Shabbat Parashat Bamidbar| 5765
Ask the Rabbi
Question: Is a pedestrian halachically forbidden to cross at a red light when it is safe to do so?
Answer: Although we will discuss halachic elements of this question, we protest the tendency to hide behind the occasional difficulty in finding a halachic category to forbid a clearly improper practice (under normal circumstances). While we will discuss the situation in Israel, the bottom line is much the same in any country. We will deal with different issues one by one:
Dina d’malchuta (the law of the land): According to most authorities, dina d’malchuta isbinding in Eretz Yisrael, as well (see opinions in Encyclopedia Talmudit VII, pg. 307) and certainly in regard to laws enacted for public welfare, not to enrich the king (Shut Chatam Sofer, CM 44). We are of the conviction that the Israeli government has a halachic status of malchut (kingdom) (Rav Kook- Mishpat Kohen 144; Rav Yisraeli- Amud Hay’mini 7; see also Techumin, III 238-249). Although there is a machloket whether dina d’malchuta governs only matters related to the king’s interests or even relationships between people, that is primarily because such power would usurp the role of Torah law in those areas (see Shach, CM 73:39). It certainly is not a threat to Torah principles if the government decides rules for crossing public streets. Therefore, traffic rules are binding. Secondly, in our times, the government pays for much of the expense of accidents (medical, disability, …) and so it is an interested party, as well. It is illogical to say that the government is allowed to punish those who violate laws, yet we may violate them if we dare. If the Torah recognizes its authority in these matters, then we are thus bound by the Torah to accept, not rebel against this authority. A likely difference between a regular Torah law and the authority the Torah grants governments is in cases where the government does not mind if one technically violates one of their rules under specific circumstances where the law was not intended. However, this concept should be used sparingly. (In most cases a pedestrian would deem it safe to cross at a red light, he would not do so while being observed by a policeman.)
Endangering one’s life: In recent years, one third of traffic fatalities were pedestrian. One must assume that many of them could have been spared had they been careful and followed rules they deemed unnecessary. Nevertheless, it is hard to disqualify a responsible person from judging when it is safe to cross a street. (It is our observation that people are incapable of crossing streets carefully while speaking on cell phones.) Additionally, there is a concept of dashu ba rabim, that it is permitted to enter a potential danger which people regularly ignore (Yevamot 72a).
Chillul Hashem (desecrating Hashem’s Name): One should learn well the gemara in Yoma 86a. It not only stresses chillul Hashem’s severitybut also the fact that the more one represents the Torah, the stricter the parameters of when he is deemed to have caused it. We have heard people comment that religious people are more likely to ignore rules of the road. Although we object to such prejudices, we also object to people’s actions which enable such claims to be made.
Example for children: When children (including our own) see adults ignore the rules of the road, they learn to follow suit, often with tragic consequences.
Contributing to an atmosphere: None of us are individually to blame for the atmosphere of disregard for laws, manners, and the value of human life on our streets, nor can we of improve it significantly alone. But since a whole is made up of many parts, each of us is obligated to do his part in pushing things in the right direction, not the wrong one. When pedestrians disregard their rules, motorists are less likely to act courteously or even safely at crosswalks and intersections.
After honestly considering the various factors, a yarei shamayim should not ask (although some do), “Nu, so is it really asur?” But if he does, our answer is that it is almost always asur.
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