With the threat of COVID-19 bearing down upon humankind, people are wondering how to properly relate to this unseen danger. Many claim that the virus does not endanger the lives of most people, and therefore conclude that the international response is overblown. Indeed, this was the initial response of the UK, essentially relying on this fact in its response to the virus. Others insist that even if the virus is deadly for only a minority of people, combatting it through extreme measures is worth the enormous economic and social cost those measures will inevitably demand.
As Jews, we ask ourselves another, more fundamental question – how would God want us to relate to this pandemic? How must we, as those who use the halachic process to live God’s will on Earth, personally act during this time? In this essay, we will discuss some of the halachic issues relating to placing oneself in danger and attempt to see how the halacha directs us to act in this situation.
The Prohibition of Endangering Oneself
The Torah writes: “When you build a new house, you should put up a fence around your roof, and make sure that you do not bring blood into your home, for a person could fall from it.” The Rambam derives from here that there are two mitzvot de’oraita to prevent dangerous situations from occurring. The Rabbeinu Bechayei understands that these directives apply to a person not placing himself in danger as well.
The Gemara finds a source for protecting oneself from danger in two other pesukim: “But beware and watch yourself very well” and “And you shall watch yourselves very well…”, The Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch both identify these pesukim (specifically the first one), as well as those previously cited, as the source for the mitzvot to prevent oneself or others from coming to harm.
In Masechet Chullin the Gemara presents an important halachic concept regarding dangerous situations. While halachic decision in cases of uncertainty often follow the majority of cases, when it comes to situations which may be dangerous, we err on the side of caution and take even a minority of cases into account – chamira sakanta me’issura. The Marahitz Chayut underscores that this concern for the minority concerning potentially dangerous cases is a Torah law. The logic for this is simple, says the Chatam Sofer. He explains that the halacha is a system of rules that are superimposed upon our lives from above, through the Torah. When it comes to those halachot, the self-same Torah that presents them also lays out a set of rules as to when and how to apply them to one’s life. Therefore, if the Torah states that the rules do not apply in a given situation, then the act is permitted. If, for example, a drop of milk falls into a pot where there is more than sixty times its volume, it is batel and the mixture is permitted to eat – there is simply no issur. However, when it comes to the objective world, where dangerous situations can lead to death, one must be concerned even about the minority of cases.
The question we need to ask ourselves, therefore, is what constitutes a dangerous situation?
Dangerous Situations – Towards a Definition
Rashi, commenting on the Gemara we quoted previously of chamira sakanta me’issura, writes simply that one must be concerned about the minority of cases. The Maharitz Chayut attempts to quantify the level of doubt about which one must be concerned. He compares the principle of chamira sakanta to a situation of life-threatening danger on Shabbat. In that case, the Torah allows one to violate Shabbat even if a very slim chance exists that one’s life is in danger. If we apply this understanding to our issue, it appears that one needs to be concerned about minuscule amounts of danger. Thus, the Maharitz Chayut seems to be establishing that if something is objectively dangerous – in a way that one would need to violate Shabbat to be saved from such a situation – it would be forbidden to place oneself into such a circumstance.
This definition can be sharpened by examining the following statement of the Sefer HaChinuch. The Sefer HaChinuch states that one must be concerned about things that are normally dangerous. Since God has placed us in a world that works according to natural processes, we must take those processes into account and refrain from doing anything that could normally dangerous. For this purpose, it seems that we could utilize statistical probabilities to decide whether or not a particular action is prohibited.
May Someone Place Themselves Into a Dangerous Situation?
If we have determined that a situation is dangerous, or potentially dangerous, is there any situation where one is allowed to purposefully place themselves in such a circumstance? Through an analysis of two stories in the Gemara, we can draw a distinction between those instances where something is objectively dangerous and where someone has a subjective fear of the situation. In the first story, Rav and Shmuel were reticent to pass underneath a particular wall in Nehardea – which had been standing until that point for thirteen years – for fear that it would collapse on them. Rav Ada bar Ahava then entered and walked under the wall without a second thought. Rav and Shmuel walked with Rav Ada, trusting in him that the wall would not fall on them. In the second story, brought immediately after the first, we learn about Rav Huna’s wine, which was trapped in a dilapidated house. Rav Huna, knowing of Rav Ada’s merits, tricks Rav Ada into walking into the house with him, allowing him to retrieve his wine. Immediately after they leave the house, it collapses. Needless to say, Rav Ada is nonplussed. The Gemara explains that Rav Ada was angry because one must never place oneself in danger and rely on a miracle.
If we compare these two stories, we can discern a few differences between them that can explain Rav Ada seemingly incongruous actions. In the first story, the wall that Rav and Shmuel were afraid of had been standing for thirteen years. To that point, it had shown itself not to be dangerous. Nevertheless, Rav and Shmuel were presumably concerned about the beraita in Masechet Rosh HaShana: “Three things cause the sins of a man to be weighed: A dilapidated wall…” Rav Ada, who was unafraid, had no problem passing under the wall. In the second story, however, the building was objectively dangerous. Rav Ada did not want to rely on a miracle, and was thus upset when his merits were used to protect him from a situation that he never should have been in in the first place.
We can conclude, therefore, that the difference between these two cases is both the feeling of security in a subjectively dangerous situation, as well as the objective amount of danger. One may put themselves in a subjectively dangerous situation if they are not afraid (the first case); if the situation is objectively dangerous, one must refrain from being there in the first place (the second case).
Rav Nachum Rabinovitch makes a similar point in his analysis of a Gemara in Bava Metzia. The Gemara states that one must pay workers on time because among other reasons, they are risking their lives doing dangerous work for this pay. Rav Rabinovitch points out that none of the poskim write that it is assur for such a worker to be in that situation in the first place. Rather, he writes that it is dependent on the worker’s subjective assessment of the situation – if he feels that it’s an acceptable risk and that he is not in real danger, it is permissible to for him to work in such circumstances. It is important to add that it seems that the case in the Gemara is not talking about an objectively dangerous profession. Rather, the examples in the Gemara are of those where the work is potentially dangerous, but if done in a safe manner need not be life-threatening. In such a case, one may rely on his subjective assessment of the situational danger.
What is the halacha when the danger is objectively present? Is one permitted to work in such situations? With regard to this question, there are a number of other relevant sources. The Gemara in Bava Kamma says that where there is a plague in one’s city, one should remain at home. The Maharshal challenges this conclusion and argues based on many other sources that if one believes that fleeing will save his life, one should do so. He continues, however, that if one has the ability to help save lives but instead chooses to run away, he is “removing himself from the community and will not merit to see the redemption.” In other words, it seems that the Maharshal allows a person to remain in an objectively dangerous place, even though he could potentially save himself, in order to help other people. This seems to be our first clear indication that one may put oneself into an objectively dangerous situation under certain circumstances.
We find another potential source for this position in the Gemara in Berachot. The Gemara tells us that one who was in a dangerous situation and emerges alive must publicly thank God. Some of the examples of dangerous situations that the Gemara provides are ones in which a person places themselves there of their own free will – traveling over the ocean or in the desert. If it were forbidden to place oneself in danger, how could one find themselves in such a position in the first place? It therefore appears from here as well that it is permitted to enter into situations of danger in certain cases.
We can conclude thus far that a person is permitted to evaluate a subjectively dangerous situation for themselves and decide whether or not it is worth the risk to enter into such circumstances. Concerning more clear-cut danger, it seems that one may remain in such a situation if one finds oneself there already and there is good reason to stay, and it may even be permitted to place oneself in such situations – we’ll explore this concept more fully in a later section.
“God Protects the Foolish”: What Does This Mean and When Can We Rely on it?
The Gemara in Masechet Yevamot writes that one should not perform a circumcision on a cloudy day. But since it has already become common practice to do this, דשו ביה רבים, one is allowed to perform a circumcision and rely on heavenly protection, שומר פתאים ה׳, “God protects the foolish.” The Ritva writes that one need not rely on this dispensation of שומר פתאים ה׳ and may refrain from performing a circumcision on such a day. The Shulchan Aruch, however, does not bring the discussion at all, ruling that one must perform the circumcision on the eighth day, regardless of weather conditions.
The commentaries grapple with the parameters of this dispensation – when do we say shomer petayim Hashem, and when not? Regarding the issue of an isha katlanit, a woman who has been widowed twice, the Gemara writes that she should not marry a third person. The Terumat HaDeshen writes that since today no one is careful about this and it is classified as דשו ביה רבים, one may rely on the principle of shomer petayim Hashem and marry a third husband. The Shulchan Aruch, however, does not rely on shomer petayim, and instead rules that she is forbidden to marry after being widowed twice.
The Chida notes the contradiction in the Shulchan Aruch: In Hilchot Mila, he has no problem relying on the dispensation of shomer petayim, but regarding the isha katlanit, he rules that one must be strict and not rely on shomer petayim. He arrives at the conclusion that we can only apply the principle of shomer petayim when the Sages applied it in the Gemara. But beyond that, we may not apply this principle out of our own judgement. This is the opinion of the Chelkat Yaalkov as well, although he extends the dispensation to the words of the Rishonim as well.
The Binyan Tzion discusses another Gemara regarding when women may use barrier methods of birth control, and develops a distinction that may be useful in understanding when a person may put themselves in a dangerous situation. He writes that there is a difference between a situation that is currently dangerous, which one would need to avoid, and a situation that could potentially be dangerous, with which one would not necessarily need to be concerned. In such cases where the danger is unclear to begin with, one may rely on shomer petayim. This is the reason that one may embark on a trip that will potentially be life-threatening, such as going on a boat or crossing the desert: At the moment, there is no danger to his life, and therefore it is permitted. The Achiezer takes this principle a step further and writes that the potential danger must be extremely unlikely in order to rely on shomer petayim.
If we apply this principle to COVID-19, it seems that one would not be allowed to rely on shomer petayim and continue to go about one’s daily life as normal. The virus absolutely poses a danger that is real and present, at least for some, and is therefore more similar to a situation that is currently dangerous, rather than one which could potentially be so, a point we will explore more fully in the next section.
In dealing with various aspects of running a country, the poskim of the nascent state of Israel wrote about “פיקוח נפש ציבורי – communal danger” and how it differs from the danger which any one person may be exposed to. One of the sources brought in this context is the Gemara in Masechet Shabbat quoting Shmuel that one may extinguish a burning coal in a public area. The Ramban explains that this is because Shmuel understands that any potential danger in a public area is equivalent to a danger to life and thus necessitates violation of Shabbat to avoid that said danger. It seems from this Gemara that there is a qualitative difference between danger to an individual and danger to a collective.
Rav Shaul Yisraeli explains the distinction between the public and private realm regarding danger to life in the context of the ability of a Jewish army to go to war for financial or territorial gain (מלחמת רשות). He writes that when viewing a group of people together, one ceases to see individual persons; instead, the public becomes a single, collective body. In order to understand how this collective works, one must apply statistical probabilities. Since in any given public, a certain number of people will be harmed by hunger or financial destitution in such a way that it will threaten their lives, such wars become a matter of life or death. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach similarly uses statistical probabilities to large groups to apply the principle of pikuach nefesh on a communal level. Rav Goren goes a step further, writing that with regard to the Jewish state, one could look at population-level concerns when creating policy on issues like autopsies for medical research.
We can apply the above reasoning to our predicament as well. Even though any particular person might not be at risk of death from COVID-19, given the way that the disease spreads throughout a population, anyone – even a person who will never develop symptoms – may serve as a node in a network of infection. At a population-level, this will result, and unfortunately already has, in many deaths, and therefore is certainly a matter of communal danger, and each person must do their utmost to prevent the spread of the disease.
Towards a Halachic Response to COVID-19
We have seen that there are biblical prohibitions involved in endangering one’s life, or the life of another. While it is true that the exact definition of a dangerous situation changes based upon many different factors, including a person including a person’s personal feeling of security, there also seem to be minimal objective boundaries. If we take the Maharitz Chayut’s opinion as our guideline, one is not allowed to knowingly place oneself in a situation where one would be required to violate Shabbat due to the danger involved.
Would displaying a cavalier attitude towards COVID-19 qualify as knowingly placing oneself in an objectively dangerous situation? The answer might depend on what sector of the population one was classified (young, over sixty, etc.), if one had any pre-existing medical conditions, and other factors affecting one’s health apart from the coronavirus. In other words, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact status of any individual person in this context.
It is important to point out though that those activities that are potentially dangerous but are nonetheless allowed – like crossing a desert or traveling on a ship – are actions that have a significant impact upon the way that society operates. Without the ability to travel long distances, trade would be impossible; without the ability to place oneself in a potentially dangerous situation like roofing, the physical structures of our cities and towns would be vastly altered. However, when it comes to the COVID-19 restrictions, they are hopefully temporary ones that have been set in place to protect lives at the current time only, and therefore those dispensations for dangerous situations are not applicable.
In addition, we have seen that individual circumstance does not come into play when discussing a case of communal danger. We must remember that the biblical imperatives to keep out of harm do not apply only to an individual. As discussed above, one must do what they can to prevent others from coming to harm as well. As in any society where there are those who are sick, old, or otherwise infirm, the question becomes broader than simply the level of danger to oneself.
Distinct from the common flu, the COVID-19 virus is ruthless, and can spread among a given population in a very short amount of time. One of the only steps that can slow the spread of the virus, thus alleviating pressure on a potentially overworked healthcare system, is social distancing. Indeed, in countries where extreme social distancing practices were put in place in a timely fashion, the death rate for the disease is 0.9%. In those countries where early and stringent measures were not put in place, the death rate can reach up to 4%. Those percentage points literally represent thousands, if not millions of lives. Even if one doesn’t feel sick, one can still spread the disease without knowing it, potential endangering many people. Thus, it seems clear that society on the whole must do everything possible to stop the spread of the disease. This imperative also relates to a different prohibition in the Torah, lo ta’amod al dam rei’echa, “you shall not stand by your fellow’s blood”; endangering others by not following the recommended guidelines is an absolute violation of this mitzva.
Health Workers: Potential vs. Certain Life-Threatening Danger
Regarding health workers, the picture looks a bit different. As we saw above, it is mutar for a person to place themselves in danger to earn a livelihood; all the more so to save lives. Indeed, the Imrei Eish writes that one may place themselves into danger equivalent to that of a war for this purpose (roughly a one in six chance of dying in his opinion). The Noda Biyehuda also writes that one may place themselves in danger in order to earn a profit, and certainly for a basic livelihood. When it comes to saving lives, there seems to be no doubt that it is permitted as well. This is the conclusion arrived at by Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein, who allows a demolitions expert to defuse explosives, even though there is a significant risk to his life. |
Though there is no absolute obligation to risk one’s life for another, there does seem to be a strong preference among the poskim for one to remain in potentially life threatening situations in order to save lives. True, the Gemara cites the opinion of Rabbi Akiva that one’s own life precedes the life of another. But the Chavot Yair explains that this is the case only with regard to a certainty that it is one life or the other. However, with regard to a situation where there is only a potential danger – ספק פיקוח נפש – he says that one must try and help the other. As we saw above, this is the opinion of the Maharshal as well.
The Rambam writes “that anyone who can save a life and does not do so violates the biblical injunction of “do not stand over your brother’s blood.” He writes that this is the case even when there is a certain amount of danger inherent in the situation, such as when bandits are present or the person is drowning. Based on a teshuva of the Radbaz concerning this Rambam, Rav Ovadia Yosef writes that one is obligated to put oneself in a potentially dangerous situation to save the life of another where there is a greater chance that the person will be saved than that the rescuer will die.
Even were we to determine that it is objectively dangerous to be infected by COVID-19 for any given individual, if that person were able to be of help in some way to others who were sick, that person should absolutely continue to help unless his or her own life was in immediate danger, and even then, there are those who would allow this, and may even require it. In the words of the Maharshal, one who does not help the community in its time of need “removes himself from the community, and will not merit to see the redemption.” When it comes specifically to doctors and nurses, Rav Eliezer Melamed is of the opinion that they must continue to treat patients with infectious diseases. He argues that, in part, this is because otherwise such patients would be left to die, an untenable option. In fact, he relates that great rabbanim themselves would lead teams of people during the cholera outbreak in the 19th century to treat the ill.
It seems clear, then, that those on the front lines of the fight against the virus, the doctors, nurses, and other medical workers in the hospitals, as well as those caring for sick individuals in the home, should continue their holy work.
Just like it is forbidden to eat non-Kosher, or to violate Shabbat, it is forbidden from the Torah to be cavalier about COVID-19. Instead, one must exercise the utmost caution, listen to the most updated guidelines from one’s local health organization, and do their best to stay safe and keep others safe. As we struggle with this virus and its immediate ramifications for our lives, we can internalize a renewed sense of the sanctity of human life and the incredible way we are all interconnected. May we all merit to see a speedy recovery for humanity.
 Devarim 22:8
 Sefer HaMitzvot, Lo Ta’aseh 298, Aseh 184
 Rabbeinu Bechayei, Devarim 22:8
 Berachot 32b
 Devarim 4:9
 Devarim 4:15
 It is worth noting that in their original context, neither of these verses are referring to one’s physical welfare. Many Acharonim have attempted to answer the question of why they are applied in this manner; see, for example, He’arot of Rav Eliashiv, Berachot 32b, and Emet L’yaakov, Devarim Achadim.
 Rotze’ach V’shemirat HaNefesh 11:4
 Choshen Mishpat 427:8
 Commentary to Chullin 9b
 Chullin 9b
 Chullin 9b s.v. “ואין דרכן לכסות”
 Mitzva 546
 Ta’anit 20b
 Siach Nachum, y.d. 89
 See Igrot Moshe, c.m. 1:104, where it seems that Rav Feinstein arrived at a similar conclusion.
 Yam Shel Shlomo, Bava Kamma 6:26
 Yevamot 64b
 See the Rambam’s opinion on an isha katlanit in his responsa (siman 218).
 Siman 211
 Chayim Sha’al 1:59
 Responsa Chelkat Ya’akov, y.d. 39
 Yevamot 12b
 Vol. 1, Even Ha’Ezer 23
 Amud HaYemini pp. 214–215
 Assia 53–54, p. 100
 Torat HaRefua, p. 80
 “Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now” by Tomas Peyo. www.medium.com/@tomaspueyo/coronavirus-act-today-or-people-will-die-f4d3d9cd99ca
 Tomas Pevo, ibid.
 Vayikra 19:16
 Y.D. 52
 Tanyana, y.d.10
 Shiurei Torah L’Rofim 2:113
 Bava Metzia 62a
 Siman 146
 Hilchot Rotzeach V’shmirat HaNefesh 1:14
 Yechaveh Da’at 5:84
 For a further discussion of putting oneself in potential danger to save another person, see Beit Yosef (C.M. 426), Shulchan Aruch and Sma (C.M. 426), and Milumdei Milchama by Rav Nachum Rabinovitch, pp. 5–7.