Login  

Register  

The Halachos of Borrowing

By Rabbi Yirmiyahu Kaganoff

Posted on 02/05/18

Question: Shattered Shield


“A friend left for a few weeks, leaving me the keys for his car and permission to use it whenever I wanted. The first morning, when I went to get the car, I discovered that the windshield had been shattered by a stone or brick. Am I obligated to replace the windshield?”


Introduction:


Answering this question requires that we understand the legal responsibilities of someone who borrows an item. As always, the purpose of our article is not to offer a definitive halachic ruling, but to present background and knowledge. In this instance, as in all cases, a person should address any particular question to his rav or posek. And, since there are probably two parties involved, to resolve a matter amicably, I suggest that the two of you agree on a specific rav or dayan whose expertise you both recognize.


The Basics:


In parshas Mishpatim, the Torah presents three types of shomrim, people who assume responsibility for other people’s property. The Torah shebe’al peh, our Oral Torah, explains that these are the three categories:


A. A shomer chinam takes care of someone else’s property without any compensation and has no right to use the item. He is responsible to pay if the item was damaged due to his negligence, or if he used it without permission. If there are factual issues that are unresolved, such as determining whether the shomer was negligent, the owner may insist that the shomer swear a shevuah, an oath, to exonerate himself from liability. This last rule, that the owner is not required to accept the shomer’s version of what happened without corroborating evidence, is true also in regard to the other shomrim that we will soon discuss.


In recent history, batei din have been reticent about requiring someone to swear an oath, and therefore a beis din might effect a financial compromise in lieu of an oath.


B. A shomer sachar is one who takes care of an item and receives financial benefit. He is liable if the item is lost or stolen, but he is not obligated if it became lost or damaged for some reason beyond his control, which includes, for example, armed robbery.


C. A sho’eil borrows an item, receiving benefit without providing the owner with any compensation. As stated in the Mishnah (Bava Metzia 93a), a sho’eil is obligated to pay for any damage that happens to the item, even if it is completely beyond his control. The obvious reason why this is so is that since the sho’eil received benefit from the item gratis, he must make sure that he returns what he received, paying its full value, if need be.


Notwithstanding this obligation on the part of the borrower, there are two exceptional situations where the item is damaged, stolen or destroyed and the sho’eil is not obligated to make compensation. These are:


1. Meisah machmas melacha, literally, the item or animal “died” or became damaged in some way as a result of the work for which it was borrowed. We will soon explain the rationale for this. In addition, the borrower is exempt only when he used the item without abusing it.


2. Be’alav imo, the owner of the borrowed item was in the employ of the borrower at the time of the loan (Mishnah, Bava Metzia 94a).


Verification


As noted above, should there be a question about verifying the facts, whether the circumstances were indeed a case of meisah machmas melacha, the lender may demand that the borrower swear an oath to verify them. Also, if the event occurred in a time and place that there should have been eyewitnesses, the lender may insist that the borrower produce witnesses to verify what happened, rather than be satisfied with an oath.


In this context, the Gemara records the following din Torah (Bava Metzia 97a): A man borrowed a bucket that broke while he was using it. The two parties appeared before Rav Papa to adjudicate whether the borrower was obligated to pay. Rav Papa ruled that this is considered meisah machmas melacha. However, he first asked the borrower to produce witnesses that he did not use the bucket in an unusual fashion, for if he used it in an unusual way, the exemption of meisah machmas melacha would not apply.


Kinyan


There is a basic dispute among the rishonim concerning whether a shomer becomes liable as soon as he agrees to the arrangement (Rosh, Bava Metzia 8:15), or only when he makes a kinyan on the borrowed item (Raavad, quoted by Shitah Mekubetzes, Bava Metzia 98b). Kinyan refers to the act that effects loans, rentals, transfers of ownership of property and other legal agreements. In our situation, this question arises in the event that the borrowed item was left in the shomer’s care, but he never lifted, moved or did anything else that would legally make the item “his.” Some rishonim hold that the shomer becomes responsible only when he performs a kinyan, whereas others hold that he becomes responsible even when no kinyan is performed.


Among the halachic authorities, this matter is disputed by the Shulchan Aruch and the Rema, the latter ruling that a shomer becomes legally responsible as soon as he agrees to the arrangement (Choshen Mishpat 340:4).


In the case of an automobile, driving the car off when someone borrowed it constitutes a kinyan. According to some rishonim, taking possession of the keys is also a kinyan, but this is a minority opinion (see Rashi, Pesachim 4a, as explained by Korban Nesanel).


With this background, let us now examine our opening question:


Shattered Shield


“A friend left for a few weeks, leaving me the keys for his car and permission to use it whenever I wanted. The first morning, when I went to get the car, I discovered that the windshield had been shattered by a stone or brick. Am I obligated to replace the windshield?”


The damage caused here had nothing to do with the sho’eil, but, as we explained before, he is obligated to make compensation even then. However, according to the opinion that a shomer is not obligated until he makes a kinyan on the item, if the borrower did not drive the car, he has not yet become obligated. Thus, he would be exempt from paying for the damages, according to that opinion, which is the way many halachic authorities rule.


Establishing a condition


It is important to note that the system explained above regarding the responsibility of shomrim applies only when the two parties did not establish their own policy. However, if a sho’eil tells the owner that he is not assuming responsibility and the owner agrees, or if a shomer chinam assumes total responsibility, or if any other arrangement is made that both parties accept, that agreement will govern what liability exists (Mishnah, Bava Metzia 94a). Similarly, an agreement may also be made to eliminate any obligation on the shomer to swear an oath to verify the facts (ibid.).


Therefore, if a shomer chinam wants to avoid any potential liability, either to pay or to swear an oath, he should tell the owner that he will gladly watch the item, but that he is assuming no responsibility for the item, even should he be negligent, and that the owner must relinquish his right to have the shomer swear to prove his innocence. A sho’eil may make a similar condition before he borrows the item. However, bear in mind that if the sho’eil does make such a precondition, the owner may refuse to lend him the item. Since the sho’eil is aware of this, he is usually reluctant to make such a precondition. Our article is discussing the halacha that applies when they do not make their own arrangements.


Be’alav imo and Meisah machmas melacha


We mentioned above that a sho’eil is obligated to pay for all damages that happen to the item he borrowed, with the exception of two cases: meisah machmas melacha and be’alav imo. It is interesting to note that these two exemptions are, in one way, complete opposites. The exemption of be’alav imo is expressly mentioned in the Torah and thus fits the halachic category that we call gezeiras hakasuv. In this case, this means that attempts to explain the reason for this law will not affect the halacha. (Although the commentaries present many reasons for be’alav imo, these reasons will not change the halacha – they may qualify under the general heading of lo darshinan ta’ama dikra, we do not derive halachic conclusions based on reasons for mitzvos. Because of space considerations, we will not discuss in this article the topic of darshinan ta’ama dikra and how it relates to be’alav imo.)


On the other hand, since the exemption of meisah machmas melacha is never mentioned in the Torah shebiksav, we assume that the basis for this law is logic. Chazal understood that the sho’eil is not obligated to pay for an item that was damaged as a result of expected use.


The question is why this rule is true when the Torah obligates the borrower to replace the item, even should it be destroyed by a complete accident over which he had no control. The Gemara, when explaining this idea, states very succinctly that the animal was not borrowed for it to have a vacation. There are several ways to understand this statement of the Gemara. I will now present four of them.


Lender’s negligence


Among the halachic authorities, we find several approaches to explain the phenomenon of meisah machmas melacha, and there are differences in practical halacha that result. The Ramban explains that the reason for meisah machmas melacha is because the lender is considered negligent. He should have realized that his object or animal could not withstand the work for which he was lending it! Since he did not check this out, he has no claim on the borrower to replace it (Ramban, Bava Metzia 96b, quoted by Beis Yosef, Choshen Mishpat 340). For ease of presentation, we will refer to this approach as lender’s negligence.


Wear and tear


A second approach is that the person lending an item knows that there will be a certain amount of wear and tear, and he does not expect to be reimbursed for this (Nimukei Yosef, Rosh as explained by Machaneh Efrayim, Hilchos She’eilah Upikadon #4). If the animal or item could not withstand normal use, this is an extension of the wear-and-tear principle.


Mechilas hamash’il


A third reason is that when lending an item, one knows that the item can become damaged while it is being used, and this is included in the mechilah implied by the loan. This approach contends that a sho’eil is exempt when damage occurs as a result of the loan, even when it cannot be attributed to wear and tear. For example, the borrower told the owner that his intent is to take a trip to a certain place, which he did, and while there the animal was stolen (see Ramah, quoted by Tur, Choshen Mishpat #340). Since the owner knew the animal was being borrowed to take it to a specific place, any damage that happens because of that place is included as meisah machmas melacha, according to this third opinion. I will henceforth refer to this approach as mechilas hamash’il, meaning that, in advance, the lender forgives damage that occurs while the item is being used.


Of the three opinions cited so far, only the third exempts the sho’eil from paying when an animal is stolen. The previous two opinions both contend that meisah machmas melacha can include only damage that was a result of normal, expected work. According to the reason of lender’s negligence, the owner was not negligent if the animal was stolen, and, according to the wear and tear reason, the loss from theft was not a result of use.


Mekach ta’us


A fourth approach, mentioned in acharonim, is that when someone borrows an item or animal, he accepts responsibility only because he assumes that it can withstand the work for which he borrowed it. If it is incapable of performing that task, then we assume the borrower never assumed responsibility (Machaneh Efrayim, Hilchos She’eilah Upikadon #4). I will call this approach mekach ta’us, that the implied “contract” of responsibility was never agreed to by both parties.


To simplify our four approaches, they are:


1. Lender’s negligence: The lender was negligent in not checking the item’s condition before lending it.


2. Wear and tear: Lending includes the assumption that a borrower is not responsible for normal use.


3. Mechilas hamash’il: The lender assumes responsibility for damage that resulted from the loan.


4. Mekach ta’us: The borrower never assumed this responsibility.


Practical differences


Are there practical differences that result from this dispute? Indeed, there are many. Here is an early example: The Tur (Choshen Mishpat 340) quotes a dispute between the early rishonim, the Ramah (Rabbi Meir Abulafia, an early rishon living in Spain, not to be confused with Rabbi Moshe Isserlis, the Rema, who lived in Poland over three hundred years later, whose notes to the Shulchan Aruch we will be quoting shortly) and the Rosh, concerning the following case: Someone borrowed an animal for a specific trip, and the animal was stolen on the trip by armed robbers. The Ramah rules that this is considered meisah machmas melacha and the borrower is not obligated to pay, whereas the Rosh rules that it is not meisah machmas melacha and he is obligated to pay. A careful study of the way the Tur presents the dispute implies that the Ramah assumes that the lender was mocheil any damages expected to happen as part of the lending (approach #3 above, mechilas hamash’il), whereas the Rosh assumes that the lender is mocheil only on expected wear and tear (approach #2 above, wear and tear). The Ramah appears to understand that any damage that results from the loan is included under meisah machmas melacha. (The approach to explain this dispute is presented by the Machaneh Efrayim.)


How do we rule?


The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 340:3) rules according to the Ramah: When the animal was stolen by armed robbers during the time that it was borrowed, the borrower is exempt from making compensation, because it is considered a case of meisah machmas melacha.


On the other hand, the Rema cites the Rosh’s opinion. The Shach agrees with the halachic conclusion of the Rema in this case, because he feels that the Ramban’s approach (#1 above, which I called lender’s negligence) should be followed, and this approach is in agreement with the Rema’s position in this case.


Playing cat and mouse


The following interesting case is mentioned in the Gemara (Bava Metzia 97a): Someone’s house was infested with mice, and the owner wanted to use an inexpensive, safe and environmentally-friendly way to eliminate the problem. He borrowed a neighbor’s cat to “exterminate” the mice.


Strength in numbers


The Gemara tells us that a very unusual thing happened. The mice gathered together and launched a counterattack on the cat, killing it! The question now was whether the borrower was required to compensate the lender for the deceased cat, and the matter became the subject of one of the most famous dinei Torah in history, presided over by Rav Ashi. The conclusion was that the borrower was exempt from paying, because this is a case of meisah machmas melacha.


Contemporary case


In a contemporary work, I found discussion about the following case: Reuven borrowed a car for a day. While he was driving the car, a child darted into the street in front of the car. Reuven braked, fortunately succeeding in avoiding striking the child. However, a truck behind him was following too closely. The truck hit the car, severely damaging it, and then escaped without providing any identifying information (hit and run) – leaving Reuven with a damaged, borrowed car. To complicate matters, the owner was not carrying collision insurance that would cover the damage. Is Reuven obligated to pay the owner for the damage?


According to the Ramban, approach #1, that meisah machmas melacha is exempt because the lender was negligent, Reuven is certainly obligated to pay. Although the damage was completely accidental, a sho’eil is obligated to compensate for accidental damage that happened while the item is in his care. Meisah machmas melacha does not apply, according to this approach, because the automobile was not deficient in any way.


The same halacha is true according to the Rosh (approach #2), who contends that the law of meisah machmas melacha exempts only wear and tear, which was not the cause for the damage. Furthermore, according to the fourth approach  (mekach ta’us) Reuven is obligated, again, because the automobile was in fine condition when he borrowed it.


However, what is the law according to the third approach, that I called mechilas hamash’il? This approach contends that an owner is mocheil any damage that might result from the loan. A contemporary author that I saw ruled that, according to this opinion, the sho’eil would be exempt from paying in this instance, since the damage happened as a result of the loan (Mishpetei HaTorah 1:35).


Conclusion


As we can see, the laws regarding responsibility for items are very complex and sometimes lead to surprising conclusions. In general, we should be vigilant when we assume responsibility for items belonging to others. A Torah Jew observes his contractual commitments with trust and faith. He certainly realizes that Hashem’s Torah is all-encompassing and directs every aspect of his life, certainly the details of his financial dealings.