The Syrian Jew Who Saved Israel
By: Rabbi Max Sutton, Rosh Bet Din Aram Soba
This past summer was a difficult time in Southern Israel, as missiles were fired upon major cities like Ashkelon, Be’er Sheva and Ashdod. Terrorist attacks not only endanger thousands of lives, but also put a tremendous financial strain on the residents of the attacked areas. The following case is just one of the many predicaments innocent civilians were confronted with and which was presented to our Bet Din to help resolve.
Albert had rented from Danny a beautiful oceanfront apartment off the shores of Ashdod for two weeks. He prepaid the entire rental fee of $ 5600 and moved into the apartment on Thursday, August 18. That evening, and for the following ten days, missiles were shot from Gaza, hitting the city of Ashdod mercilessly. Albert testified that a number of missiles hit approximately 150 feet from the apartment, forcing his family to periodically evacuate the apartment and take refuge in the building’s bomb shelter. His summer vacation was a complete disaster, as his children suffered mental trauma from the episode. In Bet Din, Albert demanded a complete refund of the $5600, explaining that he could not leave the Ashdod apartment as he had rented out his Jerusalem home and had nowhere else to live. Danny truly sympathized with Albert but was unwilling to return the funds, as the situation was not his responsibility. How should the Bet Din rule, in favor of Albert or Danny?
Last Month's Question
A Lifesaving Crash
Josh, an experienced bicyclist, was cycling at full speed on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn between Avenues K and L. As a large truck approached him from behind, it became apparent that the truck driver was either drunk or driving recklessly. The truck swerved to the right, practically running Josh off the road, and having no other choice, Josh rode his bike directly towards the back of a parked van. He quickly slammed on the brakes and braced himself for the crash, but unfortunately his head slammed into the back window of the van, shattering the glass and causing him to sustain a painful head injury. The truck driver ran from the scene, and there were no witnesses who recorded his license plate number. When Louis, the owner of the van, came, he was surprised to find a circle of ambulances around his car and his back window shattered into pieces. With a $1000 deductible on his insurance policy, Louis was unwilling to sustain the substantial cost of the damage to his van, and summonsed Josh to Bet Din. Josh defended his position, explaining that it was a life-threatening situation, and according to Torah law he is not responsible for circumstances beyond his control. How should the Bet Din rule, and why?
According to the ruling of the Shulhan Aruch, a person is obligated to pay for any damages he caused whether or not this was done intentionally. Therefore, even if one accidently damages property, he is obligated to compensate for the damage. However, in instances where the damage came about through a completely unavoidable mishap, one is exempt from payment. Hence, a person who sleeps next to an object he subsequently damaged in his sleep is liable to pay even though the damage was done unintentionally. If, however, an object was placed next to him after he fell asleep, he is not liable to pay. Since the damage came about through a circumstance completely beyond his control, he is exempt from payment.
By contrast, the Shulhan Aruch rules that if one saves himself from a pursuer and has no choice other than to break vessels that lay in the path of his escape, he must nevertheless provide monetary compensation for the broken vessels. Although the damage was caused by a life-threatening situation and is clearly a circumstance beyond his control, he is held liable for his actions.
At first glance, these two rulings seem to reflect contradictory stances as to whether Torah law considers circumstances beyond one’s control grounds for liability exemption. A proper analysis of the two cases, however, reveals the fine distinction between the two rulings.
Leading halachic authorities explain that while damage caused by extenuating circumstances is a reason for exemption, numerous restrictions apply to this provision. Since, as a general rule, Torah law holds people accountable for their actions, they are held responsible anytime they cause damage through a conscious decision. Even if the sole intent of the damage was to spare oneself from a life-threatening situation, if a conscious decision was made to do the damage, one is liable to pay. Furthermore, even if no conscious decision was present at the time of damage, but the offender was aware of the possible ramifications of his actions, he is also liable. Therefore, if one saves himself from a pursuer and has no choice other than to break vessels in the path of his escape, he is liable for damages. Since he was aware of the possibility of the vessels breaking, he is not exempt from payment, even though he was contending with a life-threatening situation.
On the other hand, if damage is done while one is sleeping, or by any other unintentional act, one is exempt from payment if circumstances were beyond his control. Since no conscious decision was made to do the damage, one is not required to pay.
Sources: Shulhan Aruch – Hoshen Mishpat 378:1, 3 & 380:3; Shach 378:2; Pit’hei Hoshen citing Divrei Mishpat 232; Aruch Hashulhan 380:6.
Verdict: Your Money or Your Life
Quite often, a panel of Judges is confronted with cases involving serious injuries suffered by one or both of the parties involved. Although there is a natural instinct to sympathize with a battered or bruised litigant, it is the responsibility of the Bet Din to overcome their natural emotions and to judge the case in strict accordance with Torah law. The decision submitted in the following case was based on strict Torah law, even though the defendant was badly injured at the scene of the accident.
Although the damage Josh caused to Louis’s van was due to a circumstance completely out of his control, he is nevertheless obligated to pay for the damage. After inquiry it became apparent to the Bet Din that Josh was aware of the parked van, and made a conscious decision to bear right to avoid the oncoming truck. He had hoped to be able to stop his bike before he hit the van, but due to the high speed he was unable to do so. Since Josh consciously chose to drive his bike directly towards the parked van, he is liable, even though his intent was to save his life. While he obviously made the right decision to save his life, he is not exempt from payment for the damages.
Winning Answers: Jack Beida and Allan Mordechai Ben-Dayan