by Rabbi Yair Hoffman for the Five Towns Jewish Times
New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) officials recently announced the start of permanent repairs to the Route 206 Stone Arch Bridge in Princeton.
The Stone Arch Bridge is a three-span masonry arch structure originally constructed in 1792 and widened in 1916. It was closed in February 2016 for two weeks for emergency repairs following a partial parapet collapse on the southbound side of the historic bridge. Most people do not know what a parapet even is.
Religious Jews, however, do know what they are. It is a fence that surrounds a roof or other elevated area so that one does not fall. The mitzvah is found in Devarim (22:8), “And you shall make a parapet for your roof.” It is listed in the Sefer HaChinuch as Mitzvah #546 and its laws are discussed in the Choshen Mishpat section of Shulchan Aruch (Chapter 540).
It is, however, one of the rarest of berachos. Even the most religious of Jews are hard-pressed to name anyone who has ever recited it. Indeed, most people do not even know the exact wording of the blessing.
The mitzvah has a negative commandment associated with it, as well: one is forbidden to have dangerous items in the house. Whoever has a roof without a parapet is therefore in violation of two commandments: he is negating the mitzvah of ma’akeh, and he is also violating the prohibition of “Lo sasim damim b’veisecha,” not to have dangerous items in the house.
There are a few issues that are peculiar to the mitzvah of ma’akeh. Firstly, the berachah on a mitzvah generally should be recited prior to the fulfillment of the mitzvah—that is, prior to beginning the mitzvah. Yet very often (especially with Jews building it), it takes more than a day to build a ma’akeh. So when do we recite the blessing? On the first day that we build the ma’akeh, each day that we begin working on the ma’akeh, or only the last day, when we know that it will be completed?
Also, another question: What is the heter (halachic rationale in being lenient) to allow a person to have a non-Jew build a ma’akeh for him? There is a mitzvah in the Torah for a Jew to build a ma’akeh. We do not ask gentiles put up our mezuzos; we do not have them light Chanukah candles for us; so why do we let them put up ma’akehs for us? One could, of course, answer that most homeowners are not capable of putting up these ma’akehs, and that if one does have the capability then, in fact, there is no heter and he must do it himself. Indeed, when this question was posed to a prominent halachic authority, he ruled that this is the case. And the Minchas Chinuch writes that a ma’akeh must be built by a Jew.
Let’s get back to the wording of the blessing, however. If a Jew is building the ma’akeh himself—and it is his own obligation to build the ma’akeh—then the blessing is “…Asher kideshanu b’Mitzvosav v’tzivanu la’asos ma’akeh” (“…Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to make a parapet”). If it is a Jewish construction worker or handyman (and there are quite a few such people, by the way) building it for someone else, then the blessing is “…Asher kideshanu b’mitzvosav v’tzivanu al asiyas ma’akeh” (“…Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us regarding the making of a parapet”). If it is a non-Jewish worker or handyman and the Jew contributes no physical labor at all, then no blessing is made; however, as long as the ma’akeh is still not halachically considered complete and kosher, the Jew can take over and then recite the blessing. What happens if the non-Jew has already finished building the ma’akeh; is there an obligation to undo the ma’akeh and then redo it so that a blessing can be recited? Rav Chaim Kanievsky has a section on the laws of ma’akeh that follows his edition of Maseches Mezuzah, and he rules quite clearly that there is no such obligation.
How high does a ma’akeh have to be? The Shulchan Aruch writes that it must be 10 tefachim (handbreadths) high. Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, rules that a handbreadth is 3.54 inches, so the minimum height is about 3 feet. But clearly this is only if the ma’akeh is not needed to safeguard children. A child can easily climb over a 3-foot-high wall, and this would present another Biblical prohibition of having dangerous items in one’s home. The height should therefore be sufficient so that a child could not climb over it and fall.
There are situations in which a ma’akeh should be constructed, but a blessing should not be recited upon it. If the roof is not used regularly, a blessing is not to be recited. Sometimes there may not even be an obligation to place a ma’akeh there; speak to your local poseik. In Israel, for example, there is often a solar water-heating device that is found on the rooftops. Just the fact that it is there does not necessarily obligate you in a ma’akeh.
Another example: If you only go up to your roof to build and use your sukkah, it may not require a ma’akeh at all. If the sukkah is next to the edge of the roof, however, then you must build a ma’akeh, but a blessing is not recited. (See response of Rav Nosson Gestetner in Lehoros Nosson, Vol. II, No. 111–113.) Finally, if one does not own the dwelling underneath the roof, a blessing should not be recited, either.
Who is obligated in this mitzvah? Men and women are equally obligated in the mitzvah, according to the Sefer HaChinuch. The reason is that it is not a time-bound mitzvah.
So, getting back to when the blessing is recited, it seems that if it will take one day to build it, the blessing is recited that day. If it will take more than one day, then the blessing should be recited on the final day of construction, but before it is halachically considered to be a kosher ma’akeh.
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