This week’s article will examine the issue whether a person may endanger his life in order to salvage his possessions or to earn a livelihood. May one work in a hazardous occupation? Is there a halachic difference between the wealthy and poor in this regard? May one hold down a dangerous job to support Torah? What amount of danger is one permitted to take – can one work in diamond or coal mines? May one put up a fight with a violent mugger to protect his earnings? May Shabbos be desecrated when a burglar breaks in? Was it permissible to travel by ship when sea-travel was fraught with danger? And how did various prophets and sages travel by ship? May one rush into a burning house to save his possessions? Of this and more in this article.
After the Great Flood, Hashem permitted Noach and his descendants to kill animals for meat. This permit relates only to animals, but in regard to humans, Hashem warns Noach “But your blood, of your souls, I will demand [an account]; from the hand of every beast I will demand it, and from the hand of man, from the hand of each man, his brother, I will demand the soul of man” (Bereshis 9:5). Humans are not allowed to take the life of another human being. The wording of the pasuk indicates that it the prohibition refers not only to taking the life of another human being, but to spilling of one’s own blood as well. One is not owner of his own life – his soul is a given to him as a loan which only Hashem may take back when he sees fit.
This week’s article will deal with the question of endangering one’s life for monetary reasons – to salvage his money or possessions, and to earn a living.
A hardworking retiree was walking out of the bank after withdrawing a lifetime’s worth of savings earmarked for his old age. As he turned the corner, a mugger held him up. “Your money or your life!” the thief waved a gun at him. “Sorry,” said the man. “I can’t give you my money. I’ll have nothing left for my old age!”
While this story is told as a joke, the Sefer Chassidim (677) mentions a similar scenario – one apprehended by thieves to whom he is no match, but chooses to stay and fight rather than escape, because without his money he’ll have no purpose in life. One who chooses this option transgresses the above-mentioned prohibition: “But your blood, of your souls, I will demand” (ibid). Seemingly, the prohibition is only incurred when there is absolutely no chance of overcoming the robber. If there is any chance, even slight, of overcoming him, no prohibition exists. Why is one permitted to fight with a violent mugger and place himself in grave danger for the slight chance he might win and get away with both his life and his money intact?
Sefer Chassidim (ibid) mentions two other scenarios in which one may transgress this prohibition and be considered m’abed atzmo la’da’as, the Gemara’s term for committing suicide:
1) A blood avenger (goel hadam – the blood relative of a murdered individual) who chases after his relative’s murderer when the assassin is stronger than himself.
2) One who enters a burning house engulfed in flames to save his possessions when he sees clearly that there’s no way to escape the house unscathed.
Sefer Chassidim brings other examples for people who will be judged for their laxity in preserving their life: one who enters a squabble and is killed; one who walks on a frozen river and drowns in an ice crack; and one who enters a ruin, and it collapses on him.
The first two are considered suicidal, especially if the squabble includes a violent murderer, magician, wicked man who is currently seeing success, or if he is fighting a lonely battle against many others who are stronger than himself.
Sefer Chassidim (Berlin Edition, chapter 1765) writes that one who can work close to home is forbidden to travel to work farther away because travel involves danger. He proves this point from an episode described in Shmuel II (23:15-17):
And David desired, and he said: ‘Oh if one would only give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem which is by the gate.’ And the three mighty men broke through the camp of the Philistines, and they drew water out of the well of Bethlehem that was situated by the gate and they carried it and brought it back to David, but he did not drink it and he poured it out before the Lord. And he said: ‘Be it far from me, O’ Lord, that I should do this; [Shall I drink] the blood of the men that placed their lives in danger?’ And he would not drink it.
The Gemara (Bave Kama 61a) explains that the real meaning of the pasuk is that King David was uncertain regarding a halacha, and the three mighty men broke through the Philistine lines to hear what the sages of Dovid Hamelech’s hometown had to say on the issue. Once he learned how they obtained the ruling, King David refused to mention the halacha in their name because that is the rightful punishment for one who endangers himself to learn the halacha. This is the Sefer Chassidim’s source to forbid enjoying something earned at the price of endangering one’s life.
If it is forbidden to work at a job that presents a possible danger, why does the Sefer Chassidim rule that fighting an armed bandit is forbidden only if there is no way to win? And why does he forbid traveling to work only if one has another job closer to home? Doesn’t this seemingly indicate that one who doesn’t have a closer job is permitted to take the one farther away? And why did he need to cite the story about King David as proof – is the Torah’s prohibition insufficient?
In order to gain full understanding of these issues, we will take a closer look at the different scenarios, and in light of them, explain the Sefer Chassidim’s approach.
Fighting a Burglar
The Torah permits killing an intruder who breaks in without showing himself: “If, while breaking in, the thief is discovered, and he is struck and dies, [it is as if] he has no blood” (Shemos 22:1). The reason for this is explained in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 72a) and cited by Rashi: “He has no blood: This signifies that this act is not considered murder. It is as though the thief was dead from the start. Here the Torah teaches: If someone comes to kill you, kill him first. And the thief has come to kill you, because he knows that no one can hold himself back and remain silent when he sees people taking his money. Therefore, the thief has come with the acknowledgement that if the owner of the property were to stand up against him, he would kill him.”
Since the burglar breaks in with full knowledge that if he is discovered the owner will probably fight with him, and it is assumed that the intruder may try to kill the homeowner in the clash, the burglar has the halachic status of a rodef — chasing after the homeowner to kill him, and the rule of, “when someone tries to kill you, rise up and kill him first” applies.
Therefore, when it is clear that the burglar will not kill the homeowner (e.g. if the homeowner is his son) even if discovered, killing him is forbidden.
From here we see that the Torah assumes the homeowner will fight the burglar because that is human nature. Therefore, the Torah does not demand that one forgo his money in order to not incite the intruder and save himself from possibility of murder.
Seemingly, the Sefer Chassidim derived that when one knows clearly that he stands no chance against a thief or mugger he is forbidden to fight back, but if he stands a chance, even a slight one, he is permitted to fight because the Torah knows that one cannot sit by idly and watch his possessions being stolen. The cases of the goel hadam and burning house, though, are seen by the Sefer Chassidim as almost certain danger, and those actions are seen as suicidal.
The Noda B’Yehuda (Yore Deah 10) writes that it is possible for two people to pass through the same dangerous forest where ferocious wild animals live and one will perform a mitzva, while the other will transgress a severe prohibition. How is this possible?
The first is a poor peddler who must pass through the forest on his way to the next town to peddle his wares and earn his meager living. The other is a wealthy landowner who is off on a hunting spree just for the thrill. Although the wealthy man is protected by ferocious, professionally trained hunting dogs and the poor man’s only ammunition is sticks and stones, the poor man is performing a mitzva which protects him, and his Tefillas Haderech is accepted, while his fellow traveler’s prayer cannot be accepted because he is endangering himself for no significant reason.
The Noda B’Yehuda derives that one is permitted to endanger his life to earn a living from the pasuk: “You must pay his wage during the day and not let the sun set over it, for he is poor, and he risks his life for it…” (Devarim 24:15), to which the Gemara explains (Bave Metzia 111b): since the poor man goes up on a ramp or hangs himself from a tree in order to earn his livelihood and endangers his soul for it, the Torah warns the employer not to hold back his pay. From here we learn that a poor worker may endanger his life to earn a living.
Similarly, the Igros Moshe (Choshen Mishpat I:104) proves from this Gemara that one may earn a living from an athletic career even if he plays a sport that entails a small risk to one’s life because a slight danger is permitted for making a living.
He adds that, although there is danger one may kill others, the occupation is permitted because whoever enters the profession is doing so with full knowledge of the dangers it involves, and he is not considered suicidal because the danger is not imminent. He proves this from the Gemara that allows the homeowner to give workers a job that involves climbing up trees or standing on scaffolds.
Rav Moshe Feinstein notes that after writing this response he was shown the above-mentioned Noda B’Yehuda and was pleased to see that their approaches coincided.
The Yerushalmi (Moed Katan 3:1) forbids sailing the Great Sea. Commentaries dispute the meaning of this statement. The Korban HaEida (ibid) and Chasam Sofer (I: 122) understand that it means it is forbidden to set sail three days before Shabbos. However, the Pnei Moshe and Gra (Orech Chaim 531:4) understand there is a blanket prohibition to sail on a ship due to the danger it entails (in Talmudic times). Shiarei Korban, though wonders at this approach, as we hear of prophets and sages from Mishnaic times who traveled by ship. Moshe even blessed Zevulun: “And to Zebulun he said: ‘Rejoice, Zebulun, in your departure, and Issachar, in your tents’ (Devarim 33:18) to which Rashi explains: Zebulun and Issachar entered into a partnership [with the following agreement]: Zebulun would dwell at the seashore and go out in ships, to trade and make profit. He would thereby provide food for Issachar, and they would sit and occupy themselves with the study of Torah.” Based on this pasuk, the Noda B’Yehuda (ibid) permits sea travel only for earning a basic livelihood. It was also only for necessary trips that prophets and sages traveled.
In addition, we learn from here that one is permitted to work in a dangerous job in order to have money to support Torah scholars, even though he is forbidden to endanger his life for any other purpose.
The Binyan Tzion (I:137) and Ein Yaakov (I, Even HaEzer 80:17) write that if one will most probably be saved from the danger, he is permitted to enter the situation. Only if the danger is greater than that, is he forbidden to enter the situation. Therefore, today one is permitted to travel by ship or cross the desert, even though he will have to recite the blessing of Hagomel post travel.
Fighting A Burglar on Shabbos
In light of the above-mentioned Noda B’Yehuda, the Avnei Nezer (Orech Chaim 428:1) rules that fighting a Shabbos break-in is permitted, even if the burglar is only after his money. He derives this from the Gemara that permits killing a thief who breaks in in secrecy on Shabbos (Sanhedrin 92b). If one is obligated to forgo all of his money to not transgress the prohibitions of Shabbos, how is he permitted to fight with the burglar and possibly desecrate Shabbos? He answers that one is permitted to fight the burglar to save his possessions, and once in a fight with him, he is considered to be in a situation of pikuach nefesh which allows him to desecrate Shabbos and save himself from danger.
The Shulchan Aruch rules (Orech Chaim 329:7) that if robbers are out to steal from the public at large, one is permitted to desecrate Shabbos to apprehend, kill, or chase them away, because a break-in can easily become a life-threatening situation when residents fight against them. The Magen Avraham (5) who is cited by the Mishna Brura (footnote 16) explains that when burglars come to steal from the residents of a city one must assume there will be someone who will struggle with them and be endangered by it. Therefore everyone is allowed to desecrate Shabbos in order to stop the thieves. However, the Magen Avrohom rules that if a thief is out to steal only from one specific person, that person is obligated to forgo all of his money and not transgress a Shabbos prohibition.
Rabbi Meir Arik (Minchas Pitim) and the Or Gadol question this Magen Avraham based on the Gemara previously cited that allows one to kill a thieving burglar who breaks in on Shabbos. The Shevet Halevi (volume VIII, chapter 6) explains that the above-mentioned Shulchan Aruch refers to a marauding gang of armed robbers where there is no other possibility to stop them. If they come to plunder an entire city at least one resident will surely struggle with them, even if it is a hopeless struggle, and the residents are permitted to send a pre-emptive security squad to stop the gang. But if the gang is out to steal from a single person, and he stands no chance against them, he is forbidden to put up a fight. In the third scenario, where a single person tries to steal from a single person and stopping the break in is a realistic possibility, we are concerned the confrontation will turn violent and one is permitted to desecrate Shabbos in order to stop the thief.
On the other hand, the Minchas Shlomo (I:7) explains that this Gemara must be referring to a burglar breaking in quietly to someone else’s house, where the witness doesn’t know if the homeowner will be wise enough to give up his money and not endanger himself in a fight. Here, the witness is permitted to kill the burglar. This is true even if the homeowner discovers the burglar and knows that he will not be able to stand by while his possessions are stolen. (See Rashbash [chapter 1] who points out that not everyone was created alike, and there are people to whom their money is more precious than their lives.)
Practically, it depends on the situation on the ground, which can be very fluid in a break-in. Issuing blanket statements is difficult – some thieves will certainly not endanger themselves, and with some — any contact may be life-threatening. A local rabbi should be consulted in practical cases to determine how to proceed.
Levels of Danger
We can now summarize the different levels of danger in the various cases mentioned in Sefer Chassidim:
Entering certain, foreseeable danger to save one’s money or possessions, e.g. entering a burning house, is prohibited by the pasuk in this week’s parasha “But your blood, of your souls, I will demand.” The same goes for a blood avenger fighting a murderer who is stronger than himself. Although one may come away alive, he is considered having committed a suicidal act.
When a mugger is trying to steal one’s money, although one should behave wisely and give up his money in exchange for his life, the Torah understands people who are incapable of giving up their hard-earned money without a fight, and fighting is not considered suicide unless he is sure he stands no chance at all.
Whenever one enters a dangerous situation, although not considered suicidal, if he dies as a result of his action he will be judged for his misjudged decision.
As for a workplace hazard, since one is permitted to expose himself to danger to earn a living, the Sefer Chassidim writes that it is prohibited to benefit from something earned through risk-taking if it was possible to achieve the same results otherwise. This was the approach of Dovid Hamelech in his encounter with his brave men.
When the Noda B’Yehuda established the permission to risk one’s life for making a living, he stressed it was only for a poor man who needed to earn his daily food, quoting he pasuk “You shall give him his wage on his day and not let the sun set over it, for he is poor, and he risks his life for it…” (Devarim 24:15) as proof. But someone who can work in a risk-free environment may not choose to work at a dangerous job for the extra pay.