Cases In Monetary Halachah
Contemporary issues and answers related to the laws of Choshen Mishpat for home, school and business
By Rabbi Tzvi Spitz
Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
Reuven left his house to spend a month out of town, and gave permission to his neighbor, Shimon, to make use of his house in his absence. The neighbor, upon entering the house, noticed that Reuven had left the empty refrigerator plugged in and, out of consideration to his gracious neighbor, Shimon unplugged it in order to save Reuven the cost of running an appliance unnecessarily for an entire month. After several days Shimon noticed a foul odor in Reuvens house, and realized that the freezer compartment of the refrigerator contained several chickens, which had defrosted and rotted as a result of the refrigerator being disconnected. Shimon promptly threw the putrid chickens in the garbage.
When Reuven returned, Shimon told him what had happened. He apologized for having caused the loss of the chickens and said that he was prepared to pay for them. However, to his shock, Reuven became quite distraught and disclosed to Shimon that he had hidden $10,000 in cash inside the chickens for safekeeping!
Reuven demanded that Shimon pay him the full sum of $10,000 in addition to the cost of the chickens. Shimon, on the other hand, put forth the defense that his destruction of the money was in the category of oness (a situation beyond ones control), for he could not have known that there was money inside the chickens. Furthermore, Shimon noted, he had been acting out of benevolence when he unplugged the freezer, following the law of hashavas aveidah (return of lost objects, which includes the duty to save ones fellow from monetary loss).
(The issue of proof to Reuvens claim as to the existence of the money and its amount is not relevant in this case, as Shimon fully believed Reuvens claim.)
Shimon is exempt from paying the $10,000.1 He must pay for the chickens,2 but the money saved in electricity charges due to the disconnection of the refrigerator should be deducted from that amount.
1. The Gemara (Bava Kamma 62a) discusses a case in which a person destroys a money box along with its contents. The law is that he must pay for any money that was inside the box, but not for objects that are not normally stored in a money box. According to Tosafos, this ruling holds true even if it is now known for certain that those unusual objects were indeed in the box. (The reason for the exemption is apparently that the damager had no way of realizing that those unusual objects were inside the box.) This is the ruling of the Rema in Shulchan Aruch (C.M. 388:1).
There is another opinion that limits the exemption of the Gemara to cases where it is not certain whether the unusual objects were in the box altogether. All the Gemara is saying, according to this interpretation, is that the owner of the box is not believed to claim that it contained unusual objects unless he can prove this claim. If the contents of the box can be proven, however, the damager has to pay even for unusual objects. This is the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch itself (ibid.).
According to the Tosafos-Rema ruling, Shimon is clearly exempt from paying for the money he threw away, because it is definitely not usual practice to store money inside a frozen chicken.
Furthermore, it would seem that even according to the Shulchan Aruchs ruling Shimon would be exempt here. This is because the basis for the Shulchan Aruchs requirement to pay in such cases is the fact that the damager acted improperly by committing the act of wanton destruction in the first place; therefore he is obligated to pay the full price of the contents. In our case, however, Shimon was fully justified in throwing out the chickens, for leaving them would have caused even further damage to Reuven, in terms of the resultant harmful sanitary conditions.
2. The damage done to the chickens is in the category of gerama (indirect damage), for which a person has a moral obligation to pay, but cannot be legally forced to do so. This is because Shimon did not do anything to the chickens directly to cause them to spoil; rather, he simply removed the source of power that was keeping them fresh and they began to rot by means of a natural process.