Ethics

For the week ending 4 December 2010 / 26 Kislev 5771

The Parameters of Privacy

by Rabbi Mendel Weinbach zt'l
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

Question: Whenever an ambulance appears in a neighborhood there is a tendency for people to rush to see who is being taken to the hospital and to stare at the figure on the stretcher. Is this considered an invasion of another person’s privacy?

Answer: In the Talmud (first perek of Mesechta Bava Batra) we learn of restrictions imposed by halacha on home builders and expanders in order to avoid "hezek ra’iyah" the invasion of another persons privacy. While the main basis for these restrictions is to protect the neighbor’s ability to have free use of his own premises without fear of being observed by others, these laws also show consideration for the embarrassment suffered by one who is watched by others in situations where he does not wish to be seen.

Based on this consideration it follows that staring at an ill person being taken to a hospital by ambulance is improper because it is a source of embarrassment for him to have people see him in such a helpless state. The halacha attaches great importance to a sick person’s peace of mind even in regard to Shabbat violation when there is a serious danger to life. Since the shame caused to the patient by staring at him while he is being placed in the ambulance can disturb his peace of mind, such behavior harbors on aggravating his condition and must be avoided. It therefore follows that a responsible adult at the scene should take the initiative of urging all the spectators, especially the naturally curious children, to leave the area and allow the ambulance crew to work in privacy.

As a footnote we might add a couple more examples of invasion of privacy that go beyond building restrictions.

  1. Looking at someone’s passport or any other identification in order to find out how old he is.
  2. Taking out of the Kotel a "kvittel" on which someone has written a personal prayer.

(Based on the response of Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein, Rabbi of the Ramat Elchanan Community in Bnei Brak)

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