Netanel was turning bar mitzvah. His father had taught him the leining, and now took him to buy a hat. They chose one that fit him well and was in style at his yeshiva. Netanel stood before the mirror. “You look mature and responsible!” complimented his father.
On the Shabbos of the bar mitzvah, Rabbi Dayan spoke before the leining and addressed the significance of the hat.
“In Parashas Ki Sisa,” Rabbi Dayan said, “the Torah relates that after the sin of the Golden Calf, Bnei Yisrael removed the decorative crowns they had received at Har Sinai.
The hat that you wear symbolizes the crown of Torah that adorns you as you become bar mitzvah and accept upon yourself the yoke of Torah and mitzvos, which is the true crown to your head!”
Netanel listened attentively to the drasha and happily adjusted his hat. After the drasha, he put on a tallis for leining, and placed his hat on an empty chair next to him, which he pushed under the table.
Just then his friend Shimon, who had davened Shacharis elsewhere, rushed in. Shimon saw the empty seat next to Netanel. “Mazel tov!” he wished Netanel joyously. He pulled out the available chair and sat down.
“Watch out for my hat!” warned Netanel.
It was too late, though. Shimon had already sat on the hat.
The brand-new hat was crushed. So was Netanel.
Netanel tried to straighten the hat as best he could since it was Shabbos, but the damage was done. The hat had a clear crease in it and would need to be either reshaped or replaced.
“I’m sorry…” apologized Shimon. “I’ll have to get you a new hat.”
“It’s my fault, not yours,” replied Netanel slowly, trying to control his tears. “I shouldn’t have left my hat on the chair.”
After davening, Netanel and Shimon approached Rabbi Dayan. “I accidentally sat on Netanel’s new hat,” said Shimon.
“Am I liable for the damage to the hat?”
“The Mishna (B.K. 26a) teaches that a person is liable for damage he inflicts, whether intentional or not,” replied Rabbi Dayan, “even if through oness – circumstances beyond his control, as we have mentioned numerous times.
“Tosafos (B.K. 27b), however, points to several cases in which a person who damages through oness is exempt. He therefore concludes that a person is liable only for slight oness, when he should have been more careful, but not when he took reasonable care.
“Ramban (B.M. 82b) however, writes that a person is liable even for absolute oness, unless there was negligence by the damaged party. Thus, if someone placed his item next to a sleeping person who damaged it in his sleep, the sleeper is exempt – according to Tosafos, because this is beyond his control; according to Ramban, it was due to the owner’s negligence” (C.M. 421:3-4).
Similarly, if someone left his items where people walk, and a person accidentally broke them, he is exempt – according to Tosafos, because people are not expected to look down when they walk; according to the Ramban, because of the owner’s negligence” (C.M. 412:1).
“Our case seems similar. A person who pulls out an empty chair in shul is not expected to examine whether there is something on it. Netanel, who left his hat on the chair under the table, bears an element of negligence. Therefore, Shimon is exempt.
“This depends, though, to what extent is it normal for people to put things on chairs next to them. If the shul has rows of chairs without tables this is common, whereas when there are tables – it is not” (see C.M. 412:2; Pischei Choshen, Nezikin 8:10).
“Remember, though, Netanel,” concluded Rabbi Dayan. “It’s not the hat itself that matters, but rather the crown of Torah and mitzvos that you proudly bear on your head continuously!”
Verdict: There is a dispute whether a person who damaged through full oness is liable. However, when he exercised reasonable care, and there was an element of the owner’s negligence, he is certainly exempt.