Build a Parapet – Public Safety – Ki Teitzei 5781

As far as I know, this morning’s portion contains the Torah’s only example of a building code. 

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.

Deuteronomy 22:8

For those who are wondering, a parapet is a fence. 

As we might imagine, the Rabbis go into great detail outlining the particular requirements of this broadly-stated rule.

The Shulchan Arukh, the code of Jewish written in the sixteenth century by Joseph Caro, does a good job of summarizing the discussions and legal rulings that evolved over the preceding 1,500 years.

In chapter 427 of Choshen Mishpat, which happens to be the final chapter of the entire Shulchah Arukh, the laws of building a parapet are discussed.

It starts with particular details.  Which kinds of structures are included? Houses and apartments, yes; warehouses and barns, no. Synagogues and schools, no. (But don’t worry, we have a parapet around the flat parts of our roof here at Congregation Sinai.)

How tall does a house have to be to require a parapet?  How many walls?  How high does the parapet need to be? And so on.

Closely reading the Biblical text, the rabbis identify both a positive commandment to build a parapet around the roof as well as a negative commandment to not bring bloodguilt upon your house. Thus, someone who fails to build said parapet transgresses two separate commandments of the Torah.

And then the Shulchan Arukh broadens the lens to include any physical structure which might pose a danger to other people, such as a well or a pit.  If you have a manhole on your property, it needs a manhole cover or a fence around it.

And then the Shulchan Arukh takes an even bigger step back, stating that “one has a positive duty to remove and guard oneself from any life-threatening obstacle,” like unsafe drinking water.

Ending the discussion of the laws of building a parapet, and thereby ending the entire Shulchan Arukh itself, is the following statement:

Anyone who transgresses on these and similar matters by saying, “What business is it of anyone else if I put myself in danger,” or “I am not concerned with this,” he should be lashed for disobedience.

Shulchan Arukh 427:10

We began with the simple statement that a person who builds a private home must make sure that it does not have any features that might be dangerous to themself or anyone else. By the end of the section, the Rabbis have stated that the Beit Din, the Jewish court, can physically compel someone whose actions endanger not just other people, but even themself.

Jewish law has always struggled with the tension between individual autonomy and collective responsibility.

Laws such as these developed at a time when Jews were often left to their own affairs when it came to communal rules and behaviors.

Now, rather than following the Torah’s building codes, state and city regulations are in place to make sure that new construction is safe.

That there are limits to personal autonomy, especially when it comes to safety, is firmly established in Jewish law.

Consider this with respect to mask and vaccine mandates.

Our community has been so supportive with regard to the changing rules for masking and distancing in the synagogue. With the goalposts constantly moving, figuring out how to bring the community safely together has not been easy.

But we all seem to recognize the need to take into account the effects on others when we make decisions for ourselves, even when it means sometimes doing something inconvenient or uncomfortable. 

Let’s come back to the Shulkah Arukh. Joseph Caro must have wanted to end the on a positive note. Because after warning that the person who disregards safety can be compelled through lashes, he writres the following:

May good blessings come upon the person who is careful with them [i.e. the rules about public safety].

Shulchan Arukh 427:10

May good blessings come upon all of us.

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