Mrs. Melamed taught at a nearby high school. One afternoon, at 3:45, she saw another teacher, Mrs. Kohn, rushing out of the building.
“Where are you rushing to?” Mrs. Melamed asked her.
“We’re hosting a sheva berachos tonight for my niece,” Mrs. Kohn replied. “I’m already late! I don’t even have a minute to take my projector to the office. Would you mind keeping it overnight in your office?”
“I’d be happy to keep it, ” replied Mrs. Melamed. “Mazal Tov!” She took the projector to her office, where she had a free hour until 5:00.
Mrs. Melamed was in the middle of grading a paper when she suddenly noticed it was 5:01. “Already!” she jumped up. “I’d better run.” She gathered her books and ran to her classroom. She began teaching and then realized that she had forgotten to lock her office.
“I should have locked the door,” she said to herself, “but I don’t expect any theft.”
After teaching a double-period, Mrs. Melamed returned to her office. She looked at the desk where she had left Mrs. Kohn’s projector, but, to her dismay, it was empty!
Mrs. Melamed looked around the room and saw that her pocketbook had been opened; an envelope with money had been taken.
“I can’t believe it!” Mrs. Melamed cried out. “Of all the days to have this happen! How will I ever face Mrs. Kohn?!”
Mrs. Melamed immediately called her husband. “Mrs. Kohn gave me her projector to watch,” she said. “I ran out of the office to teach and left it unlocked. Someone came into the room and stole the projector and money I was carrying in my pocketbook!”
“This sometimes happens,” her husband soothed her. “I’m not sure you’re liable if people don’t always lock their offices.”
Mrs. Kohn called Mrs. Melamed. “I don’t know what to say,” she began. “I ran out to teach and left my office unlocked. While I was teaching, someone came into my office and stole money from my pocketbook and also your projector.”
“That was an expensive projector,” said Mrs. Kohn. “It cost me $600. You were negligent in leaving the door unlocked.”
“But I often leave my office unlocked,” said Mrs. Melamed. “I’ve left a projector in my office unlocked and never had a theft before. Why should I have to treat your projector better than my own?”
“The fact that you risk leaving your office unlocked doesn’t mean that it’s acceptable,” said Mrs. Kohn. “Almost everyone locks their office; you were negligent.”
“You also once forgot to lock your office overnight!” argued Mrs. Melamed. “What do you want from me if I left the office unlocked while I taught?”
“The fact that I am sometimes careless does not excuse your being negligent,” said Mrs. Kohn. “It’s your tough luck that a thief happened to be roaming the offices now.”
“And what if I had gone down the hall to get a coffee,” asked Mrs. Melamed. “Would you still consider me negligent?”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Kohn. “Doors should always be locked!”
“My husband said that he’s not sure I’m liable if people sometimes don’t lock their doors,” said Mrs. Melamed. “He suggested we ask Rabbi Dayan about this.”
“That’s fine with me,” said Mrs. Kohn.
They arranged to meet with Rabbi Dayan. “I asked Mrs. Melamed to watch my projector in her office,” said Mrs. Kohn. “She forgot to lock the door and the projector was stolen. Is she liable for the projector? What if she had gone down the hall for coffee?”
“If it is customary in your school to lock the office doors, Mrs. Melamed is liable for the projector when she left the office unlocked,” ruled Rabbi Dayan. “A person is required to guard his friend’s property in the customary manner. Even if a person is careless with his own property, he may not be careless with his friend’s.” (C.M. 291:14)
“What if it is customary there to leave the doors unlocked?” asked Mrs. Kohn.
“In that case, a shomer chinam [unpaid guardian] would be exempt,” answered Rabbi Dayan. “He is expected to watch in the normal, customary, manner. Similarly, if you had gone out for a short time to get a cup of coffee, when many people leave the office unlocked, you would be exempt. However, a shomer sachar [paid guardian] is still liable. He is paid to provide extra protection.” (C.M. 291:8; 303:10-11)
“What if Mrs. Kohn herself would often leave her door unlocked?” asked Mrs. Melamed. “Can I be expected to watch better than she does?”
“This case is not commonly addressed,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “It seems, though, that a guardian is required to guard according to what is commonly expected. Thus, you cannot exempt yourself by claiming that Mrs. Kohn often leaves her office unlocked.”
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 email@example.com. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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