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Protecting the Foolish

I. ACCEPTING DANGER

Are you permitted or forbidden to enter a dangerous situation? The Gemara (Shabbos 32a) states that you are forbidden to enter a dangerous situation and rely on a miraculous salvation. However, in five places the Gemara permits entering a dangerous situation because “Shomer pesa’im Hashem, God protects the foolish” (Ps. 116:6 – Avodah Zarah 30b; Niddah 31b; Yevamos 72a; Shabbos 129b; Kesuvos 39a). How do we resolve this contradiction?

We can explain the permission of “shomer pesa’im” in two ways:

1) Because people commonly accept this danger (“dashu beih rabim“), you are also allowed to accept it and rely on divine intervention.

2) Such a situation is not considered dangerous.

If the prohibition to enter a dangerous situation is biblical, then only a lack of danger can allow entering such a situation (i.e. explanation 2 above). However, if the prohibition is only rabbinic, then perhaps the Sages allow it in a case of commonly accepted danger (explanation 1 above).

The Terumas Ha-Deshen (1:211) asks whether even a Torah scholar may rely on shomer pesa’im. Apparently, the Terumas Ha-Deshen considers such a situation to be dangerous but permissible, following the first explanation above.

II. PERMISSIBLE DANGER

If we accept this first approach, that such a situation entails danger but you may still enter it, then perhaps that danger still overrides Shabbos. Your permission to enter that danger does not necessarily mean that the danger does not override Shabbos.

Rav Yehuda Amital (Resisei Tal, vol. 1 no. 30) explains Tosafos (Yoma 85a sv. u-lefakei’ach) as saying that doubtful danger does not override commandments. Rather, the commandments do not apply when there is even a doubt of life-threatening danger. “And you shall live by them (Lev. 18:5) means that you are not obligated to observe a commandment that might endanger your life. If so, your permission to accept certain dangers does not necessarily remove this exemption.

The Peri Megadim (Orach Chaim 329 MZ 1) rules that even a doubt of life-threatening danger overrides Shabbos. However, elsewhere (ibid. 173 MZ 1) he suggests that perhaps you are allowed to enter a situation of double-doubtful (sefeik sefeika) danger even without the permission of shomer pesa’im. Apparently, he considers a sefeik sefeika of danger to still be danger because it overrides Shabbos yet he suggests that you may enter such a situation.

III. UNCONCERNED

If you are concerned with the danger, you need not rely on shomer pesa’im and may refrain from entering the dangerous situation. What about the converse? What if you are unconcerned but others› (e.g. family members) worry for your safety? Are you allowed to violate Shabbos to satisfy their concerns?

The Mishnah (Berachos 1:3) describes how R. Tarfon stopped on the road, placing himself in danger of thieves, in order to recite Shema properly. Additionally, the Gemara (Berachos 33a) states that if a snake crawls on your heel while you are praying, you must continue and may not stop in the middle of a prayer. Rav Elchanan Wasserman (Kovetz Shi’urim, Pesachim no. 32) explains that you may place yourself in a little danger in order to fulfill a mitzvah. Presumably, the two prior cases only involved a little danger.

However, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (quoted in Shemiras Shabbos Ke-Hlichasah ch. 25 par. 15) rules that you may kill a snake on Shabbos even if it is not chasing you. Clearly he held that a snake constitutes a serious, and not minor, danger.

Similarly, the Rogatchover (Responsa Tzofnas Pa’anei’ach, no. 39) points out the following contradiction in the Rambam. The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Shabbos 2:23) rules that you may not kill a snake on Shabbos that is chasing someone else. However, the Rambam (ibid. 11:4) also rules that you may kill dangerous animals on Shabbos even if they are not chasing you. According to the Rambam, can you kill predators on Shabbos when they are not chasing a person?

IV. SUBJECTIVE DANGER

The Rogatchover answers based on a careful reading of the Mishnah (Shabbos 29b): “One who extinguishes a lamp because he fears gentiles, bandits, bad wind or a sick person is exempt.” Why does the Mishnah add the words “because he fears”? The Rogatchover explains that an objective danger certainly overrides Shabbos. But a subjective danger, a personal fear for your life, also overrides Shabbos. The case of the Mishnah is where there is no objective danger but you still fear gentiles, bandits, etc. In such a case, you are still allowed to violate Shabbos due to your fear of life-threatening danger.

With this, the Rogatchover also explains the apparent contradiction in the Rambam. When a snake is in your vicinity but not chasing you, and there is no little danger, your fear creates a subjective danger that overrides Shabbos. However, when the snake is in someone else’s vicinity, your fear does not create a situation of danger for him. He has to fear for his life in order to allow Shabbos violation.

This also explains Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach’s ruling that you may kill a snake on Shabbos. Your subjective danger is sufficient to override the Shabbos prohibition. And when the Gemara discusses a snake crawling on your heel, it must be referring to a situation where you do not fear for your life.

With all this in hand, Rav Amital answers his question. Your subjective fear overrides Shabbos. But if you are not scared and just someone else is scared for you, you may not violate Shabbos.