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Shabbat #6: The Consequences of Our Actions


The Laws of Shabbat not only remind us of the need to focus on the purpose of our actions, but also to consider the consequences of everything we do.

We often have to face the unintended consequences of well-intended actions. For example a study of a program to hand out free mosquito nets in Zambia to people, whether they wanted them or not, found that 70 percent of the recipients didn’t use the nets. Another study found almost universal use of the nets by those people who paid for them. (William Easterly, The White Man’s Burden, Penguin, Copyright 2006)

The Talmud urges us to always consider the consequences of our actions: “Who is the true Wise Person? One who sees the consequences of his actions.” (Tractate of Our Fathers 2:9) It is impossible, certainly overwhelming, to foresee all the consequences of an action. How far ahead must we look? When a parent must take a strong stand with a child who is desperate for structure begins to calculate every possible outcome of her approach, she will be frozen in place: Will he feel that I am letting him down? Will this damage our long-term relationship? Will he feel abandoned? The mother will not know what to do. Let’s see if the laws of Shabbat afford some practical approaches to considering the possible outcomes of our actions:

Inevitable Consequences:

“A chicken will die if you cut off its head even if you did not intend to kill it”, is how the Talmud describes inevitable consequences. (TBZevachim 91b, Rashi; Succah 33b) A practical example would be the prohibition of Planting on the Shabbat. The prohibition includes any action to help something grow, such as watering my lawn. I am not allowed to wash my hands over grass on the Shabbat. Although my purpose is simply to clean my hands, the inevitable consequence will be that the water will spill onto the grass, and therefore, I cannot do it. I do not intend to water the grass, however, since it is inevitable result of my action, it is considered as if I intended it to happen.

We can apply this principle to the case we mentioned earlier of the free mosquito nets: The charitable organizations definitely did not intend to hand out nets that would never be used. In fact, they wanted to make this basic protection available to all, whether they could afford the nets or not. The intentions of the charities were good. They probably did not have reason to believe that people would not use nets that are so fundamental to protecting the lives of their children. However, once the studies have proven the effect of their policy, the consequences are now considered inevitable. The charity that does not change its policy is no longer performing a constructive act, but is actually responsible for the end result.

I believe that it is fair to say that if we force a child to observe commandments, the inevitable consequences will be to create negative associations with a religious life. The purpose and assumed intention may be good, however, the action is actually considered destructive as if the intention was to cause harmful feelings for religious observance.

I just made an enormous assumption. I may consider the example above to be one of inevitable consequences, but many would disagree. How do we define inevitable consequences? Does it matter if the consequences are uncertain or undesirable?

To Be Continued…

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