Parashat Ki Tetze
We are responsible for our actions, our property, and any objects of danger we witness in the world.
Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.
Parashat Ki Tetze offers one of the first instances of building code in human history--the precursor to restrictions on asbestos insulation and circuit breaker requirements. At a moment in time when houses had flat roofs, the Torah tells us, "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." It's a simple principle--a flat roof, where family and friends might hang out and barbecue, is an inherently dangerous place. We should anticipate that danger and build a railing so no one falls.
This is an intuitive proposition, but we shouldn't fail to note one innovative implication. The parapet requirement provides a practical application of the more abstract principle of--"You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Leviticus 19:16)." Beyond demanding that we not perpetrate sins of commission against one another, the Torah now concretely prohibits a sin of omission. It's not enough for us simply to refrain from pushing someone off of a roof, we must anticipate and proactively protect against that danger.
Objects of Potential Danger
It's not an especially radical leap to apply the principle more generally--if we can easily foresee that something we own may cause danger, we should take precautionary action to mitigate the danger. It's in the spirit of this verse that American law has seen fit to regulate some of the most mundane details of home ownership. Homeowners must clear their sidewalks of ice and snow so postal workers won't slip and fall. Swimming pool owners are required to cover their pools when they're not in use to prevent wandering children from falling in and drowning.
These are sensible precautions and represent a reasonable approach to assigning responsibility and accountability. Maimonides, however, expands the principle dramatically. In his legal commentary on this verse, he writes:
"Both the roof and any other object of potential danger, by which it is likely that a person could be fatally injured, require that the owner take action... just as the Torah commands us to make a fence on the roof... and so, too, regarding any obstacle which could cause mortal danger, one, not just the owner, has a positive commandment to remove it... if one does not remove it but leaves those obstacles constituting potential danger, one transgresses a positive commandment and negates a negative commandment 'Thou shall not spill blood' (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Murderer and Protecting Life, 11:4)."