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Levi spotted his friend Yisrael coming up the block pulling a shopping cart. “Where are you coming from?” Levi asked.

“I got challah and a boxed birthday cake from the bakery, fruits and vegetables, and other groceries,” Yisrael replied. “The car wasn’t available, so I took the shopping cart.”

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“Are you in a rush?” Levi asked. “I want to discuss something with you.”

“I have time,” Yisrael replied.

While they were talking, Yisrael got a phone call. “I’ve got to run,” he said suddenly. “I forgot that I have a doctor’s appointment now and I’m already late. Can I leave the shopping cart in your backyard? I’ll pick it up later.”

“You’re welcome to leave it there,” said Levi. Yisrael brought the shopping cart around the back.

While Yisrael was at the doctor, it rained. He returned two hours later. “The doctor’s office was a madhouse!” he said to Levi. “I hope you brought the shopping cart in while it rained.”

“Oh my, I forgot all about it!” exclaimed Levi. The two went out to the backyard. The rain had soaked the box and ruined the birthday cake.

“I expected that you would take the cart inside when the rain began,” said Yisrael. “It was negligence to leave it outside.”

“I allowed you to leave the cart in the backyard,” said Levi, “but never accepted responsibility for it.”

“Who did you think would watch it while I was gone?” asked Yisrael. “When you said I could leave the shopping cart there, I assumed you intended to take care of it.”

“I wasn’t really thinking,” replied Levi. “Things in the backyard usually don’t need watching. I also didn’t expect you to be away so long. One thing is clear, though: I never accepted responsibility for the cake.”

“Let’s ask Rabbi Dayan,” suggested Yisrael.

Levi and Yisrael went to Rabbi Dayan. Yisrael asked: “If Levi told me I can leave my shopping cart in his backyard, is he liable if the contents got ruined in the rain?”

“The Gemara [B.K. 47b; B.M. 81b] teaches that a person is liable as a guardian only if he accepted responsibility for the item,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “However, if he granted permission to leave it in his property without accepting responsibility, he is not liable.”

“What constitutes accepting responsibility?” asked Levi.

“Saying ‘Leave it with me‘ is considered accepting responsibility,” answered Rabbi Dayan. “Simply saying ‘Leave it’ or ‘Put it down is the subject of a dispute between the tannaim; Shulchan Aruch rules that it is not viewed as accepting responsibility. Therefore, Levi bears no liability.” (C.M. 291:2-3)

“Is it all a function of language?” asked Yisrael.

“No, it also depends on circumstances,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “For example, some maintain that permission to leave something inside one’s house implicitly includes accepting responsibility, since only the homeowner will remain present [Shach 291:8]. Similarly, the Rosh [Respona 94:2,4] writes that someone who was traveling and gave permission to place something on his donkey is considered as accepting responsibility. If he will not guard the item, who will? Only in a secure place, or where the item’s owner may remain present, do we view the statement ‘leave it,’ as permission to place there without acceptance of responsibility.” (See Nesivos 291:2,8; Pischei Choshen, Pikadon 2:20-24.)

“I should add, though,” concluded Rabbi Dayan, “that although Levi is not liable as a guardian for leaving the shopping outdoors, he was required to have brought it in as hashavas aveidah. The mitzvah entails not only returning lost items, but also protecting another Jew’s property from damage. However, neglect of doing hashavas aveidah does not carry financial liability.” (See C.M. 259:9)

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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 subscribe@businesshalacha.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 ask@businesshalacha.com.