VeNiShmartem Meod LeNafshotheichem (Devarim 4:15), the Mitzvah of self-preservation - requiring that we guard our health - sounds rather proactive. However, it is written with the word ShMR, to "guard", which is seen in the Mitzvah to guard Shabbath as the word which gives force to the negative commandment - the prohibition - not to violate the laws of the Sabbath, as distinct from the positive commanment to "remember" the Sabbath.

Does this mean that VeNiShmartem is a negative Mitzvah, a prohibition? If so, does every unsafe action or unhealthy indulgence constitute a violation? And if so, would it follow that it should be punishable by Beith Din with proper warning and witnesses, etc.?

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    I don't see it in Rambam's 613. Are you sure it's deoraita? – Double AA Jul 16 '12 at 22:20
  • @doubleaa No way, bru. – Seth J Jul 16 '12 at 22:25
  • @doubleaa Can't look it up now but try Deut 4:15 – Seth J Jul 16 '12 at 22:26
  • bru = jew + bro ? – Double AA Jul 16 '12 at 22:26
  • @doubleaa Nah, I was adopted by Safricans in Yeshivah. – Seth J Jul 16 '12 at 22:27

The context of the verse (Deuteronomy 4:15) clearly has nothing to do with preserving one's health. I think it is understood that this is not an actual lav or aseh but some kind of drasha/asmachta. The verse itself clearly refers to refraining from forms of idol worship.

Just to add some support to this: @DoubleAA noted that the Rambam does not list this as a mitzva. Furthermore, when the Rambam in his Mishneh Torah talks about the importance of being healthy he conspicuously does not mention this verse; something he would never do in the Mishneh Torah otherwise.

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    While I think you are right, a source (perhaps where the asmachta is) would be invaluable. – Double AA Jul 16 '12 at 23:50
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    @DoubleAA best I could do for now. – Dov F Jul 16 '12 at 23:59

Menachos 99b says that wherever it says "hishamer," "pen," or "al," it is a negative commandment.

It appears to me that it is not the root Sh-M-R that is a negative commandment, but rather the word "hishamer." If so, "venishmartem" is not a negative commandment. However, even if every instance of Sh-M-R is a negative commandment, it is not punishable by beis din, because it is a lav she'ein bo maaseh (negative commandment which involves no action), and we don't lash for a lav she'ein bo maaseh. (Although it can be done with an action — e.g. stabbing yourself — since it can be done without an action, we don't lash for it, Sefer HaChinuch 94.)

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  • But compare to Chinuch 11 – Double AA Jul 16 '12 at 23:08
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    Note that there's an intermediate possibility: that any time sh-m-r appears in binyan nif'al it's a negative command. Then v'nishmartem would be a negative command. – msh210 Jul 16 '12 at 23:35
  • Peculiar! See Shu"A Ch"M 427:8 – Double AA Jul 16 '12 at 23:43

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