Deuteronomy 22:8

Deuteronomy 22:8

Yoel Halevi No Comments

Deuteronomy 22:8 states the following commandment:

כִּי תִבְנֶה בַּיִת חָדָשׁ וְעָשִׂיתָ מַעֲקֶה לְגַגֶּךָ וְלֹא תָשִׂים דָּמִים בְּבֵיתֶךָ כִּי יִפֹּל הַנֹּפֵל מִמֶּנּוּ

“When you build a new house, you must build a low wall around your roof; otherwise someone may fall from it, and you will be responsible for his death”.

The law states that a new house must have a parapet/rail of some sort to prevent people from falling off to their death. Though the text speaks of a “new house” it stands to reason that it is also talking about any house in case the former owner did not build such a parapet/rail. The logic behind this law is based on the fact that roofs were used by the home owners as storage spaces. It was very common for houses in the ancient world (and in the modern Mediterranean style) to have flat roofs where non household items were kept (see Joshua 2:6, 1 Sam 9:26, Jer. 19:13), sleeping during summer (as I practiced on India to this very day) and for drying food and clothing. 

There are two ideas standing behind this law:

  1. To protect human life. This value is repeats itself in the Torah and is a standard of law. Though we do find many cases where people are executed for different crimes there is no contradiction in this practice as far as the Torah sees it. One must take responsibility for one’s actions, and some actions are so offensive the person is to be removed from our world.
  2. To prevent the liability of the home owner from being responsible for manslaughter. If the owner has done everything possible to prevent accidents, then the responsibility falls onto the person who fell. This is also true for open pits in the street (Exodus 21:33-34) and any other hazardous possibilities. This also means that if a person is injured by their own fault, it is against Torah to charge someone else for the injury (as is the case with the many liability lawsuits in modern times). 

In our modern world where many roofs are not used (unless one has built a house with a flat roof) it might be that this law becomes less relevant. However, placing a railing on stairways or on rooftops to prevent people from falling is practiced by modern standards of building. The parapet/rail also must be able to support human weight, a rule presented in Jewish literature (Rambam, Sefer Neziqin, Shmirat Hanefesh 11:3). Hence, this law is one of the most modern style laws in the Torah which has become common practice in the world. 

Phillips, Anthony, The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible: Deuteronomy, Cambridge, 1973.

Nelson, Richard D., The Old Testament Library: Deuteronomy, Louisville: London, 2002. 

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