Dinim on Damages

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

The following stories and the rulings that follow are based on the Chashukei Chemed and Pninei Halacha on Bava Kama. They are not intended to be relied on for practical halacha. 1. Shimshon had a venomous snake as a pet. One day, it managed to escape its cage. Levi was walking by and was bitten by the snake. Levi was rushed to the hospital and was treated with anti-venom. While being treated, the doctors discovered that Levi had a rare and usually fatal condition. The snake’s venom cured him! Levi called Shimshon to express his profound gratitude for saving his life from his hitherto unknown condition. Before he hung up, Levi also casually mentioned that he expects payment from Shimshon for his pain, suffering, and doctor bills. Shimshon said, “Really?!? I saved your life!” 2. A hundred and fifty years ago, Boruch owned a liquor store in Hungary. The authorities there had a strict law regarding selling imported liquor. Chaim purchased a large quantity of liquor for his simcha. At the simcha, Chaim tasted the liquor, and it was awful. The next day, in a fit of rage, he smashed a whole section of bottles in Boruch’s store. Later that day, government inspectors made a surprise appearance at the store. They did not find even one bottle of contraband liquor because Chaim smashed them all. Boruch sent a message to Chaim thanking him profusely for saving him from certain imprisonment, confiscation of his liquor, and steep fines. At the end of the message, he also included an itemized bill so that Chaim could reimburse him for the bottles that he had smashed. Was Boruch correct in demanding payment? 3.

In the times of the Beis Hamikdosh, Yehuda worked as a fisherman. One day, he forgot it was Shabbos and went fishing as he would on a normal weekday. When he pulled his net up, he was surprised to find a live baby together with all the fish! The baby had managed to fall into the water, unbeknownst to the fisherman. The fisherman had saved the baby’s life. The relieved father thanked Yehuda profusely. He also mentioned in passing that the fisherman had to bring a korban chattas. One brings a korban chattas for an accidental violation of Shabbos. Trapping fish or other creatures is one of the 39 categories of forbidden labor. Does Yehuda really have to bring a korban chattas? 4. Dovid was playing around with a BB gun. He was using a water tank on top of an apartment building for target practice. The repeated strikes caused the tank to fall. Somewhere else in the building, Zevulun was carrying a candle. He tripped over a rug, and it instantly caught fire. The fire rapidly spread and soon the apartment was engulfed in flames. Zevulun realized that he had no chance of putting out the fire. He had to run for his life and alert all the other residents. All of a sudden, to Zevulun’s great surprise, water came cascading down from the ceiling and extinguished the fire. Zevulun found out what happened and thanked Dovid profusely for saving his apartment and possibly many lives. Then Zevulun casually handed Dovid a bill for the broken water tank. Does Dovid have to pay? 5. Morah Cohen was frequently asked questions about her former talmidos for shidduch purposes. She was very careful to never volunteer any negative information. Only if she was asked a direct question, did she give a negative answer if warranted. (And only about non-silly things. These laws are complex and beyond the scope of this article.) One day, she was asked a general question. A mother said, “Tell me about the girl.” Without thinking, the Morah replied, “Honesty is not one of her strong points.” The Morah immediately regretted volunteering that negative information. She proceeded to discuss the girl’s many qualities. For weeks, she felt bad about her temporary lapse in judgment. She made up her mind that she was going to ask Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein the next day about how she should do teshuva.

That night, she received a call from the mother of a chosson. “Mazel Tov! My son’s engage,d and it’s all because of you! We didn’t want a daughter-in-law who would question my husband’s business practices. The girl was perfect: fine middos and flexibility when needed!” The next day, the morah went to Rav Zilberstein with a different sort of question: “Was what I said even lashon hara?” The halacha is clear on the question of Yehuda the fisherman bringing a korban chattas. The Gemara says in Menachos 64a that he does not have to bring it. Even if Yehuda had intended to trap on Shabbos, the resultant action was pikuach nefesh because he saved a baby. Therefore, a korban is not warranted. A korban chattas is brought for an accidental action that violates Shabbos, not an accidental thought. Based on this, Rav Zilberstein surmises that Shimshon would not have to pay for the pain and suffering caused by his pet snake. The snakebite was actually a life-saving measure; it was just unknown at the time. Similarly, the morah does not need to teshuva for speaking lashon hara about the girl not being so honest. In this situation, the words she spoke were actually positive. The questioner was looking for a girl who was flexible. The halacha regarding the liquor store is a machlokes. The Mekor Chaim says the halacha is the same as the first stories. When Chaim smashed the contraband bottles, he was actually saving Borcuh from a life in prison and steep monetary fines. Therefore, Chaim doesn’t have to pay. The Shut Kinyan Torah says that Chaim must pay. At the time he broke the illicit bottles, there was no imminent danger. It’s not comparable to the case in Menachos where there is baby drowning right at the time of the trapping. Similarly, in the case with the snakebite, Levi had a fatal illness at the time of the bite. Here in the liquor store, Chaim is just saving Boruch from some possible future occurrence that may not even happen. However, even if it would for sure happen, that danger is not there at the time of the damage. Based on this, the halacha regarding the broken water tank would be as follows: If the fire had already started when Dovid broke the water tank, Dovid is exempt from paying for the damages. If the fire only started after the water tank was damaged, the Kinyan Torah would rule that Dovid must pay. The Mekor Chaim may rule that he is exempt.

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway. In addition, Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead, NY. He can be contacted at ASebrow@ gmail.com.

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