The Torah warns the architect, the builder and the householder: “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof in order that you do not bring blood guilt upon your house if anyone should fall from it” (Deut. 22:8).
But why must a house have a railing to protect someone who should have more sense than to go near the edge of the roof?
An analogy suggests an answer. In other systems of law the rule is caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware”. In Jewish law it is, “let the seller beware”.
If vendors have to protect their customers from a purchase that might be to their detriment, so must a person who builds a house ensure that his negligence does not put another person at risk.
Maimonides says that the law of the parapet is a warning “to remove any obstacles and traps from any of your property and to erect a railing around all roofs, ditches, holes, etc., so that no-one can fall and be injured”.
He adds that a person must in addition remove any hazardous article which might be in their premises or under their control (Sefer HaMitzvot, positive laws, no. 184).
This law has a fascinating theological dimension if you look at it from the point of view not of the householder but of the person who may be at risk and suffer injury. May someone say, “I am a tzaddik: I am safe, nothing will happen to me”?
The Sefer HaChinnuch of Rabbi Aharon HaLevi of Barcelona (Mitzvot 546-7) says, “There were people who, because of the spiritual heights that they attained, were able to overcome the laws of nature such as pain and death by burning. This applied in the instances of Abraham, Daniel and others.
“In our day, no-one reaches such spiritual heights. One must therefore take every precaution to protect his or her life. A person who goes to war should arm himself adequately and not rely on miracles.”
May a person say, “I believe in God. If I lean over the edge of a roof and fall to my death, then it must have been the will of God”? Or may he dig a deep pit and say, “If anyone falls into it and dies, it must be that God willed it?”
It is wonderful to quote the verse in the Psalms that says, “The Lord protects the simple” (Psalm 116:6), and indeed some believers who still indulge in smoking think that this verse will ensure they come to no harm.
But there is another verse about the simple, “The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:8).
The simple person needs not only sweet faith but also sound wisdom, and the sound wisdom consists of not making it too hard for God to look after us. And did not God Himself tell us in the Torah, v’nishmartem me’od l’nafshotechem – “You shall carefully guard your lives” (Deut. 4:15)?