My neighbor organized a minyan to daven at kivrei tsaddikim for his very ill brother-in-law. My neighbor was going to drive part of the group in which I was a participant, but in the end he was not able to participate himself. He suggested that I drive his car in his stead. On the way back, the car went over a small screw on the highway which caused a flat tire. I had the flat repaired and returned the car. Can I require the owner to refund the money I paid to repair the tire?
To answer the question we must clarify how the halachic views this situation. Normally, when one borrows something he is classified as a shoeil-a borrower. The Torah writes (Shemos 22, 13) that a shoeil is liable even for an oness i.e. an unforeseen occurrence which was totally beyond the shoeil’s control. The example of the Torah is where one borrowed an animal and it died of natural causes.
It might seem that your situation fits this classification. Thus, even though you are blameless for going over a screw since it is barely noticeable, nevertheless, as a shoeil you would be liable. However, we will see that both assumptions are highly questionable: perhaps you weren’t a shoeil, and perhaps what you did is not classified as an oness but as something for which even a shoeil is not liable.
In order to decide whether you were a shoeil it is critical to determine the definition of a shoeil. Even though the translation of the word shoeil is “a borrower,” that is not the defining characteristic. Rather, the Gemoro (Bovo Metsiyo 94B) defines a shoeil as kol hano’oh shelo, i.e. the shoeil is the sole beneficiary of the transaction. The Gemara afterwards modifies that a bit. The borrower does not need to be the sole beneficiary but it suffices if he is the major beneficiary. This leads us to two questions about your situation. Were you a beneficiary and, if yes, were you the primary beneficiary?
Let us first deal with the question if you were the primary beneficiary. It would seem highly questionable because, while we all should daven for the sick, we don’t travel to kivrei tsadikim for every sick Jew. You agreed to participate as a favor to your neighbor, the car’s owner. Therefore, it would seem that not only that you were not the sole beneficiary, but you were not even the prime beneficiary. Rather the car’s owner was more of a beneficiary than you.
In order to clarify this point further we will examine several cases that were discussed by poskim.
The Porach Matei Aharon (2, 115) was asked concerning a bride who borrowed jewelry from her groom and when she wore it to the public bathhouse it was stolen. The Porach Matei Aharon ruled that the bride did not have the status of a shoeil since the groom also benefited from his bride’s wearing of the jewelry, and one is only a shoeil if he is the sole beneficiary.
A much earlier authority that discussed a similar case is the Mordechai (Bovo Metsiyo 360). In his case, a scribe borrowed a sefer in order to copy it for its owner and the original was stolen. The Mordechai rules that the scribe is classified as a shomeir sochor because he used the sefer to make money. However, it was obvious to him that the sofer is not a shoeil since the reason he borrowed the sefer was for the owner’s benefit.
Another case that was discussed by the poskim is a customer who wanted to buy wine but was lacking a vessel to enable him to transport the wine. The Imrei Yosher (R. Meir Arrick 1, 47) ruled that if in order to enable the sale the seller lent the customer his own receptacle which then broke due to an oness, the responsibility depends on the nature of the sale. If the main beneficiary of the sale was the seller (e.g. a slow moving item) the customer does not have the status of a shoeil since the seller was the prime beneficiary of the sale and the loan was granted only in order to enable the sale to take place. (This is a very pertinent question nowadays where customers use the store’s carts in order to transport their purchases to their car.)
This is very similar to your case because the reason your neighbor lent you his car was to do him a favor by davening for his brother-in law. Therefore, it would seem that in your case since the car’s owner was the primary beneficiary thus you were not a shoeil and you are not liable for damages for which you are not at fault.
A second consideration in determining if you were a shoeil is the fact that you did not borrow the car for mundane matters but in order to daven, which is a mitzvah. There is a general issue if one is classified as a shoeil when he just wants to use a borrowed object to perform a mitzvah.
The primary source for discussion of this issue is a responsum of the Ran (20) that is cited by the Sema (72, 21) concerning one who borrowed a sefer. The Ran ruled that the borrower does not have the status of a shoeil because the one who lent the sefer himself fulfilled a mitzvah when the borrower used his sefer to learn and therefore, the borrower was not the sole beneficiary. There is much discussion about this ruling and the reason of the Ran.
The Ketsos (72, 34) and the Machane Efraim (Sheilo 3) offer a specific reason for the Ran’s ruling that the borrower is not a shoeil. They maintain that the reason one who borrows an object in order to perform a mitzvah is not classified as a shoeil is because when one performs a mitzvah he does not derive physical benefit from the borrowed object since when one performs a mitzvah even if there is physical benefit, it is superfluous, what the Gemara calls mitzvos lav leihonos nitnu. They understand that the Gemara requires one to derive physical benefit in order to be classified a shoeil. (Some disagree on this point: see e.g. Ohr Someach (Sheilo 7, 4) who understands that the Gemoro does not require physical benefit, but just deriving the primary benefit from the borrowed object.)
If one follows the opinion of the Ketsos and Machane Efraim, we have an additional reason why you were not a shoeil, namely, because you didn’t borrow the car to derive a physical benefit but just to daven which is a mitzvah, especially if done on behalf of another. We should note that this reason is independent of the first reason and would apply even, for example, if you had borrowed the car from someone who had no interest in your davening for that sick person, since according to these meforshim the motive must be a physical benefit.
In conclusion: There are two reasons you did not have the halachic classification of a shoeil. While the second reason is controversial and thus would not by itself enable you to force the owner to reimburse you for your expense, it would seem the first is sufficient and especially in combination with the second reason. We will discuss a third reason in the next article, which again will not suffice by itself to force the owner to reimburse you but will combine with the other reasons to entitle you to reimbursement.
We should further note that had you not already paid, each of the three reasons would have sufficed to free you from liability. It is only because you already paid, and thus need to collect from the owner, that we have to ensure that no major opinion would free the owner from reimbursing you.