Last week on October 26, 2015 the World Health Organization, announced that a group of 22 experts from 10 countries classified the consumption of red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans. This was based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer. This association was observed mainly for colorectal cancer, but associations were also seen for pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer. Many experts were quick to point out that the study focuses mainly on processed meats and the risks are negligible when consumed in moderation. In this article we will present a halachic perspective of how to approach these types of risks.
Pikuach Nefesh or ‘Shomer Pesaim Hashem’?
The Talmud (Yevamos 72a) writes that when the Jewish people were in the desert for forty years they did not circumcise their sons because the northerly wind which promotes healing did not blow and it was dangerous. The Talmud continues that even today it is dangerous to perform a circumcision on a cloudy day where there is no northerly wind. Nonetheless, the Talmud writes that today circumcisions are performed even on a cloudy day and we are not concerned about these risks, because since it has become common practice, we invoke the verse from Psalms ‘Shomer pesaim Hashem – Hashem guards fools’.
Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman (Kovetz Shiurim Kesubos 136) asks the obvious question. How is it permitted to rely on this verse, don’t we have an obligation to guard our health? Aren’t we obligated to desecrate Shabbos even when there is only a doubt if there is a risk to human life? Rabbi Wasserman understands that the concept of Shomer pesaim Hashem is limited to situations where it is difficult to avoid the risk. Under such conditions it is permitted to rely that Hashem will help, otherwise it is forbidden.
Rabbi Malkiel Tzvi Tennenbaum (Divrei Malkiel 1,70) offers a slightly different perspective. He explains that the verse of Shomer pesaim Hashem is only evoked regarding very distant and minimal risks. Such risks are not considered significant enough even to desecrate the Shabbos for them. As such, we may rely on the verse that Hashem will protect us from these negligible risks.
The approaches of Rabbi Wasserman and Rabbi Tennenbaum are both very relevant to our discussion. Red meat is a central food in many diets and contains many nutrients. The difficulty in finding a substitute food item may allow us to rely on this verse. Furthermore, the risks of meat consumption, especially when eaten in moderation, are negligible. As such, the concept of Shomer psaim Hashem would definitely apply.
Is ‘Shomer Pesaim Hashem’ a Directive?
We need to ask a deeper question. What is the verse of Shomer Pesaim Hashem really telling us? Are we supposed to dismiss our concerns and rely that Hashem will protect us or are we just allowed to act foolishly and rely on Hashem? This question seems to be a difference of opinion between the commentators on Tehilim (116, 6).
The verse states Shomer Pesaim Hashem, meaning Hashem guards the unwise. The Metzudos Dovid explains simply ‘You, Hashem, guard those who lack the wisdom to guard themselves’. According to this approach Shomer Pesaim Hashem does not seem to be a virtue. It simply means that it is permitted to take such negligible risks. The Ibn Ezra, however, takes a different approach. He explains that King David was saying ‘The reason why I do not seek intricate schemes to save my self is because I made myself like the unwise and relied on You’. Similarly, the Radak comments that the wise should not trust in their wisdom, but should realize that everything is ultimately up to Hashem. According to the Ibn Ezra and Radak the seeming naivety of Shomer Pesaim Hashem is in fact a directive.
‘Shomer Pesaim Hashem’ in Halachic Sources
How do halachic sources understand the concept of Shomer Pesaim Hashem? Is it a recommended behaviour or just a justification for not being cautious about legitimate risks? The comments of the Ritva shed some light onto this question.
As we have mentioned, the Talmud considered performing a circumcision on a cloudy day to be dangerous. Nonetheless, the populace relied on Shomer Pesaim Hashem and circumcised anyways. The Ritva entertains an important question. Now that it is commonplace to perform a circumcision on a cloudy day, can a person say I am concerned about this risk and would like to push off performing the mitzvah? Does Shomer Pesaim Hashem completely dismiss the health concern or not? The Ritva writes that a person is allowed to delay the mitzvah out of this concern, and is not obligated to rely on Shomer Pesaim Hashem.The Ritva’s ruling is important. It demonstrates that Shomer Pesaim Hashem does not completely remove the risks involved, and being concerned about them despite the public’s disregard is perfectly acceptable.
The Yam Shel Shlomo (Yevamos Perek 8) cites the comments of the Ritva but writes that practically speaking he would rule differently. He explains that we are lacking the expertise to know exactly what type of cloudy day the Talmud was referring to. As such, it would be difficult to postpone the mitzvah of Bris Milah for such concerns since our ability to determine it is questionable and is commonly disregarded.
We can learn a valuable insight from the Yam Shel Shlomo. As the Ritva wrote, Shomer Pesaim Hashem does not completely negate the risk. However, when the entire existence of that minute risk is questionable, there is little reason to be concerned about such risks. In a similar vein, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe EH 1,) writes based on a responsum of the Radvaz (3,596) that a person who is susceptible to a particular risk may say ‘I do not want to rely on Shomer Pesaim Hashem because I fear that my sins will hold back Hashem’s protection’. However, if a person has no reason to be concerned about a particular ailment, then Shomer Pesaim Hashem would be more of a directive.
The Perspective of the Terumas HaDeshen
The Terumas Hadeshen (1,211), a late Rishon, was asked why many Torah scholars disregard certain health concerns mentioned in the Talmud. He explains that the basic justification for this approach would be based on the concept of Shomer Pesaim Hashem. However, he questions if this applies to Torah Scholars who are aware of the risks. The Terumas Hadeshen seems to understand that the concept of Shomer Pesaim Hashem is primarily for the populace who are not aware of the risks involved. They are the ‘unwise ones’ that the verse was talking about. However, if a person is aware of the risks, they are no longer included in that category of people and have an obligation to watch out for themselves.
The approach of the Terumas Hadeshen, a primary halachic source, is significant. He clearly understands the entire concept of Shomer Pesaim Hashem along the lines of the Metzudas Dovid, that it is a justification not a directive.
The sources we have cited provide some valuable insights into the concept of Shomer Pesaim Hashem. According to many halachic sources it is only a justification not a directive. If a person is aware of the risks, Shomer Pesaim Hashem would not be a sufficient reason to close one’s eyes to danger. However, the Yam Shel Shlomo and Radvaz have given us an important caveat. This is only when the risk, albeit minute, is based on concrete evidence. However, if it is mere speculation then Shomer Pesaim Hashem would instruct us not to be concerned about it.
Returning to our original question, the risks involved in eating red meat, especially in moderation, are clearly very small. As such, it does not create a halachic obligation to avoid eating meat products. These types of risks fall into the category of Shomer Pesaim Hashem. However, assuming that there is concrete evidence that the consumption of red meat is linked to cancer, Shomer Pesaim Hashem would not discourage us from being concerned about the risks involved. Therefore, a person may choose to avoid eating red meat especially when it does not conflict with any halachic obligation (i.e. Simchas Yom Tov). However, as the Radak commented, we must realize that ultimately everything is in the hands of Hashem.