mitzva, but he also sours those parts of his flesh that enjoy these forbidden pleasures and they will suffer for it. This is what is called Chibut Hakever.”

One must take every precaution to preserve his physical, mental and spiritual health for the purpose of fulfilling his life’s mission, allowing his soul a good two feet with which to do good in the world. Every act of self-preservation with this end-intention is a mitzva, so take pleasure in This World and in The Next.

The Rambam defines the nature of the soul-body connection (Hilchos De’os, chapter 4:1): “Since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of G-d – for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator, if he is ill – therefore, he must avoid that which harms the body and accustom himself to that which is healthful and helps his body become stronger.”

Endangering Oneself

The Noda Biyehuda was asked once about entering forests for hunting trips. Hunting is a recreational sport, and as such, there were Jewish people who wanted to enjoy it.

In his response (tanina, Yore Deah 17), the Noda BiYehuda takes issue with the moral concept of killing animals for sport. In addition, he writes that entering dangerous forests only for a sport is forbidden because one is forbidden to endanger himself needlessly. However, a peddler who needs to pass through the dangerous forest to reach the next town in which to sell his merchandise, is permitted to pass through.

He explains the difference: Earning a living is viewed by chazal as part of one’s mission in the world, one of his soul’s obligations. Therefore, if it is for the purpose of making a living, one is permitted to endanger himself to an extent, if necessary, as seen from the Gemara (Bave Metzia 112b): “…For what reason did this laborer ascend on a tall ramp or suspend himself from a tree and risk death to himself? Was it not for his wages?”

This Gemara proves that the Torah allows a special dispensation for making a living – traveling over sea, air and land, ascending a tall ramp and suspending himself from a tree. But skydiving, mountain climbing or racecar driving for fun, besides any other prohibitions that are involved, violate the issur of venishmartem.

The Noda Biyehuda continues and differentiates further – while the peddler traveling through the dangerous forest says Tefillas Haderech as chazal instituted for parnassa travelers and his prayers invoke the Divine protection which will save him, the hunter arouses Hashem’s anger at his disregard for his health, therefore, can he expect his prayers to be answered?

Foolhardy Faith

Can one close his eyes to danger and place his trust in Hashem or is he just being a fool? The Ramchal in Mesilas Yesharim (chapter 9) writes that chazal demand from a person to guard himself with the utmost care and refrain from even the slightest danger. Even righteous people must not rely on their mitzvos or trust Hashem and enter a dangerous situation, as the Torah admonishes: “Venishmartem me’od lenafshoseichem.”

The Ramchal explains the difference between trust in Hashem and ignoring dangers:

The L-rd, blessed be He, made man with sound intellect and clear reasoning in order that he will conduct himself properly and protect himself from harmful things which were created to punish the wicked. But someone who does not conduct himself in an intelligent manner and exposes himself to dangers – this is not trust in G-d but rather foolishness. Such a person sins since he is acting against the will of G-d who desires that man guard himself. Hence, besides the inherent danger which he is exposing himself to due to failing to guard himself properly, he also actively brings punishment upon himself for the sin which he commits. Thus, the sin itself is what brings upon him the punishment.

The type of fear and guarding of oneself which is appropriate is that which is based on the guidance of wisdom and reason. On this scripture says: “The clever man sees the evil and escapes but the fool continues through and is punished” (Mishlei 22:3). Foolish fear is when a man adds protection upon protection and fear upon fear, devising precautions for his precautions in such a way that this results in neglect of Torah study and Divine service.

The Creator demands that we preserve His creation – our body and spirit. At times, the fact that one died because he failed to protect himself from dangers is itself a punishment for failing to adhere to the Creator’s instructions.

Defining Danger

In light of the above clear delineation of the obligation to refrain from dangerous situations, we must define what exactly falls in the category of danger. Is it only driving without a license or also swimming in a pool?

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Minchas Shlomo Tanina, chapter 37) also had a hard time defining ‘danger’. He writes: “I also had a difficult time defining where the line passes. But in my humble opinion I think that any activity or behavior that most people run away from as one would escape from danger is considered pikuach nefesh. But what most people are not afraid of is not considered a danger (sakana).”

In light of his words, the difference is clear. Venishmartem is not a blank check for all hypochondriacs to cash into. We must always remember that Hashem is in charge of the world and every germ, terrorist and accident is Divinely orchestrated.

Hashem gives us a healthy body and charges us with the job of protecting it to allow it to fulfill its mission in the world. Anything that may hinder that mission is forbidden – whether it is forgetting the revelation at Sinai, Torah, idolatry, cursing oneself, entering dangerous situations or careless nutrition. All those fall in the same category of disregard for one’s health, whether spiritual, emotional or physical.

In light of that, it is clear that one is obligated to engage only in behaviors accepted as safe (swimming in a pool), follow the rules and guidelines of the local health and safety organizations (wear a seatbelt) and generally follow the norm for preserving one’s life and health.

Therefore, one who needs to work in a job that endangers his life (like on an oil rig) or travel the roads (as a bus driver), must pray to Hashem and place his trust in Him, and in that merit, he will be saved from all dangers.

On the other hand, one who enters dangerous situations only for the sport shows disregard for himself, his mission and life itself – the gift that Hashem placed in his hands. This kind of person is cruel to himself and transgresses the commandments that appear in this week’s parashah.

Wishing everyone a healthy, happy and rejuvenating summer.

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