The summer months were almost over. Most vacationers had already returned from the summer resorts and lakesides to their homes in the city.
A few boats were still floating on the lake and some swimmers swam near the shore. Mr. Zimmerman was on a boat not far from the shore when he noticed a commotion. People were crying for help: “Someone is drowning!”
Mr. Zimmerman immediately headed over with his boat. He saw a man lying in the water.
Mr. Zimmerman fumbled with the cell phone in his pocket, but it was stuck. Without thinking twice, he jumped in to save the man. With great effort, he dragged him from the water to the side of the lake.
Hatzolah volunteers who had assembled began life saving measures. They were able to stabilize the man and take him to the hospital, where he recovered.
Meanwhile, Mr. Zimmerman returned to his boat. He tried using the cell phone that was in his pocket, but it had gotten ruined in the water. The phone was brand new and expensive. Mr. Zimmerman was happy and proud to have saved the man’s life, but wondered about the cell phone. Was it fair to request reimbursement for the phone?
Mr. Zimmerman discussed the issue with his chavrusa. “The man didn’t ask you to jump in the water,” said his chavrusa.
“Wasn’t it obvious I had to do that?” said Mr. Zimmerman.
“If you had to, then why should he have to pay?” countered his chavrusa.
“The phone was ruined for his benefit,” argued Mr. Zimmerman.
“You could have taken it out of your pocket,” noted his chavrusa.
“It was stuck ,” said Mr. Zimmerman. “Anyway, my mind was focused on saving him and time was of essence.”
Mr. Zimmerman decided to ask Rabbi Dayan.
“I jumped into the water to save someone’s life and my cell phone got ruined,” he said. “Is the man liable for the ruined phone?”
“The man is liable for the phone,” answered Rabbi Dayan, “if he is able to pay and time was precious.”
“There is a prohibition against standing idly by when a person’s life is in danger: ‘Lo sa’amod al dam rei’echa‘ [Vayikra 19:16],” explained Rabbi Dayan. “Saving life is also included in the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah. There is a mitzvah to return lost property, all the more so one’s life – hashavas gufo.”
“Regarding hashavas aveidah of property,” continued Rabbi Dayan, “a person is not required to forgo his own money to save another person’s property. However, a person is required to forgo money to save another’s life, such as by hiring rescuers or equipment. Because of the prohibition against standing idly by, a person is even required to give up all his wealth to save his fellow from imminent danger.” (C.M. 426:1; Marcheshes 1:43; Encyclopedia Talmudis 10:344)
“Then why is the person liable?” asked Mr. Zimmerman.
“This is derived from the case of a person who is being chased by murderers and escapes by damaging other people’s property en route,” said Rabbi Dayan. “One who saves himself at another’s expense is liable for the damage. Similarly, he is required to reimburse here if he can pay.” (C.M. 380:3; Sma 426:1; Rama Y.D. 252:12)
“What if I knew beforehand that the person would be unable to pay?” asked Mr. Zimmerman.
“That is not a reason to avoid saving his life,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “The obligation remains to save a fellow Jew.” (Meiri Sanhedrin 73b; Shulchan Aruch Harav, Hil. Nizkei Haguf #7)
“In your case, since seconds were critical, the person whom you saved is liable for the phone,” concluded Rabbi Dayan. “If you could have easily removed the phone, he would be legally exempt since the loss was not necessary for the rescue. It would be common decency to pay, nonetheless, since it is difficult when saving a life to consider all the monetary ramifications.”