Rabbi Meir Orlean
“I’m going away for a month,” Ari said to his neighbor Shmuel. “Would you be able to watch my bike while I’m gone?”
“No problem,” said Shmuel. “Bring it over in the afternoon.”
When Ari brought the bike, Shmuel moved it to his backyard and leaned it against a tree.
“I’ll put it away later,” Shmuel said. “I want to straighten the basement today. Enjoy your trip!”
However, Shmuel got involved with other matters and didn’t have time to organize the basement. He forgot to put Ari’s bike away and it remained under the tree.
The following day was windy. Shmuel returned home from work and found that a large branch had broken off the tree and smashed the bike!
Ari returned from his trip a month later. “I’d like to pick up my bike,” he said to Shmuel.
“You’ll never believe what happened!” exclaimed Shmuel. “I didn’t get around to putting away your bike, and a large branch broke the following day and smashed it. There was nothing I could do about it.”
“Why was the bike outside, though?” asked Ari. “It could easily have been stolen from the backyard. It was negligent of you to leave it there unlocked!”
“I was busy that day and forgot about it,” said Shmuel. “In any case, the bike wasn’t stolen. It was smashed due to circumstances beyond my control, oness. I had no idea that the branch was weak.”
“That’s true,” acknowledged Ari. “Still, had you put the bike away in the basement, the oness wouldn’t have happened.”
“But the fact that a branch broke and fell down is not my fault,” argued Shmuel. “It wasn’t expected.”
The two approached Rabbi Dayan. “I asked Shmuel to watch my bike,” Ari said. “He didn’t put it away and a branch fell down and smashed it. Is he liable?”
“The Gemara (B.M. 42a) teaches the principle “Techilaso bi’peshia v’sofo b’oness — chayav,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “This means that if the guardian was initially negligent with the entrusted item, even if it was ultimately lost through oness, circumstances beyond one’s control, he remains liable.
“For example, if a person hid entrusted money in a place where there is danger of fire and it was stolen, or where there is danger of theft and it was burned,” continued Rabbi Dayan, “the guardian is liable. Had he placed the money in a properly secure place, such as a safe, it would have been protected; the oness might not have occurred” (C.M. 291:6,14).
“Still,” asked Shmuel, “ultimately, wasn’t the money lost through oness?”
“We view the oness that ultimately occurred as a continuation of the initial negligence, even if there is only a remote connection,” explained Rabbi Dayan. “Similarly, if the guardian left the item where it could be easily stolen and it was stolen by armed bandits, he is liable, since had he left it in a secure place, perhaps the bandits would not have come” (Sma 291:10,23; 303:15).
“What if the oness was completely unrelated to the initial negligence?” asked Ari.
“This is disputed in the Gemara (B.M. 36b),” replied Rabbi Dayan. “For example, someone left an animal where it could be easily stolen, but it died naturally. It would have died even had it been in a safe place; this oness is completely unrelated to the initial negligence. Rava exempts the guardian, whereas Abaye holds him liable. The halachah is according to Rava, that the guardian is exempt” (C.M. 291:9; Sma 291:15).
“There is a further dispute between later authorities regarding a rare oness that subsequently occurred,” added Rabbi Dayan. “For example, the guardian left the entrusted item outside, and it rained where rain is very rare in that season” (Shach 291:14; Machaneh Ephraim, Shomrim #30; Pischei Choshen, Pikadon 3:3-7).
“Thus,” concluded Rabbi Dayan, “since the oness here relates to the initial negligence of leaving the bike out, Shmuel is liable.”