Eyes Down!

Question

As Meir was leaving the synagogue, he felt something
falling to the ground. Checking his eyes, he discovered that one of his
contact lenses had fallen out. He immediately stopped all pedestrian traffic
in the area around the fallen lens and proceeded—with the help of
good-hearted onlookers—to search for the lens. Gad was in a hurry. He would
not let Meir’s lens interfere with his right of way. He walked straight
across the area of the fall – and crushed the lens underfoot! Does Gad have
to pay for the damage?


Answer

Reuven was looking for a place to store his flasks of wine
and oil. He noticed that there was a large empty courtyard nearby. Without
asking permission, he filled the entire area with his merchandise. When
Shimon, the owner of the courtyard, opened the door of his house he found his
access to the street barred. Our Sages inform us (Tractate Bovo Kamo
28a) that Shimon may make his way out of the courtyard even if this involves
breaking some of Reuven’s illegally placed barrels. Tosafos compare
this to a similar case, where Reuven’s ox jumped on Shimon’s ox with
murderous intentions. There, Shimon may save his ox by pulling it out from
under the attacking animal, even if this results in a damaging fall to the
attacker. However, should Shimon push off the attacking ox and thereby kill
it, he would be liable for the damage. Does that not indicate that causing
direct damage is forbidden, even to illegally placed items? If so, why is
Shimon permitted to break his way out? Let him stack the flasks and thereby
create a path. Tosafos answer that since it is not significantly more
difficult to pull out an ox from under its attacker than to push off the
attacking animal, one has no right to actively harm the attacker. In the case
of the flasks, even though it is possible for Shimon to create a path by
stacking some of the containers, he is not expected to do so. Since breaking
his way out is significantly easier, he does not need to make the extra
effort.

From here we see that one is permitted to assert one’s
right of way, etc. if an illegal obstacle is blocking his path. This is true
even if it involves damaging the offending item in the process. However, if
one could continue one’s journey with some minimal extra effort and thus
avoid causing damage to the offending property, one is obligated to do so. If
one insists on taking one’s usual path and this results in damage to the
illegally placed item, one is liable for the resultant damage.

How does this principle apply to our case? If Meir had
completely blocked the area in front of the synagogue and prevented
pedestrians from passing for a significant amount of time, he would be exempt
from payment for the broken lens. He does not have to make a lengthy detour
to reach his destination, nor does he have to suffer significant delay. These
would both be considered excessive additional effort, which is not demanded
of him. But Meir only asked pedestrians to avoid walking over a small area in
front of the synagogue. Even if his search would have taken a long time, any
person in a hurry could have walked round the area of the fall. The fact that
the lens fell out was a pure accident. Since the placing of the item which
restricted others’ use of the street was neither intentional nor the result
of negligence there is all the more reason to exercise reasonable care.

Accordingly, says Rav Tzvi Spitz (Mishptei Hatorah,
Bovo Kamo No.54), Gad is liable for the broken lens. Even though he
has right of way on this section of the street, he could have exercised his
prerogative with minimal extra effort and avoided damaging Meir’s property.
He is therefore obligated to do so.