Shabbat Parashat Beshalach | 5769
Is One Obligated to Enable Someone to Sue Him?
Ask the Rabbi
Question: I damaged someone’s property in a manner that I should not have to pay. He does not know who caused the damage and how. I heard that he wants to know who did it and make him pay. Must I step forward and take the risk that he will give me a hard time (which is likely given his personality) by not believing what happened or not understanding that I do not have to pay?
Answer: Before we deal with your important dilemma, let us point out a few things. First of all, you should confirm, by giving the details to an expert on Choshen Mishpat (monetary halacha), that you are indeed clearly exempt. These halachot can be complex and the way you view the case may be subjective. Secondly, consider that although your acquaintance may not be aware now who caused the damage, the truth may come out, and the heartache you are trying to avoid now could boomerang back hard. We will now continue with your question, leaving you to confirm the above issues. We have not found an explicit source on the matter and so we will compare the matter to related concepts. Most of them point in one direction and the others can be easily explained.
The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 12:6) says that if Reuven is obligated to pay Shimon, he must not make it difficult to extract money in order to pressure Shimon to agree to a compromise. However, the Tumim (12:5) cites says that if Shimon owes Reuven a corresponding amount but Reuven cannot prove it, he may be difficult in order to get to the just result. Avoiding the need for an argument and possible din Torah is no worse than that. The Pitchei Teshuva (CM 12:8) cites a distinction between active obstruction, which is forbidden, and using a convenient non-action to gain advantage, which could be permitted. Here too, regarding a non-action taken to uphold one’s true rights, it should certainly be permitted.
There is an important rule (although one that is hard and dangerous to apply) that one may, under certain circumstances, take the law into his own hands rather than having to go to the trouble of taking the matter to a beit din (see Bava Kama 27b and Shulchan Aruch, CM 4). Based on the guidelines found in that context (which are beyond our present scope), there should not be a problem to simply not volunteer information and thereby avoid having the matter arise with the associated hardship in assuring one’s rights.
The gemara (Shavuot 31a) prohibits acting in a deceptive manner in beit din in order to win a deserved case because it is a violation of “distance yourself from matters of falsehood” (Shemot 23:6). It appears that in the absence of decption, if one can gain what he deserves by not coming forward with an admission, it should be permitted (see also Chut Hameshulash I, 15).
One source that seems to contradict our thesis is the severe steps (including cherem) that are taken against one who refuses to submit to adjudication when so requested (see Shulchan Aruch, CM 11 and 14). How could we punish someone if he claims, and for all we know is correct, that he owes nothing? The answer, though, is simple. It is not that the defendant has refused to fulfill an obligation in relation to the plaintiff and present himself for adjudication. Rather, since a Torah society (or any society for that matter) must have an effective court system, once the courts determine that he is to submit to adjudication, he must be prevented from snubbing the system and rendering it toothless. Indeed, only if beit din has made their credentials clear do the sanctions apply (see ibid. 11:2 and Rama 14:3).
Thus, dependent on the caveats presented above, you would not have to volunteer that you damaged your acquaintance’s property to avoid unjustified difficulties that would ensue.
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This edition of Hemdat Yamim is dedicated to the memory of
Reuben M. Rudman ob”m
as well as
R ' Meir ben Yechezkel Shraga Brachfeld
Hemdat Yamim is endowed by Les & Ethel Sutker of
and Louis and Lillian Klein, z”l.