The Lost Gift: Parashas Mishpatim and Shomrim

In this parshas Mishpatim, the Torah discuss the responsibility that a shomer assumes for someone else’s property. Does a shomer always assume this much responsibility? Stay tuned and find out!

gift boxWhile learning in my study one day, I was greeted by a knock at the door. I opened the door to find two women, Rivkah and Leah, standing in the doorway.

“Rabbi,” Rivka began somewhat apprehensively, “We have a shaylah that we need to ask you. I was supposed to bring a present to Lakewood for Leah’s daughter, but, somehow, it got along the way. I feel responsible. Leah feels that I am not responsible and I should not feel any obligation to compensate her daughter, but I feel that I should.”

“If anyone is responsible it is I,” replied Leah. “I keep insisting that Rivka should not pay, and she keeps insisting that she should. We decided that we would refer this to the Rav to decide.”

The case turned out to be a very interesting halachic shaylah.

A family member bought a very expensive wedding gift for Leah’s recently married daughter, who now lives in Lakewood. Leah heard that Rivka’s husband was driving to Lakewood, so she called to ask if he could bring the gift with him. Rivka suggested that Leah drop by and put the gift in the trunk of the car, so that they wouldn’t misplace it.

Upon reaching Lakewood, Leah’s daughter arrives to pick up the package. Rivka’s husband checks the trunk of the car, but the gift is not there!! He calls Rivka, who in turn calls Leah, who says that she definitely placed the gift in the trunk. The gift seems to have inexplicably disappeared!

Who, if anyone, is responsible to replace the gift?

I asked for some time to think about the shaylah. In the interim, I needed to address some pertinent questions, which provides an opportunity to review the relevant halachos.

There are several halachic areas we need to clarify:

  1. To what extent are you responsible for replacing an item that you were watching without remuneration?
  2. If you permit someone to place an item in your house or car, does that mean that you are now responsible if the item is damaged, lost or stolen?
  3. If you agree to transport an item as a favor, is there an assumption of responsibility, and if so, to what extent?

WHAT IS A SHOMER CHINAM AND TO WHAT EXTENT IS HE RESPONSIBLE?

Someone who assumes responsibility to take care of an item, but receives no benefit for doing so, is called a shomer chinam. He is responsible if the item becomes damaged, stolen, or lost because of his negligence, but not if he took proper care of the item.

EXAMPLE: Binyomin entrusted money to a shomer for safekeeping. When he came to collect his money, the shomer replied that he does not remember where he put it. Rava ruled that not knowing where you put something is negligent and the shomer must pay (Bava Metzia 42a).

WHAT IF HE DID NOT EXPRESSLY ASSUME RESPONSIBILITY?

A shomer may specify that he assumes no responsibility for an item (Mishnah, Bava Metzia 94a). Furthermore, if he clearly did not assume responsibility, he is also not obligated to pay.

EXAMPLE: While fleeing from the Napoleonic wars, Naftali buried valuables in a pit in his backyard, and offered Asher to hide his valuables there, too. The two of them fled to a safer area, hoping to return one day to unearth their valuables. Fortunately, the war ended, and they were able to return. Naftali was eager to unearth the valuables and give Asher back his money, but Asher was busy taking care of other matters. Naftali sent Asher a message that he was unearthing the valuables, but Asher did not arrive immediately. By the time Asher arrived, his valuables had disappeared. Does Naftali bear responsibility?

Naftali and Asher addressed the question to Rav Yaakov of Lisa, the author of Nesivos Hamishpat (291:2). The rav ruled that Naftali is not obligated to pay any damages, since he never assumed any responsibility for Asher’s valuables but merely made his hiding place available.

Thus, we have established that if a shomer assumes responsibility, he will have to pay for damage caused by his negligence, but if he does not assume responsibility, he does not have to pay.

However, our case is somewhat different from the case of the Nesivos. In his case, Asher knows that Naftali will not be around to supervise his property. In our case, Leah had accepted the gift on behalf of her daughter and Rivka suggested that it be placed in her car. Does that make Rivka responsible to replace it if it is lost?

Or, as we phrased our second question above: If you permit someone to place an item in your house or car, does that mean that you are now responsible if the item gets damaged, lost or stolen?

The Gemara raises the following shaylah which affects our question:

Daniel asked Shlomo if he could leave his sheep and some equipment in Shlomo’s yard. Subsequently, Shlomo’s dog, Fido, bit Daniel’s sheep; the next day, someone stole the equipment. Assuming that Shlomo was negligent, must he pay for the damages?

The question is whether Shlomo ever assumed responsibility for Daniel’s property. If he permitted Daniel to place the sheep and the equipment in his yard, does that mean that he assumed responsibility for this property? The Mishnah (Bava Kamma 47a) quotes a dispute between Rebbe and the Chachomim as to whether we assume that Shlomo took responsibility.

HOW DO WE PASKIN?

There are three opinions:

  1. Some rule that Shlomo is responsible for the damage. They contend that when someone grants permission to place items on his property, he assumes responsibility to look out for the items.
  2. Others contend that Shlomo is not responsible for the stolen equipment, but he is responsible for Fido biting the sheep (Shach 291:9). Permitting someone to place items on his property doesn’t mean that he assumes responsibility. However, Shlomo is liable if his animal caused damage to property that he allowed onto his premises.
  3. Shlomo does not need to pay at all since he never accepted responsibility (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 291:3). (According to this opinion, even though Shlomo’s dog bit Daniel’s sheep, Shlomo is not responsible for damage done by his own animal on his own property.)

The Shulchan Aruch rules like the third opinion that Shlomo is not responsible, although other poskim disagree. Thus, we see that although someone permits you to put something in his house or car, you cannot assume that this means he is taking responsibility for it. Thus, placing the gift in Rivka’s car does not, necessarily, mean that either Rivka or her husband is responsible for the gift.

However, there is a difference between Leah’s gift and Daniel’s sheep, other than the fact that one of them bleats. I am going to use another din Torah to demonstrate the difference between the two.

While Levi was packing his donkey to travel to the next city, Yehuda asked if he could send his shoes along. Levi responded, “You can put them on top of the donkey.” Yehuda complied, and Levi rode off without tying the shoes adequately to the donkey. Subsequently, when the shoes were lost, Levi claimed that he never assumed any responsibility for Yehuda’s shoes.

Is Levi responsible to pay Yehuda for his shoes? After all, he never told Yehuda that he was assuming responsibility; he simply allowed Yehuda to place his shoes on the donkey.

The Rosh (quoted by Tur Choshen Mishpat Chapter 291) ruled that Levi is indeed responsible, even though he never told Yehuda that he was assuming responsibility.

Why are Yehuda’s shoes different from Daniel’s sheep, where we assumed that Shlomo took no responsibility? The difference is that when Levi transports the shoes with him, Yehuda will no longer be able to watch them. Under these circumstances, we assume that Levi accepted responsibility, unless he specifically stated at the time that he did not. However, when Daniel puts his sheep into Shlomo’s yard, there is no reason why Daniel cannot continue to be responsible to take care of his sheep. Thus, there is nothing in Shlomo’s action that implies that he is assuming responsibility.

Based on the above analysis, it would seem that Rivka is indeed responsible since she made Leah the offer of placing the gift in her car. This implies that Rivka assumed responsibility.

However, Rivka’s gift is different from Yehuda’s shoes for two reasons:

  1. Rivka’s gift was not put into a place that requires any type of supervision. The locked trunk of a car is a secure place to leave items. Thus, it is less certain that we can assume that Rivka accepted responsibility.
  2. More importantly, Rivka told Leah to put the gift in the car, but also told her that her husband, not she, was going to Lakewood. Thus, Rivka certainly was not assuming responsibility for bringing the gift to Lakewood. We also cannot say that her husband assumed responsibility, when he never agreed expressly to take the package. Thus, it would seem that neither Rivka nor her husband is responsible. However, if her husband agreed to take the package, he would be responsible if, indeed, he had been negligent. Since we do not know where the package went, we would probably assume that the package disappeared because of some negligence on his part.

DOES THIS MEAN THAT LEAH IS RESPONSIBLE TO PAY HER DAUGHTER FOR THE GIFT?

Indeed it might. When Leah accepted the gift on her daughter’s behalf, she assumed responsibility as a shomer chinam. We now have a new shaylah: Did she discharge this responsibility when she placed the gift in Rivka’s car for the trip to Lakewood?

The Gemara records an interesting parallel to this case.

At the time of the Gemara, houses were not particularly secure places to leave valuables. For this reason, the proper place to store money and non-perishable valuables was to bury them in the ground. A shomer chinam who received money but did not bury the money would be ruled negligent, if the money was subsequently stolen (Bava Metzia 42a).

The Gemara mentions a case when this rule was not applied:

Someone entrusted money to a shomer who gave it to his mother to put away. His mother assumed that it was her son’s own money, not money that he was safekeeping for someone else, and therefore placed it in his wallet rather than burying it. Subsequently, the money was stolen and all three of them ended up appearing before Rava to paskin the shaylah.

Rava analyzed the case as follows: The shomer is entitled to say that he has a right to give something entrusted to him to a different member of his family for safekeeping. Furthermore, there is no claim against him for not telling his mother that the money was not his, because she will take better care of it assuming that it was his. Therefore, the shomer did not act negligently. The mother also did not act negligently – based on the information she had, she acted responsibly. Thus, neither one of them is obligated to pay (Bava Metzia 42b).

The principles of this last Gemara can be applied to our case. Neither Leah, nor Rivka, nor Rivka’s husband acted negligently in our case. Leah gave the gift to someone in a responsible way to get it to Lakewood. We have already pointed out that neither Rivka nor her husband ever assumed responsibility for the gift. Furthermore, neither one of them acted irresponsibly. Thus, it seems to me that none of the parties involved is halachically obligated to make restitution.

There is actually a slight additional angle to this story. Leah is, technically, obligated in an oath (a shevua) to her own daughter to verify that she indeed placed the gift in the car. However, since it is unlikely that Leah’s daughter will demand an oath from her, she is not obligated to pay.

Needless to say, Leah will apologize to her daughter even if she has no technical responsibility, and will probably offer her daughter a replacement gift. Hopefully her daughter will accept the loss of a gift as a minor mishap, and put it out of her mind.

In general, we should be careful when we assume responsibility for items belonging to others, to take good care of them and not leave them around irresponsibly or near young children. We should pray to be successful messengers when entrusted with other people’s property.