Repenting for Past Sins

Question

Berel is preparing for Rosh Hashanah. He thinks back to his
childhood. He remembers that he once kicked a ball through the neighbour’s closed
window. He ran away and never paid for the damage. Now that he is an adult, is he liable
to pay for the damage? He also remembers that when he was nine years old he borrowed a pen
from Chayim, but forgot to return it. Chayim moved to another town. Berel remembers seeing
the pen after his bar mitzvah, but can not find it anymore. He now has Chayim’s
address. Does he have to pay the value of the pen to Chayim?


Answer

The mishnah in Tractate Bovo Kamo (82A) states
if a child (a minor – a boy less than thirteen years old or a girl less than twelve
years old) causes injury to another person he is exempt from paying for the damage, even
after he reaches adulthood. The reason is that minor is not considered responsible for his
actions and can therefore not incur any liability. However, if he stole an item and this
is still in its original form (not damaged etc.), it should be returned to its rightful
owner (Shulchan Oruch, Choshen Mishpot 349.2). If he reaches childhood
without having returned the stolen article, he has a personal obligation to return it. The
Remo (Ibid 349.7) states that even a third party who received a stolen article is
obligated to return it to its owner, in the same way as he is obliged to return any lost
article. The Torah treats such a person as a guardian of lost property, with
appropriate responsibilities. Even though there is a disagreement as to this level of
responsibility (see Shulchan Oruch and Remo as above 367.13), all are agreed that
if he does not know the whereabouts of the lost article this constitutes negligence. He
would therefore be liable to pay the owner for this item.

What happens if a child has a tendency to steal candy from a local store (and eat it!)?
The Shulchan Oruch (Ibid 349.5) says that Beis Din should hit the child to
dissuade him from repeating his misdeed. The Oruch Hashulchon states that the
primary obligation to restrain the child falls upon his father. The Pischei Teshuva (ad
loco
, No. 2) quoting the Shevus Ya’acov, is of the opinion that if the
child derived benefit while destroying the stolen item (e.g. by eating it) he is obligates
to pay for it upon reaching adulthood. Exemption from payment is limited to destruction or
loss without benefit. The Divrei Chayim (Laws of theft, Chapter 14) is of the same
opinion; the Erech Shay holds that a child is exempt for all types of loss caused
during childhood.

Even where a child is exempt form paying for damage or loss, it is good for him to
perform some action of repentance for his deed on reaching adulthood. This need not
necessarily include full monetary compensation for the loss. However, he should ask
forgiveness from the person he has wronged. This is for his own spiritual good. (Terumas
Hadeshen
, Pesokim, No. 62; Remo to Orach Chayim 343; Pischei Teshuva, as above).

THEREFORE, Berel is not obligated to pay for the window he broke as a child, but
he should make peace with its owner. However, he is obligated to locate Chayim and
pay him for his pen. Since he was aware of its whereabouts when he reached adulthood, he
became responsible for its safe return.

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