When Is Poisoning Allowed?

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

There is a well-known phenomenon that occurs in communal refrigerators and shelves. Food seems to disappear from them mysteriously. This occurs in dormitories, offices, and schools. This author humorously recalls standing next to an individual who had been relieved of all of his Swiss Fudge cookies. The victim remarked, “I understand the person who took my cookies was hungry, but couldn’t he have left me with just one?!” One idea that has been floated in non-Jewish circles is to secretly add laxatives to one’s food. The food thief, once afflicted, will think twice about stealing again. At the very least, perhaps the food owner can derive some satisfaction from this prank. In a slight twist, this article will not directly discuss whether or not it is halachicly permitted to do so. (Legally, it may be considered assault.) However, the question that will be discussed will assume that one lives in a location where Beis Din is the supreme authority. In such a place if Beis Din finds out that a person is planning on adding a laxative to his own food, will they get involved and put an end to the devious plot? We can conclude from a passage in Bava Kama (47a) that one is not allowed to intentionally poison a neighbor’s animal. A pooch named Arturo was treated by a vet when he became seriously ill. What the dog’s owner didn’t know was that the pooch’s neighbor, Mario Macrì, had been feeding the pet walnuts, which are toxic to dogs. The vet eventually found intestinal lesions that had been caused by the nuts. Macrì, who lives in Turin, Italy, threw nuts from his balcony for the dog. If Beis Din found out what Macri was perpetrating, they would have stopped him and employed force if needed. However, the Gemara makes clear that Macri cannot be forced to pay restitution if the dog died. The act of throwing walnuts to the dog indirectly caused the animal to die. If Macri would have shot the animal, then Beis Din would have forced him to pay because Macri would have directly caused the dog’s death. However, the unknowing animal ate the walnuts that caused his own death.

Beis Din would, however, inform Macri that he must pay restitution because it is the appropriate action to take. However, Beis Din could not enforce the judgment since Macri didn’t directly injure the dog. Suppose someone allows his animals to roam free on his neighbor’s property. The neighbor tells the animals’ owner many times to ensure that the animals stay off his land. The animal owner pays no heed to his neighbor’s protestations. The long-suffering neighbor decides to sprinkle poison around his own property. He intends for the animals to die if they graze on his property by consuming the poison. The Derech Emunah says Beis Dein will not get involved in this case. The landowner is only acting on his own property. In the case the Gemara discussed, poison was placed on someone else’s property with the intent to injure the animal. Therefore, Beis Din would get involved to prevent the animal’s injury. However, Beis Din will not stop a landowner from doing something on his property that will not affect anyone outside his property. The Maharsham vehemently disagrees with the above ruling. He says that there is no difference in this situation between putting poison on one’s own property or someone else’s. One may not take the law in his own hands if there is an alternative. The landowner should go to Beis Din and complain about his neighbor’s animals. This is especially true since his neighbor does not intend to cause him harm; it is just that he has a lackadaisical attitude to watching his animals. Therefore, Beis Din will get involved and order the landowner to remove his poison. However, the Derech Emunah takes his ruling one step further. He argues that Beis Din will not stop someone from adding laxatives to his own personal milk in a communal fridge which is clearly labeled as personal. His decision to add the laxative to his milk will not affect anyone else who doesn’t take his milk. Therefore, Beis Din will not interfere with him adulterating his own milk. The Maharsham may also disagree here and say that Beis Din will become involved and stop the plan. Without actually resorting to these drastic measures, one bright individual who was constantly plagued by milk theft came up with a solution. He did not adulterate his milk but wrote that he did. He put the following note on his milk. “Please note: A mild laxative has been added to this milk.” His milk was never touched again.

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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