What I Borrow, I Must Surely Return
In Parshas Mishpatim, the Torah teaches us the responsibilities we assume when watching or borrowing other people’s property. Personal experience has demonstrated that most people are unfamiliar with the halachic obligations entailed in borrowing.
SHE’EILAH VS. HALVA’AH
Hebrew uses two different words for borrowing, she’eilah and halva’ah, which describe two different types of transactions with major legal distinctions. She’eilah means borrowing an item that will itself be returned. In a she’eilah, the pikadon, the item loaned, remains the property of the lender, and the borrower has rights to use it. (The borrower is called the sho’el and the lender is called the mash’eil.)
Halva’ah, on the other hand, refers to an item that will not be returned. Rather, the borrower uses the item and returns its value or a replacement item. Although often people think that only borrowing money is considered halva’ah, borrowing eggs is also halva’ah since they will be eaten and different eggs will be returned. Similarly, borrowing any item that will not be returned intact is halva’ah. In a halva’ah, the borrower becomes the owner of the loaned item and assumes financial responsibility to repay the lender. Once the borrower receives the loaned item, the lender loses his legal right to ask for the item back. (An exception to this is if the item is loaned in error, for example, if I loan someone an item that is more valuable than I intended.) This is in contrast to an item given as a she’eilah where the borrower assumes responsibility to care for the item and returns it intact when the loan is over.
At times, borrowing money can be she’eilah and not halva’ah. For example, if I borrow a rare coin for an exhibit, it is understood that I do not intend to spend it and that I will return the same coin. Therefore, it has the laws of she’eilah.
OTHER DIFFERENCES BETWEEN SHE’EILAH AND HALVA’AH
There are many other halachic differences between she’eilah and halva’ah. For example, the borrower of a halva’ah that has no specific repayment deadline automatically has 30 days to repay the loan (Choshen Mishpat 73:1). However, an item lent as a she’eilah without specifying a length of time must be returned as soon as the owner wants it back (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 341:1).
Charging money for she’eilah is not prohibited; this is called rental. In this case, the “borrower” is now a “renter” and is less responsible for the item than a borrower is.
However, charging for a halva’ah is considered interest and is prohibited because of ribbis. It should be noted that in the case mentioned above where a coin was borrowed for an exhibit, one may charge a rental fee for the coin without incurring the prohibition of ribbis since it is a she’eilah and not a halva’ah (Yoreh Deah 176:1). (There are specific other rules that must be followed in these circumstances to avoid ribbis that are beyond the scope of this article.)
The following story illustrates a case where money was loaned as a pikadon and not as a halva’ah.
Reuven was negotiating a business deal which required investing a significant amount of his capital. The potential partner insisted on proof that Reuven could produce the required funds. Although Reuven had sufficient resources for this purpose, it was easier for him to “rent” money from a third party as a pikadon. The agreement was that he would not use the money and would return the very same banknotes to the lender.
Two shaylos are involved in this case. 1. Is this act geneivas da’as, deception, since Reuven is showing the partner someone else’s money? (This shaylah will, IY”H, be discussed in a future article.) 2. Is there a problem of ribbis?
Reuven may rent the money because he does not have the right to spend it; rather, he must return it intact. Therefore, the transaction is a she’eilah and not a halva’ah, and there is no ribbis prohibition.
We will discuss the halachos of ribbis at a different time, I”YH. For the rest of this article, we will focus on the halachos of sho’el, someone who borrows an item that will itself be returned.
RESPONSIBILITIES OF A BORROWER
In general, someone who borrows an item becomes fully responsible for its welfare. As the Torah says, if he borrowed an animal and it became injured or died, the borrower must repay, even if he was not negligent.
I borrow a friend’s laptop computer for a business trip. I take exceptional care of the laptop since it is someone else’s property, even making certain to put it in the hotel safe when not using it. While I am away one day, a fire breaks out in the hotel and the computer is irreparably damaged. Although the damage was accidental, I am still obligated to pay for the computer.
But why should I be obligated if something happened that was beyond my control? The damage was no fault of mine!
Although the details of hilchos sho’el are basically a g’zeiras hakasuv, a declaration of the Torah, there is a rationale behind these rules. When I borrow something, I receive a pure gain from the transaction since I can use the item without giving the lender anything in exchange. Therefore, the Torah obligates the borrower to ensure that the owner receives his item back, even when the borrower is not responsible for the damage (see Gemara Bava Metzia 94b; Shu”t HaRan #20).
We will later discuss two circumstances where the borrower is not responsible to compensate for the loss.
CAN I LIMIT MY RESPONSIBILITY?
Someone wants to borrow my car, but does not want to be responsible for anything that might happen to it. According to halacha, while he is borrowing my car, he is responsible if it is stolen, suffers damage from a storm or fire or is hit by another car.
Can we arrange to absolve the borrower from this responsibility?
Yes. The two parties can agree to limit the borrower’s responsibility to whatever level they are comfortable with. This is referred to as a tnai she’b’mamon, condition included in a business agreement, which is fully valid in halacha. The Mishnah states that a borrower may stipulate that he is not responsible to pay for damages even if he is negligent (Bava Metzia 94a).
SOME INTERESTING SHAILOS
Someone once asked me the following shaylah. Their yeshivah bachur son traveled back and forth between their hometown and his yeshivah, often transporting automobiles for a frum car dealer. Each side considered this an ideal arrangement – the son had free transportation and the dealer had his shipping needs serviced very inexpensively. However, I pointed out that although the son is not considered a “sho’el” (who is responsible even for accidental damage, as explained above) since the dealer also gains from the arrangement, the son is still responsible for the total value of the car if he acts negligently. (Whether he is responsible to replace the car if it is stolen is dependent upon details that are beyond the scope of this article.)
Needless to say, his parents were rather concerned about their son assuming this level of financial responsibility. I explained that their son should negotiate with the dealer exactly how much responsibility he was accepting.
My wife was once asked to transport a large sum of money on a journey. Although she was doing the other person a complete favor, she would still be responsible for negligence. We told the person that she was assuming no responsibility whatsoever, and he agreed. Since we made this condition, she could not be held responsible no matter what happened.
Similarly, someone who borrows an item may specify to the owner that he is not assuming full responsibility for the borrowed item, and this absolves him if the owner agrees. Of course, the owner may not want to lend the item if the borrower does not assume full responsibility.
DOES THIS ARRANGEMENT NEED TO BE IN WRITING?
No, an oral agreement or understanding between the two parties is perfectly sufficient. The main advantage of a written agreement is to prevent misunderstanding or disagreement about the terms of the agreement.
But one second! Doesn’t the Torah require the sho’el, borrower, to pay for damages? How can the Torah’s instructions be pushed aside?
There is a major difference between the financial rules established by the Torah and its prohibitions. In business arrangements, two parties may create their own terms. Thus, an employer can agree to give his employee benefits beyond what halacha requires and be obligated to provide them. Similarly, when a couple marries, the husband assumes responsibility to support his wife. However, if the two choose to marry without this responsibility, they may do so (Gemara Kiddushin 19b).
However, two parties cannot make a business agreement that violates a Torah prohibition. Therefore, one cannot create a contract that charges interest, ignores the Shmittah time limit for collecting debts or authorizes using non-halachic courts for adjudication. These cases all involve Torah-ordained prohibitions, and therefore cannot be eliminated by a “deal” between the two parties.
WHEN IS A BORROWER NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR DAMAGE?
I mentioned above that there are two circumstances whereby the borrower is absolved from paying for the damage. The Gemara calls these two cases “be’alav imo” literally, “the owner is with him,” and “meisah machmas melacha,” which means “the loaned animal died because of the work.”
The basis of each of these two pturim, absolutions, is totally different and both need to be explained.
Be’alav imo means that if the lender was working for the borrower when the pikadon was borrowed, the sho’el is absolved from paying for any subsequent damage. According to the halacha, this applies only if the owner was working when the she’eilah began. However, if the owner began work after the loan was begun, the borrower is fully responsible (Bava Metzia 94a).
This rule sounds very strange. What is its rationale?
We generally divide mitzvos into two categories, bein adam lachaveiro, mitzvos between us and our fellow men, and bein adam laMakom, mitzvos between us and Hashem. We are not surprised when mitzvos bein adam laMakom are beyond our comprehension and based on gezeiras hakasuv, decrees of Hashem in His Torah. For example, we never question why the Torah commanded holding an esrog on Sukkos and not a lemon – we know that the Torah’s mitzvos are beyond our comprehension. Nor do we ask why the flimsy schach on a sukkah must come from plant growth. We understand that these halachos are gezeiras hakasuv.
However when we it comes to bein adam lachaveiro, we expect to understand them. Indeed, most halachos of civil law are very comprehendible and include relatively few halachos based on gezeiras hakasuv. However, there are some exceptions and the rule of be’alav imo is one of them. The Torah states that under these circumstances, the borrower need not pay, even though we cannot comprehend the difference.
Nevertheless, several rationales have been suggested for the law of be’alav imo. In other words, even though it is a gezeiras hakasuv, we can derive certain hashkafic concepts from these laws. However, we must realize that these rationale should not be considered as “reasons” for the mitzvah. After all, do we think that we can comprehend the reasons for Hashem’s mitzvos? As the Sefer HaChinuch explains, the words ta’am hamitzvah should be translated as the taste of a mitzvah, rather than the reason for a mitzvah. This is because we can never explain why Hashem gave us mitzvos. We can only suggest ideas that will help us grow while we observe the mitzvos that Hashem has granted!
Similarly, the ta’amim given to explain be’alav imo should be understood as tastes, ideas that illuminate these halachos.
That being said, we can now present a ta’am suggested for the law of be’alav imo. Some explain that since the owner is being employed by the borrower, the borrower does not assume that he is responsible for the item borrowed. Rather, he assumes that the owner is taking care of his own item (Chinuch, Mitzvah 60). Under these circumstances, the Torah does not require the borrower to pay for damage done to the loaned item.
MEISAH MACHMAS MELACHA
The other occasion when a borrower is absolved from paying is “meisah machmas melacha,” literally, “the loaned animal died because of the work.” This is based on a logical concept that if the borrower had express permission to use the borrowed item for a certain purpose, he should not be penalized for utilizing it for that purpose (Tosafos; Nimukei Yosef).
There is an alternative explanation for meisah machmas melacha that contends that the borrower has the right to assume that a borrowed item can withstand normal wear and tear. If the pikadon did not withstand normal use, then we presume that it was inferior and the borrower is not responsible for the loss (Ramban; Sma 340:3).
A LOANED CAT
The Gemara discusses a strange case of someone who borrowed a cat to rid his house of unwanted mice. A din Torah was called when the mice killed the cat instead and the mash’eil claimed that the borrower must pay him for his loss! The Gemara concludes that the borrower is exempt because there must have been something wrong with a cat that was overpowered by mice (Bava Metzia 97a).
The following case is discussed by poskim. The residents of a threatened town borrowed weapons to defend themselves. They were defeated and the weapons were confiscated. Must they pay for the weapons?
The poskim dispute this issue. Some rule that they are exempt because the items were borrowed specifically for use in self-defense and the loss is categorized as meisah machmas melacha. Others contend that they are obligated to pay since the weapons were not inferior (Sma 340:8 and Shach ad loc.).
I was recently asked a shailah about someone who borrowed a power saw that was damaged during use. Is this considered meisah machmas melacha?
The halachic issue is to determine whether the borrower used the saw in a normal fashion, in which case he would be exempt from paying, or whether he perhaps abused the appliance, in which case he is obligated.
A FEW UNFAMILIAR HALACHOS ABOUT BORROWING
I have discovered that there are several halachos of which even knowledgeable people are unaware.
If I borrowed an item for a specific purpose, may I use it for something else?
In most instances, the answer is no. It is prohibited to use the pikadon for a different job without permission, even for a job that involves less wear and tear than the task for which it was borrowed (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 341:7). Some poskim permit using the pikadon for a job that is clearly less taxing on the tool, but all agree that I may not use it for work that might be equally stressful (Taz 340:1; Sma 341:20).
RETURNING THE BORROWED ITEM
Many people are unaware that a borrowed item is not considered returned until the lender knows about it (Choshen Mishpat 340:8). Therefore, if I borrow a hammer from my neighbor and return it to his house, I have not discharged my obligation until he knows that it has been returned. If it becomes damaged in the interim, I am still responsible to pay!
I borrowed a sefer from someone. When I came to return it, his children told me that the owner had gone on vacation. Consequently, I am responsible for the sefer until he finds out that I have returned it to his house.
Reuven borrowed money from a non-Jewish bank and placed a valuable painting in the bank’s vault as collateral. Knowing that the painting was worth far more than the loan, Shimon asked Reuven if he could borrow some money from the bank, using the painting as collateral for his loan as well. Both Reuven and the bank agreed. Subsequently, a massive explosion at the bank destroyed the painting. According to secular law, neither Reuven nor Shimon were obligated to pay back the loans since the collateral was not returned. (Incidentally, according to halacha, if the lender was Jewish, he would be obligated to repay the loan since the lender was not at fault for the loss.)
However, Reuven wants Shimon to compensate him for the painting, claiming that Shimon benefited from his loss. Reuven claims that Shimon “borrowed” the painting as collateral, since without it Shimon could not obtain his loan. Therefore, Shimon should have to compensate Reuven since he borrowed an item that he did not return. Does Reuven have any basis for his claim?
According to halacha, Shimon has no responsibility to compensate Reuven. The painting was in the bank’s vault because of Reuven’s loan, not because of Shimon’s (Mordechai, Bava Metzia #371; Rama, Choshen Mishpat 340:1).
However, if Reuven had never borrowed from the bank, but Shimon had used the painting as collateral, Shimon would indeed be responsible for it.
We have touched on some of the halachos involved when borrowing. This certainly indicates how much we have to know in order to observe them correctly. We should always bear in mind that the Gemara advises someone who wants to become a great tzaddik to ensure that he is highly familiar with all the halachos of damages!