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The Mitzvah of Wearing a Bicycle Helmet 20-June-12

The Mitzvah of Wearing a Bicycle Helmet

Every once in a while one reads something that just boggles the mind. So it was when I read a New York Times article with the headline “Dropping Helmet Laws to Reduce a Town’s Risk.” To summarize: the town of Milton, Washington, population 7,000, had a law requiring all cyclists and skateboarders to wear a helmet. However, because of the economy, they have had to cut police budgets and enforcement of the helmet law had to give way to higher priority crimes.

But then, as the Times reports there was an “only in (litigious) America” wrinkle, “An inability to enforce a law on the books, the town’s insurance consultant argued, created administrative unevenness that — in the event of an accident by someone who was not nagged or cited about helmet use — posed a liability risk that could bankrupt the community with one swipe from a punitive-minded jury.”

So this is where we are today. Someone decides to ignore common-sense safety has an accident, sustains an avoidable head injury, and then sues the city for not preventing him for being an idiot.

I rode a bicycle regularly for many years. I always wore a helmet. One day I had a fall and heard my helmet hit the ground, not my head. So I am strongly convinced that cyclists should wear helmets.

As it turns out, so is Judaism. There is actually a mitzvah to avoid needless risk: sh’mirat ha-hefesh, protecting oneself. It is based on Deuteronomy 4:9. The key words are Rak hishameir l’kha u-sh’mor nafsh’kha m’od—in Robert Alter’s fine translation, “Only be you on the watch and watch yourself closely.” In context, it is a warning not to forget all that God did for Israel. But the Rabbis read them as a general commandment to take care of yourself and avoid dangerous situations. Maimonides codifies it thus: “Our sages prohibited many things because they are dangerous, and, if someone endangers himself, saying, ‘What business is this of anyone else? Or ‘What do I care?,’ he should be flogged.”

Well, maybe not flogged (although when I see a parent riding with his child on the handlebars, neither of them wearing a helmet…), but certainly held accountable, and definitely not entitled to sue someone else for his own foolish negligence. God only gave us one life and one brain. It’s the least we can do to protect them.


The renowned Rabbi Shlomo Riskin on bicycle helmets:

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