Q. While visiting a friend, I almost tripped on an expensive piece of electronics that was not where it was supposed to be – in fact, it was on the floor, sticking out into the hallway, posing a hazard. When I hit it, I heard an ominous "crack." Obviously I did it some real damage, although it was not immediately visible.
Should I have told my friend? Excuse: if I told on myself, I would have been duty bound to pay for the damage I caused – but since the damage was, in fact, due to his negligence in leaving it in an exposed place, I don’t feel I should have to pay. But I also feel bad, skulking off like a thief. What’s a Jew to do?
A: You break it, you own it. That principle applies whether you’re talking about a friend’s stereo, your landlord’s washing machine, your local china shop (to which you bring your pet bull) or the Gulf of Mexico.
Most retailers will give the customer a break, writing off the broken item as a business loss. Maybe your friend will do the same, especially in light of where the item was placed.
Still, if we were talking about, say, your friend’s dachshund that had been lying on the floor, you would not be squawking about his negligence right now.
If you had tapped his car while parking and heard an ominous crack, would you have left a phone number or simply scooted off?
There are certain situations where the fault may not be yours, like, say, if you are vision-impaired or a two year old child. Also, if the room is dark and cluttered with your friend’s stuff, the Shulchan Aruchsays you are not liable (Choshen Mishpat 411-12). Then your friend would have been obligated to get rid of the obstacle course in his living room. Deuteronomy 22 speaks of a homeowner’s need to build a parapet on the roof in order to safeguard guests from harm. That’s the deal that we strike when we visit a friend’s house. He promises a safe environment – and you promise not to trash the place.
But if you can see it, and then you break it, you own it.
So own up to it.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Read his blog here, and follow him on Twitter.
Have an ethical dilemma? Email Rabbi Hammerman at HammermanOnEthics@gmail.com