Sometimes performing chesed can end up causing unexpected financial distress. However, a little bit of prevention can go a long way in avoiding this unplanned mishap.
Question #1: The Automobile Delivery
Mrs. Rosenberg’s *(all names have been changed) son, Yanky, a very straight and serious yeshiva bachur, sometimes comes home from yeshiva driving cars that are not his own. He told her that he is doing a favor for a businessman who needs these cars transported from place to place. Mrs. Rosenberg wants to know if Yanky is running any risk should something happen to the cars while in transit.
Question #2: The Money Transporters
2A. Shifrah commutes to work along a route that includes two branches of a local business. The owner asked her if she could convey money back and forth between his two offices. Shifrah asks me if she bears any halachic liability while performing this favor.
2B. Yosef is traveling to Eretz Yisroel, and Mrs. Goldstein asked him to bring some Chanukah gelt to her nephew. Rabbi Friedman asked Yosef to bring some money to his daughter there, and Mr. Gordon requested that he transport money to his son. Although Yosef initially put all the money together, he later decided to separate it during the trip for added security. Upon arrival in Israel, he discovered that some of the money was stolen. Must Yosef replace the stolen funds? If he does not, how do we determine whose money was stolen?
Question #3: The Wonderful Women of N’shei.
The local N’shei chapter conducted one of their wonderful activities to raise money for tzedakah. For table décor, they borrowed some expensive vases. Sarah picked up the vases, and transported them to the hall. Rivkah was in charge of placing them on the tables, and Rochel was responsible to return them. Leah, who was in charge of final clean-up, discovered that Rochel forgot to take the vases and now finds herself in a predicament. It is too late to call anyone to find out where to take the vases. If she leaves the vases behind, no one will return them, and they will certainly be lost or broken. There is no room in her small, cramped house to keep these vases safely from her frolicking children even until she can find someone to pick them up tomorrow. What should she do? With no choice, she transports them to her own house, hoping for the best. She calls me the next day, reporting that unfortunately some of the vases were broken before she could return them. Is she liable?
In all of these cases, someone doing a big chesed may have unwittingly stumbled into a major liability. Should one avoid performing chesed because of such fears? Of course not! But one should be aware of one’s liabilities and how to limit them.
In each of the above cases, the person doing the chesed became a shomer, because he or she assumed the responsibility to take care of someone else’s object. We must first review the basic rules of shomrim, and then see how these rules apply in each of our cases.
The Torah presents us with three basic categories of shomrim:
A. The Shomer Chinam: This shomer is someone who takes care of an item without receiving any financial benefit at all, even indirectly — and who is not permitted to use the item. Although he is unpaid, this shomer is still responsible to pay for the item if it was damaged due to his negligence or if he used it for himself (which he is not allowed to), but he is not responsible if he took appropriate care and yet the item was damaged or disappeared (Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 291:1). However, even if the shomer chinam took care of the item responsibly, the owner can still request that the shomer swear an oath that he/she indeed was careful, that he/she did not use the item, and that he/she is not still holding it (Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 295:1-2).
B. The Shomer Sachar: This is anyone who takes care of an item in return for some financial benefit. This includes someone who rents something and also a craftsman who repairs an item, since in both of these cases the person is responsible to take care of the object and receives compensation for his work. A shomer sachar is responsible to pay if the item is lost or stolen, but he is not obligated to pay if the item became lost or damaged through an accident beyond his control (Bava Metzia 93a). Anyone who receives some benefit while assuming responsibility for an item is included in this category, including a repairman or a renter (Bava Metzia 80b).
C. The Sho’el: This is someone who borrows an item and receives benefit without paying. He is responsible to pay back for any damages that happen to the item, even if the damage is beyond his control. Since he is receiving benefit gratis, he is responsible to make sure that he replaces the item to its owner. There are two situations where the Sho’el is not obligated to pay, but we will not discuss them in this article.
Having discussed some of the basic halachos, let us see how these halachos affect the cases I mentioned at the beginning of this article:
Question #1: The Automobile Delivery
When Yanky Rosenberg needs to travel between cities, he often drives cars for a car dealer he knows. This arrangement seems to benefit both parties – it provides Yanky with free transportation and provides the dealer with an inexpensive driver. Mrs. Rosenberg, however, is concerned about Yanky’s potential liability . Her concerns are very valid because Yanky has the halachic status of a shomer sachar, since he receives transportation, which is definitely worth money, in exchange for transporting the vehicle. Therefore, if the car is stolen during the trip, Yanky is responsible in full for the automobile, and he is also responsible for any damage caused by his negligence. For example, if the car is involved in an accident while Yanky is driving, he is responsible for the damages if his negligence caused the accident.
After finding this out, Mrs. Rosenberg was very concerned as she does not want Yanky to be halachically responsible for the automobiles. I told her that there is a simple solution. Yanky can simply tell the car dealer that he is assuming no responsibility for the vehicles. Although the Torah rules that a shomer sachar is usually responsible for theft and similar losses, the two parties can negotiate a different arrangement if they both agree (Mishnah Bava Metzia 94a). Thus, every shomer has the right to negotiate his own deal to assume either less or more responsibility than the Torah usually assigns. If Yanky tells the automobile dealer that henceforth he is assuming no responsibility for the cars he drives and the dealer agrees, Yanky will no longer be responsible for any loss, theft, or damage caused by his negligence.
Of course, the owner may no longer want Yanky to transport the automobiles under such an arrangement. Alternatively, Yanky and the dealer may decide to negotiate an arrangement that limits Yanky’s responsibility. Whatever they decide, at least all parties will know what to expect in the event that there is an unfortunate incident.
Question #2: The Money Transporters
A neighborhood business owner asked Shifrah to transport money for him from one location to another. If Shifrah receives any compensation for this favor, such as the business owner pays for her gas, she becomes a shomer sachar who is obligated to pay for any theft, loss or negligence. If she receives nothing for her kindness, she is still a shomer chinam. Although her liability is far less, she is still responsible for the loss of the money if she is negligent. Furthermore, should the money be stolen, she may be obligated to swear an oath that she was not negligent. Since most religious people are hesitant to swear oaths, this could present a problem for Shifrah.
Should Shifrah avoid the entire issue and refrain from transporting the money?
I told Shifrah that she should tell the business owner that she assumes no responsibility for his money in any way, and that he absolves her of any need to swear if the money is lost or stolen even if she is negligent. Shifrah explained to the business owner what I had told her, and he agreed that she should carry absolutely no responsibility whatsoever for the money. Now Shifrah can transport the money as a chesed, knowing that she will incur no liability whatever happens.
Yosef, who is transporting money for people on his trip to Eretz Yisroel, did not tell Mrs. Goldstein, Rabbi Friedman or Mr. Gordon that he was not assuming responsibility for transporting funds. Thus, he was a shomer when the theft occurred. We need to determine whether he was a shomer chinam or he was a shomer sachar, who receives some benefit for being a shomer. If Mr. Gordon gave Yosef a ride home one day in the course of bringing Yosef the money, Yosef might become a shomer sachar for the entire sum of money entrusted him by Mr. Gordon if the ride was partially in exchange for transporting the money.
Even if Yosef qualifies as a shomer chinam, this does not mean that he has no liabilities. First, we must determine that he was not negligent according to halacha’s definitions. The halachic definition of negligence when taking care of money is very stringent. For example, the Gemara rules that one who is responsible for money must hide it in a place where a thief would almost certainly not find it, even if he does not hide his own money so securely. In the time of the Gemara, this meant that a shomer had to dig a deep hole in the floor of his house (remember that the floors were made of earth) and bury the money there, thus creating a hiding place that is almost impossible to locate. Storing the money anywhere else qualifies as being negligent and makes one liable. Later, when burglars began digging beneath houses in search of hidden valuables, Chazal ruled that burying valuables was considered negligent and the only responsible way to hide them was in certain specific hiding places in the wall of the house where one could not tell that the wall was hollow! (Gemara Bava Metzia 42a)
When transporting money for someone else, the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 291:20) rules that one must keep the money tied in a bundle in your hand or in a place that you can always have your eyes on it. However, placing someone else’s money for safekeeping in a seemingly secure place behind you, such as in a zipped-closed back pocket, is negligent. Presumably, today we would apply different definitions for what is considered a secure place. Thus, it is possible that transporting money for someone without keeping it in a money belt or some other very secure fashion may be negligent.
Even if Yosef is halachically not negligent, he still might be required to swear an oath that he secured the money appropriately and that it was stolen.
Assuming that Yosef is not responsible, we need to determine whose money was lost. This may depend on several scenarios. Where was the money put? Did he keep each person’s money in a different place? Did he keep his money together with their money?
At this point, I advised that all four parties (Yosef, Mrs. Goldstein, Rabbi Friedman and Mr. Gordon) agree to submit the shaylah to one rav who could then rule whether Yosef is obligated, and if he is not, how to divide the remaining money among the three claimants. Since they did not choose me to be their arbiter, I do not know what the final decision was.
By the way, this shaylah could have been resolved very simply if Yosef had told Mrs. Goldstein, Rabbi Friedman and Mr. Gordon that he was not assuming any responsibility for the money, as I advised Yanky Rosenberg and Shifrah to do. In this situation, one would only have to resolve how the recipients divide the remaining money.
THE WONDERFUL N’SHEI LADIES
We still need to determine which, if any, of the wonderful N’shei ladies is responsible to pay for the broken vases.
To review the case: Sarah borrowed vases for a N’shei function and transported them to the hall. Rivkah was responsible to place them on the tables, and Rochel was supposed to return them, but she forgot. Leah discovered the forgotten vases, took them home against her better judgment, and some of them were broken before she could return them. Who is liable for the vases?
Again, here too a bit of advance planning would have been very helpful. When Sarah went to borrow the vases, did she clarify that she was borrowing them on behalf of N’shei? Did N’shei authorize her to make the organization responsible? Who within N’shei can authorize making the organization responsible for borrowing an item?
If we can determine that Sarah was authorized to borrow the vases on behalf of N’shei, and the lender understood this and agreed to it, then Sarah would not be personally responsible for the vases. However, if no one clarified these issues, Sarah is the legal borrower of the vases.
Did Sarah have permission to give the vases to someone else? If she did not, then she is responsible regardless of who was subsequently negligent with the vases. However, if the lender understood that other people would be using the vases, then Sarah is not the only party responsible, and Rivkah would become responsible as soon as she began placing the vases on the tables (see Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 291:22).
But then, you’ll tell me, Rochel should be responsible for not returning the vases!
However, here we have an interesting problem. Although Rochel forgot to pick up the vases and return them, she technically never became responsible for the vases. This is because of the following halacha in the laws of shomrim. According to most opinions, a shomer only becomes responsible when he or she picks up the item or if someone places the item in his or her jurisdiction. This is called that the shomer made a kinyan on the object. Since Rochel never picked up the vases and never made a kinyan on them, she never became responsible for them (Shitah Mekubetzes, Bava Metzia 98b, quoting Raavad; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 303:1).
There is a dissenting opinion that contends that the responsibility of a shomer can occur without making a kinyan on the object, but only in the following way. The shomer assumes responsibility for the item and the person who owns it or was previously responsible for it stopped assuming responsibility for the item. According to this opinion, the fact that the shomer assumes responsibility for the item and the owner walks away makes the shomer responsible (Rosh, Bava Metzia 8:15; Rama, Choshen Mishpat 340:4; see Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 291:5 who cites both opinions).
However this did not happen here, since Rochel did not assume responsibility for the vases at the time that Rivkah relinquished responsibility.
Thus, at the time that Leah found the vases on the table, no one was assuming responsibility for them. The responsible party at this moment is either Sarah, who originally borrowed them, or Rivkah, who was the last person to take responsibility. This would depend on whether the lender of the vases assumed that several people would be in charge of them. If the lender understood this, then the responsibility transferred from Sarah to Rivkah, and if not, Sarah remains the responsible party.
Thus, when Leah found the vases, she was doing a favor either for the organization, the owner of the vases, for Sarah or for Rivkah. In any of these instances, she did not want to assume responsibility, but simply wanted to save them from certain loss or damage. Does this release Leah from legal responsibility?
I have been unable to find clear sources that discuss this particular shaylah. I discussed this shaylah with some prominent poskim, and received differing opinions. One contended that Leah is indeed responsible for the vases, notwithstanding her hesitation at taking them. Another assumed that Leah is not responsible since they would have been certainly lost had she not taken them and she took them only because she felt that maybe this way they would not be destroyed.
I suggested to these wonderful women that they establish a future policy that the organization assumes responsibility for any items borrowed on its behalf, and that they arrange that any losses of this type be subtracted from the profits that the benefit brought in.
As we can see, the laws regarding responsibility for items are very complex, and sometimes lead to surprising conclusions. Among our cases, each participant was performing a chesed that could easily have created a large financial responsibility. This helps us highlight the importance of taking care of the property of others. While we certainly shouldn’t hesitate in performing acts of chesed, recognizing and preparing for the halachic ramifications of our actions is undoubtedly worthwhile. Of course, if one’s act of kindness unfortunately results in an unexpected predicament, he or she should not regret the act of chesed performed but rather accept to better protect oneself in the future.