A Project of the Business Halacha Institute
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by Rabbi Meir Orlian, Yerushalayim
It had been raining for hours with extremely heavy gusts of wind. The Bernsteins snuggled in the warmth of their home. The children sat by the window, watching the rain pour and the trees sway wildly. Every so often, there was a bolt of lightning followed by the resounding boom of thunder.
“Isn’t this awesome?” Devorah piped up.
“I don’t remember anything like this,” answered her brother, Shimon. “Look at those trees dancing.”
They both watched the branches shake violently in the battering wind.
While Mr. Bernstein kept checking the basement for flooding, Mrs. Bernstein turned on the radio and listened to the weather report: “Our meteorologist reports gale force winds and very heavy rain throughout the day. People are encouraged to stay indoors in rural areas.”
“Why do people have to stay inside?” asked Devorah.
“Heavy winds like these can do a lot of damage and be dangerous,” explained her mother. “If the wind gets strong enough, it can blow a tree down.”
“I’ve seen whole branches ripped off lots of times,” added Shimon.
Flash! BOOM!! Lightning and thunder struck almost instantaneously. “That means there’s a storm directly overhead,” explained Mrs. Bernstein. The wind howled around the house and the rain pounded. The trees were being bent to their maximum.
Mr. Bernstein came up from the basement. “It’s starting to leak,” he announced. “Please come –”
They all stared out the window in horror as their neighbor’s maple tree came crashing down, destroying their car, part of their fence, and the backyard shed.
“Thank G-d it didn’t hit the house,” said Mr. Bernstein. “But there’s a lot of damage.”
Mr. Bernstein tried calling the neighbor, but there was no answer. “He must be out at work.”
“What’s going to happen with the car?” asked Shimon with concern.
“We’ll have to take that up with the insurance,” said his father.
“And what about my bike in the shed?” asked Devorah. “It’s the neighbor’s fault, because his tree broke it.”
“It’s not really his fault,” explained Mrs. Bernstein. “The wind knocked the tree down. This wind is unbelievably strong today.”
“But branches have fallen many times from that tree,” Shimon commented. “It wasn’t a strong tree.”
“I’ll have to speak to the neighbor tonight,” said Mr. Bernstein. “Meanwhile, help me drain the basement, and then I’ll do some research.”
After draining the basement, Mr. Bernstein called Rabbi Dayan. “Unfortunately, our neighbor’s tree fell and caused us a lot of damage. After we speak with the insurance people, we’ll probably want to meet with you, but can you give some sources meanwhile?”
“Sure,” answered Rabbi Dayan. “The Shulchan Aruch directly addresses the case of a tree falling and causing damage. Take a look at the very end of Choshen Mishpat 416. The basic rules are quite clear there, although there are always details that are more intricate.”
Mr. Bernstein thanked Rabbi Dayan and pulled out the last volume of Shulchan Aruch. “Let’s learn together if the neighbor is responsible,” he said to his family.
They gathered around the table as he began to read: “A wall or a tree that fell into public property and damaged, [the owner] is exempt… If they were unstable, beis din sets him a time to cut down the tree or demolish the building… If they fell during this time, [the owner] is exempt; after this time he is responsible, because he delayed.” (C.M. 416:1)
“It seems, then,” Mr. Bernstein explained, “that if the tree was healthy the neighbor is exempt; if it was unstable and he was told to cut it down, he is responsible.”
“I heard our other neighbor suggest a while ago that he cut it down,” said Shimon.
“I’ll have to verify that,” said Mr. Bernstein. “In any case, look here in the Rama. He needs warning from the beis din. A neighbor’s warning is not sufficient. I assume, though, that warning from a government agency would also suffice and possibly also if it was obviously unstable.” (cf. 307:3)
“If he is responsible, what about the car?” asked Mrs. Bernstein. “How does that balance with the insurance coverage?”
“That’s a tough one,” said Mr. Bernstein. “I’ll check with Rabbi Dayan when I talk to him next.”
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
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(YWN Desk – NYC)