The Great Tragedy at Surfside: The Halachic Lessons

Local search and rescue personnel talk with members of an Israeli team, as they work atop the rubble at the Champlain Towers South condo building where scores of people remain missing almost a week after it partially collapsed, Wednesday, June 30, 2021, in Surfside, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for

Everyone is deeply saddened by the events that have taken place at Champlain Towers.  And at the same time, everyone is inspired by the giving nature of the first responders, the search and rescue teams, and the tens of thousands of donors too.  Both emotions, the sadness and the inspiration can and do exist simultaneously.

Torah Judaism, however, has always combined the emotion and the intellect, as our guidelines.  Torah Judaism also encourages us to find messages in events.  What is Hashem trying to tell us?  Is there something we should, perhaps, adjust in how we go about things?


It is also important to make sure that we do not embark upon the wrong message.  We have a tendency, unfortunately, to assume that we are privy to the act of misbehavior, subtle or not, that was the “true cause” so to speak.  Often, we end up hurting people in our quest to identify the message.

@*@*@*   Please help this situation, if you can. Tizku l’Mitzvos @*@*@*

And yet, we must still strive to find the message.  We see this from the words of the Seforno where the brothers, the shvatim, endeavored to find out why all of this turmoil was happening to them.  They concluded that they did not display enough sensitivity when their brother Yoseph was pleading with them.  It is interesting to note that they too, came down with the wrong message.  They did not conclude that they were wrong – just that they did not display enough sensitivity.

Notwithstanding the above, I would like to suggest that the message might be that perhaps we are not valuing life as much as we should be.  And the take home memorandum should be..  Let’s value life a bit more than we have been doing.  Correction:  A lot more than we have been doing.  Not just our own lives, but also that of others.

Let’s first get to the indication as to why it may be this particular message that we should take to heart.


Generally speaking, local counties, cities, or other regional entities have ordinances in regard to safety.  For some reason, 40 years is one magic number, and the other magic number is 10 years.  The inspections are generally structural, electrical safety, and I am told, in some places, also involve lighting. The 40 year requirement seems to be a full report and plan type of thing, while the 10 year requirement seems to be a bit more superficial.

So on to the specific details of what may have happened:

  • In 2018, the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association hired an engineering firm, Morabito Consultants to prepare the 40-year Recertification of the condo building.  This fulfilled the requirements of both Miami-Dade County and the Town of Surfside.
  • Morabito produced their report inspection to the condominium association on Oct. 8th, 2018.  It detailed their findings and recommendations.  The report indicated that there were extensive and necessary repairs.  They also included an estimation of costs.  Significantly, the report detailed significant cracks and breaks in the concrete, which required repairs to ensure the safety of both the residents and the general public.
  • In June of 2020, the Condominium Association hired Morabito once again in order to prepare a “40-year Building Repair and Restoration” plan.  It was to have detailed specifications for completing the necessary repairs and the restoration work.
  • When the building ultimately did collapse, they had begun to repair the roof, but nothing was done in regard to the concrete restoration.


While it is certainly premature, and this author is certainly not qualified to make these assessments, let’s do a preliminary analysis as to what went wrong.  The 40-year deadline was to be in 2021.  They hired the firm in 2018.  But it was only in June of 2020 that they hired them to put a plan in place.  If the report indicated that there were serious safety issues – shouldn’t they have done it right away and not wait 21 months to first come up with a plan?  Also, when they did implement the plan, shouldn’t the safety issue of the concrete come first and not the roof?  Is starting with the roof the best way to go about it?

Let’s also go back to the whole 40 year thing and the 10 year thing.  Maybe, we should reconsider the 40 year requirement and change it to, say, 25 years?  This way we can better take into account other environmental factors, traffic issues and other buildings.  Perhaps we should survey what professional engineering firms feel about these things.  Or maybe we should shore up the 10 year review to give it a bit more teeth.  The main idea, of course, is to get the experts in the field to analyze it and open up a national conversation about it.


Perhaps the lesson is that we should be looking at these things – not as a nuisance, but rather as the fulfillment of a Mitzvah.  Looking at it like a Mitzvah (which it is, by the way, and not just one Mitzvah but many) invokes other side aspects and halachos too. These “side halachos” are discussed in the Chayei Odom in Klal 68.


There is a concept called, “Zrizin makdimim l’Mitzvos” those with alacrity look to fulfill Mitzvos eagerly and early – with readiness and promptness.  This is discussed in Rosh haShana 32b.  From the Gemorah in Rosh haShana we can also conclude that doing it promptly – even beats out doing it in the most public manner possible.


The Chayei Odom (68:8) cites a Pasuk in Dvarim (8:1) Kol HaMitzvah.. tishmerun laason – be careful to fulfill the entire Mitzvah. This is significant. The Midrash (Bereis Rabbah 85:3) tells us in the name of Rabbi Yochanan that one who begins a Mitzvah but does not complete it – end up burying his wife and children.


There is also a concept called Hiddur Mitzvah – doing the Mitzvah in the best way possible. The Gemorah in Shabbos 133a seems to indicate that this is, in fact, a Torah requirement.  If that is the case, shouldn’t we want to ensure that we have the top professionals performing these inspections?  In this case, it seems that Morabito is a top firm.  Often, however, when we involve ourselves in these type of issues – we look for getting the best price.  That may compromise quality.


There are, as mentioned earlier, a number of Mitzvos involved in these safety inspections.  This author believes that there is six.

  • There is the Mitzvah of “veNishmartem me’od b’nafshosaichem (Dvarim 4:9) – the Mitzvah of protecting our health and well-being.
  • Few have heard of the second Mitzvah. The verse later on (Dvarim 4:15), “Rak hishamer lecha” is understood by most Poskim to actually comprise an actual second Mitzvah (See Rav Chaim Kanievsky Shlita Shaar HaTeshuvos #25) – to take special care.
  • There is a third Mitzvah, “V’Chai Bahem – And you shall live by them” (VaYikra 18:5).
  • There is a fourth Mitzvah found in the verse in Parshas Ki Taytzai (Dvarim 22:2) which discusses the Mitzvah of Hashavas Aveida, returning an object, with the words “vahashaivoso lo – and you shall return it to him.”  The Gemorah in Sanhedrin (73a), however, includes within its understanding of these words the obligation of returning “his own life to him as well.”  For example, if thieves are threatening to pounce upon him, there is an obligation of “vahashaivoso lo.” In other words, this verse is the source for the Mitzvah of saving someone’s life. I believe this is the general mitzvah the Shulchan Aruch refers to in Shulchan Aruch Orech Chaim 325.
  • Lo Saamod Al Dam Rayacha – There is a fifth (a negative Mitzvah) of not standing idly by your brother’s blood as well.  This is mentioned in Shulchan Aruch (CM 426:1) and in the Rambam.  Collectively, if we adopt such a policy in having armed people in every Beis Midrash in Eretz Yisroel, we can ensure that we do not stand idly by our brother’s blood.
  • And finally, there is a sixth Mitzvah of – “Lo Suchal l’hisalaym – a negative commandment associated with the positive commandment of Hashavas Aveida, and that is the verse in Dvarim (22:3), “You cannot shut your eyes to it.”  This verse comes directly after the Mitzvah of Hashavas Aveidah. The Netziv (HeEmek Sheailah) refers to this Mitzvah as well.

Perhaps this is the message of this tragedy, and numerous other ones that we have recently experienced.  We should look at safety as the fulfillment of not one – but six Torah Mitzvos.  And that we should truly value life more than we have been doing in the past.  May Hashem bring us yeshuos and nechamos quickly.

@*@*@*   Please help this situation, if you can. Tizku l’Mitzvos @*@*@*

The author can be reached at [email protected]


  1. I agree that your comments might be premature. The building collapsed in a very odd fashion – one that a structural engineer would never expect. If you look at structures that collapsed after earthquakes, they rarely “pancake” as this building (and the Twin Towers) did. Often the columns on a single floor will fail and the building will be lowered 10 feet. There will be damage and the building might not be level any longer, but all the columns will not catastrophically fail at once.

    Most buildings, including this one, are designed to fail slowly. There will be visible cracks showing impending problems (the cracks on the balconies are of no importance, because even if every balcony failed at the same moment, that would not bring the building down). But when one member (beam or column) of the building fails, the buildings are designed with factors of safety so that the load can redistribute automatically and other beams and columns will take up this load without catastrophic failure.

    I look forward to hearing what the engineers have to say on this matter after examining the video and the wreckage.

    (the author is a Civil Engineering by degree)

  2. Though I usually like Rabbi Hoffman’s articles immensely, Here I would propose במחילת כבוד תורתו,
    כשם שקבלת שכר על הדרישה…