Yair was always looking for spare jobs to earn some extra money. Before Pesach he would clean houses, before Sukkos he would build sukkahs, in the summer he would drive people to the mountains.
One evening he received a call from Mrs. Glazer. “Our fridge and oven have gotten really filthy over the summer and need a serious cleaning,” she said. “I heard that you have experience doing this kind of cleaning.”
“Sure, usually Pesach time,” he replied, “but I’ll do it for you.” He arranged to come the following afternoon.
Yair showed up the next day with his cleaning supplies. He removed the parts that could be easily taken off for more effective cleaning, including the doors of the oven. He sprayed and scrubbed and washed until the fridge and oven were shining again.
When everything was clean, he began to reassemble the pieces he had removed. As he picked up one of the oven doors, the metal guard holding the glass fell off. The glistening glass fell to the floor and shattered.
Yair stood there stunned. “How did that happen?” he asked himself.
He saw that he had picked up the door upside down. “That shouldn’t make a difference,” he thought. “I’ve done this many times with other ovens.” He picked up the other door and carefully turned it upside down. The glass remained securely in its place.
Yair gathered the shattered glass and the metal piece. He looked for the screws that held the metal piece in place and found that they were rusty and corroded. “My rotten luck that the screws failed now,” said Yair.
Yair called over Mr. Glazer and showed him what happened. “I picked up the oven door to return it to its place, but the screws fell out,” he apologized. “The glass slipped out and broke.”
“How could it have fallen out?” asked Mr. Glazer. “I see that the bottom guard is in place.”
“The top guard was loose, and I accidentally picked up the door up upside down,” explained Yair. “It usually doesn’t make a difference, though. I’ll show you.” He picked up the other door upside down, and the glass remained held fast in place.
“You’re right about that,” acknowledged Mr. Glazer. “But had you picked up the door the right way, it also wouldn’t have happened. You are partly to blame.”
“Well, you didn’t warn me that the oven had loose, rusty parts,” countered Yair.
“We need to consult with someone on this,” said Mr. Glazer. “Would you like to ask Rabbi Dayan?”
“Sure, that would be great,” said Yair.
The two went to Rabbi Dayan and asked: “Is Yair liable for the glass that broke?”
“In principle, a worker who is entrusted to work on an item is considered equivalent to a shomer sachar,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “He is not liable for loss due to circumstances beyond his control (oness), but is liable for preventable loss (geneivah v’aaveidah).”
“What is our case considered?” asked Yair.
“Yair is not completely free of blame, since he held the door upside down,” said Rabbi Dayan. “On the other hand, he wasn’t negligent in any way, since picking up the door upside down is not supposed to be a problem. Furthermore, he was entrusted with a defective door that had corroded screws, without being warned.
“Similarly, we find that Chazal instituted that a porter who stumbles and damages his load is exempt, unless he was negligent, such as if he tried to carry a heavy load that requires two people. If the porter tried carrying a load that was somewhat heavy for one person, but doesn’t usually require two people, he is liable for half the amount. It can’t be called negligence, since often a single person does carry it, but cannot be called uncontrollable, since the load was somewhat heavy for an individual.” (C.M. 304:1-4)
“This isn’t quite a case of porters,” commented Mr. Glazer.
“This was said about porters, but perhaps a similar idea could be applied to our case, since it’s difficult to ascertain clear responsibility in this case,” said Rabbi Dayan. “Considering also that the door was defective, it would seem best to compromise that he cover approximately a third of the cost of the glass.”
“What about Yair’s salary?” asked Mr. Glazer. “Do I have to pay for the cleaning that caused damage?”
“In the case of the porters, the SM”A (304:1) indicates that he is entitled to his wages, even though the job proved pointless,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “The Taz disagrees, unless the worker is poor, in which case righteous people go beyond the letter of the law and provide his wages. Here, in any case, most of the salary is for the cleaning of the fridge and the rest of the oven.”
About the Author: Rabbi Meir Orlian is a faculty member of the Business Halacha Institute, headed by HaRav Chaim Kohn, a noted dayan. To receive BHI’s free newsletter, Business Weekly, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. For questions regarding business halacha issues, or to bring a BHI lecturer to your business or shul, call the confidential hotline at 877-845-8455 or e-mail email@example.com.
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