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The Jacksonville Florida Tragedy and Halacha

Traffic-Lights-for-PedestriansBy Rabbi Yair Hoffman

The recent incident this past Yom Kippur involving a woman in Jacksonville, Florida who was killed while crossing an intersection with dangerously fast cars was very tragic indeed.  It not only left the sixteen year old daughter who was with her with life-threatening injuries, it left her orphaned r”l. This young lady had lost her father many years earlier.

The tragedy, however, brings up a halachic question.  In an area where the traffic light poses a danger in crossing because it is timed for too short a time to cross safely, would it be permitted to ask a gentile to press the button?

THE PROHIBITION AND ITS REASONS

Generally speaking, the sages forbade asking a gentile to perform an otherwise- prohibited action on the Sabbath or on a Jewish holiday.  The prohibition is called “Amira l’Akum” and is found in Shabbos 121a, where we learn that it is forbidden to ask a gentile to extinguish a (non-life-threatening) fire.

The explanations given for this prohibition are many.  Rashi (Avodah Zarah 15a) explains that the Rabbis felt that it would be a violation of v’daber davar (Isaiah 58:13) – speaking about prohibited things.  Elsewhere, (Shabbos 151a) Rashi explains that the sages made it as if the Jew was performing the violation himself through the concept known as shlichus.  Finally, the Rambam explains that the Rabbis were concerned that a Jew who asks a gentile to do something forbidden may take the Shabbos lightly himself and come to a violation himself.

EXCEPTIONS TO THE PROHIBITION

However, there are times when exceptions were made to this rabbinic prohibition.  Some exceptions pertain even to a biblically forbidden restriction, while other exceptions only pertain to a Rabbinic restriction.  (For example, during Friday night’s twilight one may ask a gentile to perform a biblical prohibition for the needs of Shabbos.  When there is fear of a significant loss of money, one may ask a gentile to perform a Rabbinic violation – but not a Biblical prohibition).

The rationale is that under these four circumstances – the Rabbis never made the restriction of forbidding one to ask a gentile to perform an action that will remedy the situation.

AVOIDING DANGER IS A MITZVAH

It is this author’s view that when faced with a dangerous intersection, ensuring that one crosses safely is a Mitzvah.  The Torah tells us (Dvarim 4:15), “And you shall be very careful with your souls” and earlier (Dvarim 4:9), “Just be careful and watch yourself very much.”  The Rambam (Hilchos Shmiras HaNefesh 11:4) rules that these verses teach of the Mitzvah to remove dangers.  Rav Chaim Kanievsky Shlita (in his responsa 24-30 as cited in Nesivos Chaim p.17) rules that, in fact, one fulfills two Mitzvos by abiding by these Psukim.

FOR A MITZVAH ONE MAY ASK A GENTILE TO PERFORM A RABBINIC VIOLATION

The Rambam (Hilchos Shabbos 6:9-10), Mishna Brurah (307:23) and Aruch HaShulchan (OC 276:16) clearly state that for the needs of a Mitzvah, one may ask a gentile to violate a rabbinic stricture.  Other modern Poskim (Dayan Weiss Minchas Yitzchak Vol. VIII #57) rule this way too, and a minority of Poskim even permit asking the gentile even to perform a full-fledged biblical prohibition when it is a Tzorech Mitzvah (See Mogain Avrohom 276:2).

NATURE OF TRAFFIC LIGHTS

The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) is a document issued by the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) to specify the standards by which traffic signs, road surface markings, and signals are designed, installed, and used. In the United States, all traffic control devices must conform to these standards. The manual is used by all state and local agencies as well as private construction firms to ensure that the traffic control devices they use conform to the national standard. Traffic light bulbs are incandescent bulbs and most traffic departments across the country have not yet made the switch to florescent or to LED displays.

Most Poskim rule that florescent or LED displays  are a Rabbinic violation, but turning on or off an incandescent bulb is, generally, a Torah prohibition according to virtually all Poskim. A good argument can be made, however, that asking a gentile to press the pedestrian button is, in fact, permitted.

WHY ONE MAY PERMIT ASKING A GENTILE

Why might this be the case?  The pressing of the button in most of the older systems that still fit the MUTCD does not happen instantly.  Indeed, at certain times, depending upon traffic and timing, pressing the button does not cause a change at all according to the MUTCD guidelines.  Certainly, however, there is a delay of the changing of lengthening of the crosswalk timing as well as in turning the light to oncoming traffic red sooner.  This  delay would very likely be viewed by some Poskim as a gram hadlaka (See Shmiras Shabbos K’hilchasa Vol I 12:25 citing the view of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l). The Biur Halacha in 334:22 rules that Gram Hadlaka is permitted under certain circumstances which clearly indicates his view that it is only a Rabbinic violation.

EVEN ACCORDING TO THE OTHER POSKIM

However, the author of the Maaseh Choshev (Vol. I #30) disagrees with this view and considers even a delay in the switch as maaseh byadayim mamash – actual and direct action and thus would look at it as a biblical violation.  Here too, one can make an argument that when the issue concerns a matter of even a small risk of life, the lenient opinions cited earlier in the Magain Avrohom can be relied upon.  There is even another reason to be lenient – here we are dealing with two Mitzvos, not one, as explained by Rav Chaim Kanievsky Shlita.

When this author presented the case to permit asking a gentile to press the crosswalk button to some leading Poskim, the Poskim agreed to the underlying rationale.  They also agreed that the leniency can be promulgated in their name.  The Poskim were Rav Moshe Heinemann Shlita from Baltimore and Rav Shmuel Fuerst Shlita from Chicago.

Rav Heinemann Shlita added, however, that one should try to ascertain whether the person being asked is truly a gentile.  Although one could perhaps rely on the majority of people that one comes in contact with in such circumstances are gentiles, there is also a principle of efshar levarer mevarerin, – when we can easily ascertain the facts, we do.

The author can be reached at yairhoffman2@gmail.com

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Posted by on September 17, 2013. Filed under Breaking News,Jewish News,Slider,U.S. News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

2 Responses to The Jacksonville Florida Tragedy and Halacha

  1. Ari

    September 17, 2013 at 9:41 pm

    Please donate money to help support this young girl: https://fundrazr.com/campaigns/dbKLa?psid=d7747b1368f6481f9d88381b4afda045

  2. Dan

    September 21, 2013 at 9:28 pm

    I read your piece on whether it’s a violation of halacha to ask a “shabbos goy” to push the button at intersections which gives pedestrians the right of way. I have often disagreed with what you write, and this is no exception.
    I was appalled that the rabbi of this orthodox synagogue, who apparently knew that the intersection where these two women were hit by a car is extremely dangerous, didn’t tell the members of his congregation that it’s not assur to hit the button and cross when the “Walk” sign comes up. It is, in fact, 10 lanes of traffic to cross, and the speed limit is 45 mph. Crossing against the light here can be fatal.
    Your argument about using a shabbos goy is incredibly disingenuous. There is no reason to wait for a Gentile to come by so one could ask that person to push the button. The first reason is scientific: Electricity is the movement of electrons from one place to another. It is not combustion, despite so-called “poskim” who claim otherwise. The second reason is that putting your life in danger for the sake of halacha isn’t halachic, even if one believes all this ultra-orthodox BS.
    If I were around and some religious Jew asked me to push the “cross” button, I’d gladly do so. I’d also help put out a fire in a property owned by a Gentile even if only property was at stake; to me, it’s utterly disgraceful that the ultra-orthodox believe that a Jew cannot help his fellow man (or an animal) on a Jewish holiday regardless of whether the person is Jewish.
    I don’t have a Jewish last name (it’s Hungarian, not Italian) and don’t look especially Jewish, but if anyone asks me if I were Jewish, I’d say “No, my name’s O’Brien.” And if God struck me dead on the spot for lying, I’d curse his name for all eternity. (Of course, this has nothing whatsoever to do with God and lots to do with rabbinical morons who arrogate to themselves taking the Lords’s name in vain.)
    As a Reform Jew, I drive to shul on the relatively rare occasions I attend. Got a problem with that? Tough.
    Dear Dan,
    Thank you for your letter, and I certainly understand why you disagree with this article and with many of my other ones. I can see things from your perspective and respect that. Your desire to help Jews in a dangerous situation and in the process misrepresenting that your name is actually O’Brian (or O’Brien as you spelled it) is actually quite laudable, and in my mind, makes you a righteous individual. I am happy that you would not callously say, “Let the fanatic die, for all I care..”
    What I ask, but do not demand, is that you try to understand and respect the Orthodox perspective too. Orthodox Jews believe in Torah coming from Sinai. We accord the same respect to the halachos of Judaism as a patriotic American citizen accords to the laws of the United States. As an Orthodox Jewish American citizen, I observe and respect both sets of laws.
    Once, in New York State, there used to be flag laws – about respecting the American flag. If my car said that I needed oil and I needed a rag to check that oil, I would not used an American flag to check it. I would look for a napkin or some other item to use – even if it may be less effective.
    To an orthodox Jew, the Shabbos is the flag of Judaism. Desecrating that flag is no different than desecrating an American flag. There are people who do not place value on the American flag. I value both flags. There are people, even Americans, who would not think twice about using that American flag to check their oil. Indeed, there are people who are proud of the fact that they desecrate the American flag. They tell the rest of us – “Yeah, I desecrate the American flag. You got a problem with that? Tough.”
    To an American, having the flag desecrated by another American is a problem. To a Jew who follows the traditions of Rabbi Akiva, Maimonides, Rashi, and the Vilna Gaon, Yes, having the flag desecrated by another fellow citizen is a problem.
    I hope that you are open-minded enough to realize that Orthodox Jews really do look at Shabbos as our national-religious flag. And I also hope that you are patriotic enough to understand what the American flag means. It is my hope and prayer that G-d will one day enable you to appreciate the beauty of the Shabbos flag as much as you appreciate the American flag.
    If you would ever like to do lunch together, I’d love to treat you.
    Sincerely,
    Yair Hoffman