When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.” (D’varim 22:8)
Well, of course. In the Land of Israel, where snow load is not a big problem, people would build houses with flat roofs and families would use these roofs as an extension of their living space. Any reasonable homeowner would want a parapet or railing to make sure that no one would fall.
And the rabbis extended this law not only to cisterns, trenches, wells, and ditches, which also require fencing of some sort, but also to the prohibition of keeping anything dangerous — a rickety ladder or a vicious dog — on one’s property. Again, what reasonable person wouldn’t want to take these precautions to prevent harm to himself or others. Even if it were not required by building codes, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would live in a house with a balcony or stairway without a railing or a swimming pool without a fence.
In the Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Murderer and the Preservation of Life 11:5, Rambam wrote: “The sages have forbidden many things because they are a danger to life, and whoever transgresses and says, ‘I am only endangering myself and what is it to anyone else if I do so’ or ‘I am not particular in this matter,’ we administer ‘lashes of rebellion’ to him.”
Centuries ago, the rabbis were familiar with the questions: “Whose life is it, anyway?” and “What business is it of yours if I choose to endanger myself?”
How often do we hear this today? I used to live in central Pennsylvania, not far from Harley Davidson’s huge manufacturing facility, and every year the state legislature would take up the question of repealing the motorcycle helmet law. Bike enthusiasts argue that wearing a helmet interferes with fully experiencing the joy of riding a motorcycle. Helmet law proponents argue that bikers who have accidents while not wearing helmets all too often wind up undergoing costly long-term treatment for brain damage, often at public expense.
Smokers argue that they are fully informed of the dangers of smoking and choose to smoke anyway. Anti-tobacco activists point out the dangers of second-hand smoke and the costs imposed on Medicare and Medicaid as a result of tobacco-related illnesses.
Whether it’s not wearing seat belts, recreational drug use, extreme sports, or unsafe sex, those who want to engage in these behaviors argue, “What business of yours is it if I choose to endanger myself? It’s a free country and it’s my life.” Those who oppose them say, “Yes, it’s your life, but if you’re injured or become ill because you engage in unsafe activities, the rest of us are going to have to pay for it.”
The Jewish tradition takes a different approach. The person who refuses to take proper precautions to guard his safety, claiming it’s nobody else’s concern if he chooses to endanger himself, isn’t subjected to lashes because his recklessness may impose a financial burden on the community. He is punished for being “rebellious,” for refusing to accept the reality that it is not his life.
Very simply, the Torah teaches that we do not own our lives or our bodies — after all, we did not create them. As the rabbis say, each of us is the product of three — a mother, a father, and God. God gives us our lives and our bodies as a gift, and we are obligated to care for them to the best of our ability.
What does that mean? A Jew is obligated to guard his or her health and physical well-being. Proper diet and exercise, avoiding harmful habits and activities, and prudent safety measures in our homes, cars, and places of work are all a matter of religious obligation. No one may knowingly subject himself or others to unnecessary danger.
So make a parapet for your roof — and all that this implies. For to refuse to do so is to despise the precious gift of a good and loving God.