Engaging in Risky Activities

Ask the Rov: What types of dangers am I obligated to avoid and what risks may I take?

By Rabbi Chaim Hillel Raskin, Rov of Anash in Petach Tikvah.

The Torah cautions us to be exceedingly careful to guard our life and to avoid and remove any potentially fatal elements. Additionally, Chazal forbade many activities that can be fatal – such as drinking water that might be contaminated, walking next to a shaky wall, or crossing a shaky bridge – and transgressing warrants makas mardus. One may not rely on a miracle since the person’s merits will be reexamined and even if he deserves, it will reduce his merits.

How risky is considered dangerous? Is it forbidden to engage in any activity that can be fatal?

On the one hand, Halacha requires concern for even a remote danger to life, ignoring the standard measuring sticks of majority, status quo, and great doubt (rov, chazaka, and sefek sefeika). On the other hand, we don’t find a prohibition to drive a car, for example, although people do die from accidents.

One yardstick for minimal danger is how the masses view it. The Gemara teaches that if people commonly ignore the remote danger involved with a specific activity (dashu bo rabim), others may follow suit and rely on Hashem’s protection. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach applied a similar criterion to what danger warrants chilul Shabbos—something that people view as dangerous.

We recite hagomel after arriving safely from a voyage, but why may one travel in a dangerous manner to begin with? Acharonim explain that the trip is considered safe, as the danger is irregular. Furthermore, there is no specific risky moment rather the length of the entire trip together accumulates to a slight risk of danger. In addition, special allowance is given for tasks required for normal living, such as business trips and certain risks taken by laborers.

When measuring risk, it is important to keep in mind that an otherwise safe food or activity can be dangerous in a certain amount or quantity, and up to that point it isn’t dangerous. For example, eating a limited amount of unhealthy food is not considered “dangerous,” but at a point, it can be.

Koheles says, “One who observes a mitzva will know no evil.” Yet, it is difficult to determine which dangers are included in this allowance – as Chazal prohibit passing through raging waters to meet his Rav – and some limit the protection to one who thinks purely about the mitzva with no ulterior motives.

The Mishna teaches that one mustn’t interrupt Shmoneh Esrei when a snake is wrapped around one’s heel, since the majority of snakes don’t kill. Whenever the danger is remote, one may rely on the mitzva protection. Likewise, poskim say that Tehillim’s statement “Hashem guards the fools,” which is applied by poskim to different kinds of dangers, can only be relied upon in situations of remote risk.

All the above is from the individual’s standpoint, however, community leaders are required to exercise an extra level of precaution since they are responsible for the community as a whole, where the accumulative risk is higher.

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