See the news story at this address:
http://www.usatoday.com/weather/floods/2011-05-03-mississippi-river-cairo-illinois-levee-floods_n.htm
I’d like to know what the shulchan aruch says about this. It seems to me that the army core of engineers did an avla here.
The farmers were not mechuyav give up their livelihood and farms to save nearby towns–or were they?
Mareh mekomos would be appreciated.
I’d like to discuss this at our weekly chaburah.

Answer:

The farmers, as you rightly point out, have no obligation to give up their livelihoods to save the property of others.

If the question would be a question of the lives of others, and of course we would be speaking about Jews on both sides, then the prohibition of lo taamod al dam re’acha would apply, and according to the Chafetz Chaim (Ahavas Chesed) a person has to give up all of his income to save a life. To save another’s income, there is no similar obligation.

This halachah emerges from the principles of hashavas aveidah. The Gemara states that a person is obligated to save another person’s property just as he is obligated to return somebody’s lost property. Indeed, the Gemara discusses a case of protecting somebody’s field from flooding–just as in your question (Bava Metzia 31a).

Yet, the principle for hashavas aveida is that the person doing the mitzvah does not need to lose money over it, and if he will lost money in returning the lost property or in preventing the loss, he is entitled to claim back his expenses from the owner of the property. If the expenses are greater than the value of the property he wishes to save, he should obviously not save the property, for this would cause the owner to incur a loss (see Bava Metzia 28b; 30a-b; these halachos are ruled by Shulchan Aruch).

Therefore, in principle it is true that the farmers do not have to give up their livelihoods.

Yet, there is another point that perhaps can be raised, and this is based on the Ran in his derashos (11). The Ran writes that although the Torah gives us judgments of truth and righteousness, this is not sufficient for running a society. For this, an additional order of law and judgment is required, so that (for instance) murderers who are not warned do not get of without any penalty, or attempted murderers are not simply given a second chance to finish the job.

In this case, it is possible that a state would be within its right to protect inhabitants of a town, even at the expense of another’s field–the more so when the farmers in question will be compensated. It is admirable that a country sees it as its duty to protect its citizens, and it is possible that protecting an entire town from destruction will take precedence over the livelihood of farmers (again, especially if they are compensated).

Therefore, it is true that there is no personal obligation on the farmers to give up their livelihood, but this does not necessarily mean that the state acted wrongly in saving the town from flooding.


Tags: protect returning town

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