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Are We Better Than The Residents Of Sedom?


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We learn in this week’s parshah about the wickedness and demise of the residents of Sedom. Further, we learn from medrashim that the residents of Sedom did not show much hospitality. Similarly, the mishnah in Avos 5:10 says that there are four different types of middos that people live by. The first is one who says, “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours.” The mishnah says that this is an intermediate middah; others say that this is middas Sedom. Rashi, in Kesubos 103a, says that the people in Sedom would not allow anyone to benefit from their possessions even if it would be of no loss to them.

Surely we are all familiar with the wickedness that is associated with the people of Sedom, and none of us would consider ourselves to be among the people of Sedom. However, there are certain interesting scenarios whereby the halacha is influenced by the concept of not being like the people of Sedom. This is known as “kofin al middas Sedom – we force one not to act like the people of Sedom.”

Here is one example: The Gemara in Baba Kama 20a discusses the situation when one lived in another person’s vacant home that would not have been rented. The Gemara discusses whether he is exempt from paying the owner for his stay. The Gemara says that the reason that he would be exempt is because the squatter can say to the owner, “you did not take a loss from the fact that I [the squatter] lived in your house.” This halacha applies even if the squatter would have otherwise rented another place had he not stayed in this house free of charge. This is called “zeh neheneh, v’zeh lo chaser – this one benefited, and this one did not lose.” This is a matter of dispute in the Gemara; the conclusion is that the squatter is exempt.

To make this a bit more applicable, let’s say one broke into and stayed in your summer home in the winter when you were not there. He would be exempt from paying you any rent since you would not have otherwise rented your house and there is no loss to you. Most Rishonim say, however, that one has the right to deny someone else access to his vacant home. The discussion in the Gemara only concerns one who has already lived in the house.

The P’nei Yehoshua learns that the reason for this is because of “kofin al middas Sedom.” Since you did not suffer any loss, even though someone else benefited from your belongings, the beneficiary is exempt from paying you for his gain. But if there is any loss to you, even a minor loss such as the walls having become blackened, the squatter is liable to pay all of the rent.

The Gemara also says that if the squatter would have otherwise rented another apartment and you would have otherwise rented your house, he is liable to pay rent. This is referred to as “zeh neheneh, v’zeh chaser – this one benefited and this one lost.”

The Gemara does not discuss, however, the scenario whereby you would have rented out the house but the squatter would not have rented another house, i.e. he has another place to stay. This circumstance is a dispute among the Rishonim. The Rif says that he is liable; Tosafos says that he is exempt because he did not derive any monetary benefit. The loss that the owner incurred is not a direct damage from the squatter, and he is therefore exempt.

The Acharonim are bothered by the following question: according to Tosafos’s view the squatter is exempt when there is a loss to the owner had he not rented another apartment. Why then should he pay for the rent when he would have rented another apartment? He should not pay for the benefit just as he is exempt when the owner would have not rented it out. Additionally, he should not pay for the owner’s loss of rent because, as Tosafos explained, it is an indirect damage.

The P’nei Yehoshua explains that the reason why one is exempt from paying the owner when he derives a monetary benefit at no cost to the owner is because we force the owner to not act like the people of Sedom. However, when the owner endures a loss, we cannot apply this concept because he has the right to be compensated for having incurred a loss. Therefore, when a loss is involved, the squatter must compensate the owner if he derived a monetary benefit from the owner’s possessions.

There is another explanation that can resolve the question on Tosafos. In fact, when one derives monetary benefit from another person’s possessions he does owe him money for the benefit. But when there is no loss to the owner, we do not consider as if the benefit resulted directly from the owner’s possessions. Since he did not steal the item, he only has to pay the owner for a benefit that we can say belonged to the owner. When there is no loss to the owner, the benefit is not considered to be his. But when there is a loss to the owner, we say that the benefit is his and that if the squatter derived a monetary benefit he must pay the owner for it. This is because one only must pay for a benefit that has a monetary value, not for a benefit with no monetary value.

For questions or comments, e-mail RabbiRFuchs@gmail.com.

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