[By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for the Five Towns Jewish Times]
In Fort Walton Beach, Florida, a man assaulted another man on account of his snoring.
It was on December 13th, when the incident took place. According to the Fort Walton Beach Police Department arrest report, 19-year-old Juan Carlos Caraballo was at the Home of Grace on Burnette Avenue in Fort Walton Beach. He is accused of pulling a butcher knife on the victim and making stabbing motions because the victim was snoring early in the morning.
The victim tried to use a translation app on his smart phone to explain that he had two broken ribs and could sleep only on one side of his body, causing him to snore. He apologized if his snoring was keeping Caraballo awake. Caraballo allegedly became upset, and then assaulted him. Police charged Caraballo with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and battery.
This brings us to a discussion of the halachic ramifications of snoring. There is an expression that is commonly used known as “gezel sheinah”—“the stealing of sleep.” The meaning is that doing something that either wakes another person up or prevents him or her from going to sleep is an act of gezel sheinah.
IS IT STEALING?
Is this, in fact, really stealing? Is there merit to the use of the term “gezel” to describe this injustice? Is there an obligation on the part of one who snores to seek a remedy for that condition?
RAV VOSNER’S VIEW
Rav Shmuel HaLevi Vosner, zt”l the rav and av beis din of the Zichron Meir section of Bnei Brak, discusses the situation in the seventh volume of his responsa (Shaivet HaLevi #224).
Rav Vosner begins his response with the position that the term “theft” can only truly be used when one steals an actual item and the thief either uses that item or benefits from it. He writes that preventing someone from sleeping is prohibited because one person is not allowed to cause damage to another or to prevent another from realizing a benefit, but there is no actual theft involved. Rav Vosner admits that there is definitely a proof from Bava Basra 20b that preventing someone from sleeping is prohibited, as well as from Choshen Mishpat siman 156:2 and 3.
The Shulchan Aruch discusses whether someone is permitted to open a commercial store in a residential neighborhood. Rav Karo writes as follows:
“The immediate neighbors may prevent him from opening up such a store and tell him, ‘We cannot sleep, on account of the noise of those who are entering.’ He may only do his work in the house and sell it in the marketplace. However, they may not stop him and say, ‘We cannot sleep, because of the sound of the hammer, or the mill.’ This is because he already began doing this and they did not stop him from doing it earlier.”
Although the parameters of what is permitted in a residential area and what is not are somewhat complex, the essential issue that preventing someone from sleeping is generally prohibited can be established from this ruling of the Shulchan Aruch.
As we have seen, however, there are noted exceptions. In a similar vein, the Shulchan Aruch rules in sub-paragraph three that if someone begins teaching his children Torah in his house, the neighbors may not complain and say they cannot sleep on account of the sound of children learning Torah.
Rav Vosner concludes his response with the idea that the term “gezel” is somewhat of a misnomer.
With due respect, however, we do find that Chazal perhaps define the term “gezel” in a broader fashion than Rav Vosner understands it. The term is used in the Talmud (Berachos 6b) in a situation that may not quite be considered “stealing an actual item and using or benefiting from it.” Rav Chelbo quotes Rav Huna as saying, “Whoever knows that the other generally greets him, should greet him first, as it says, ‘Seek peace and pursue it.’ If the other gave him a greeting and he did not return it, he is considered a thief, as it says, ‘For you have devoured the vineyard, and the theft of the poor is in your house’ (Yeshayah 3:14).”
Likewise, the term is used by Rav Chanina bar Pappa (Berachos 35b) regarding someone who eats and does not recite a blessing. It is considered as if he stole from Hashem and from knesses Yisrael. And the term is used in Sanhedrin (91b): “Whoever prevents a student from learning Torah, it is as if he stole his inheritance from him.” In both of these instances, no actual item is being taken and benefited from.
The Midrash Tanchuma (Bamidbar 27) also uses the term to describe someone who quotes a halachah and does not quote the name of the one who said it, in violation of the verse “Do not steal from the destitute for he is destitute” (Mishlei 22:22). The Midrash traces this back to the zugos, and ultimately traces it back to Moshe Rabbeinu from Har Sinai.
Similarly, in a Tosefos in Kiddushin 59a, Rabbeinu Tam’s father, Rav Meir, is quoted as understanding that in a case where fisherman A set out his net and fisherman B afterward set out a net nearby with a dead fish inside (to attract more fish), it is considered as if fisherman B stole from fisherman A—even though the fish had not yet arrived. (Fishermen: please note the fishing advice from Rabbeinu Tam’s father.)
We see that the term theft is used more loosely than as defined by Rav Vosner. Rav Bodner in Mamon Yisrael, page 82, cites a response from Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg printed in the Av 5762 edition of Koveitz Beis Aharon V’Yisrael that the case in Berachos 6b (regarding one who does not return a greeting) is considered theft only because it is the negation of a debt. Even though the debt is non-monetary in nature, it is still considered a debt, and the negation of this debt thus falls under the rubric of theft. Rav Bodner extends Rav Goldberg’s concept to include not reciting a berachah and not quoting a halachah in someone’s name. In both of these cases, Rabbi Bodner suggests that there exists a negation of a debt—the debt to Hashem to thank and the debt to the person to give him credit for teaching the halachah.
This extension is somewhat problematic, in that the Talmud also states that there is a theft from knesses Yisrael. Preventing a student from learning is also not exactly a debt, and neither is stealing fish that have not been caught yet.
The alternative explanation is that the term is applied more loosely to cases even where no item is stolen but some moral boundary is crossed and where another person is damaged. The section in Shulchan Aruch is thus quite well understood: Whenever a moral boundary is crossed, causing someone a loss of sleep is a problem. However, when children are learning Torah, there is no moral boundary being crossed and it is permitted even when someone will consequently lose sleep.
Thus we are suggesting that based upon these sources, the commonly used expression of gezel sheinah is, in fact, appropriate. It is not exactly full monetary gezel, but rather a lower-level form of it.
Nonetheless, Caraballo’s actions were very wrong.
The author can be reached at [email protected]
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