Q: Can I borrow my neighbor’s snow shovel without permission?
The Talmud states ‘Shoel Shelo Medaas Gazlan’ – one who borrows an item without permission is a thief. The act of removing an item from another person’s possession, even with the intention of returning it, is still stealing. For this reason the Rema writes (CM 308,7) ‘One who takes his friend’s donkey without permission and does work, even if he intends to pay him a rental fee, is still stealing (shoel shelo middas gazlan)’. The question that this article will address is whether this applies if I am sure that the owner would not mind?
In a previous article we explained that according to the opinion of Tosfos it is forbidden to take a food item, like a bag of potato chips, and replace it afterwards, even if I am sure that the owner would not mind. It is not enough to know the owner would not mind. We need him to actually give permission. Is borrowing a shovel the same as ‘borrowing’ food?
The Shulchan Aruch rules that it is permitted to use another person’s talis or tefilin without permission, as long as they are put away properly afterwards. The reason is because of the concept ‘Nicha lei leinish lemeevad mitzvah bimimono’ – a person is pleased to let others perform a mitzvah with their possessions. This halacha demonstrates that when it is clear that a person would not mind if their item is used, it is permitted to do so without actual permission. This point needs explanation. How is this different than taking a food item and replacing it, which is considered stealing according to Tosfos?
The explanation seems as follows: There is a basic difference between ‘borrowing’ a bag of chips and borrowing a shovel. The chips are really not borrowed but are rather consumed and replaced. In contrast, when a shovel is taken the actual shovel is returned. Consuming another person’s food is inherently an act of stealing, because you do not plan to return the very item taken, but rather will replace it with an identical item. Therefore it is forbidden to do so without express permission. However, the act of taking a shovel with the intent to return it is not inherently considered an act of stealing, because it will be returned intact. Therefore, it is not necessary to have express permission to use the shovel, and knowing that the owner would not mind is sufficient. However, it can not necessarily be assumed that an owner would not mind.
The poskim discuss a number of scenarios when it can or cannot be assumed that an owner does not mind if his item is used without permission. We mentioned that a talis or tefilin may be used without the owner’s permission, if they are put away properly. However, the Aruch Hashulchan explains based on the Shach that this is only for a one time use and not on a regular basis. Likewise, the Rem”a writes that one should not use another person’s sukkah without permission if it may infringe on the owner’s privacy. Interestingly, the Rem”a wrote that it is forbidden to use other people’s seforim without permission because they may rip. However, the Aruch Hashulchan writes that today seforim are much cheaper and people are less particular about others using them. These discussions demonstrate that even for items used for a mitzvah it can only be assumed that the owner does not mind if it will not cause him any significant loss or inconvenience.
We can now return to our original question. Unlike a bag of potato chips, the borrower of the shovel only wishes to use the item, not consume it (!). We have learned that in such situations express permission is not necessary and it is sufficient if we are sure that the owner wouldn’t mind. However, that assumption cannot necessarily be made. Regarding mitzvah items like talis and tefilin, there is a halachic assumption that the owner doesn’t mind if it will not cause him a loss or inconvenience. For regular items, however, this assumption is not made. Nonetheless, the Maharil wrote “The common custom that people borrow housewares without permission is because we assume that each person wants his friend to benefit from his money”. It seems that where it is common practice to lend these items, we can assume that this person would not mind.
In summation, we can conclude that if you know the neighbor well and he usually lends out these types of items we can assume that he doesn’t mind, as long as it is properly returned and he will not need it then. However, if it is not clearly the case, it may be considered stealing and should not be used.
Rabbi Micha Cohn is a member of the Bais Horaah of Rav Shmuel Meir Katz of Lakewood, and the author of a popular medical halacha email. He received Semicha from Rav Rabbi Aharon Felder zt”l, Rosh Vaad Harabonim of Philadelphia, and Rabbi Shraga Feivel Zimmerman , Av Bais Din of Gateshead England. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org