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Shabbat Parashat Tetzaveh 5774

P'ninat Mishpat: Stealing a Field and Eating its Fruit

(based around Shut HaRosh 95:1)

Case: Reuven claimed that Shimon stole his vineyard and ate its fruit during the course of two years and also caused damage to the field by working it improperly. Reuven demands compensation; Shimon denies the story.

 

Ruling: If Reuven does not have witnesses, Shimon can swear and will be exempt from payment. If Reuven has witnesses, Shimon has to pay the value of the grapes at the time of harvest as estimated by Shimon with an oath. He does not have to pay for the devaluation of the field because of the rule that the laws of theft do not apply to fields.

That which the querier asked that one who stole the field should not have to pay for the grapes, just as one who grabbed another person’s boat in order to steal it does not have to pay for the use of the boat when it is returned (Bava Kama 97a) is making a faulty comparison. The halachot  are totally different in regard to movable objects (including a boat) and land. When one steals a movable object and makes a change in it, he acquires halachic control over it and therefore whatever benefit he receives from it is his own. One example is that if one stole wood and made utensils out of them, he has to pay the original owner only according to the value of the wood at the time of the theft (ibid. 93b).

In regard to stolen land, since the land is not halachically considered to be stolen, it is always in the possession of the original owner. As a result, if during the time it was practically controlled by the thief it was damaged by a flood, the thief can just leave the field and tell the owner, “Your field is before you” and not pay for the devaluation (ibid. 117b). This distinction has a negative ramification for the thief as well. The fruit that grow are the fruit of the original owner. Therefore, every year of the theft, when he harvested them, he was harvesting the owner’s fruit and must pay for them according to the time of the harvesting/theft of the fruit. Similarly, if he stole another person’s slaves he has to pay their owner the value of the work of the slaves.

We can prove that this distinction is true from the gemara’s discussion of the status of slaves – whether they are compared to land (as we rule) or to movable objects. The gemara (Bava Kama 97a) cites a statement that if one grabs someone’s slave and works him, he is exempt from paying, and the gemara concludes from that source that the status of a slave must be like that of a movable object. In other words, if it were like land, he would have to pay for the work.

Thus, the answers to both questions are based on the same premise. The field is not stolen, and therefore the thief is not obligated to pay for depreciation, but the fruit that grow in it belong to the owner. One who stole the fruit has to pay the owner as one who stole movable objects (which they are after the harvesting).
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