Shabbat Mishpatim 5774

When I was in 5th grade, my family moved from the home they had owned for more than 25 years. My sisters were both married and out of the country (not to mention the house), and my parents were ready to “right-size.” But the main attraction of the new place was that it was part of a townhouse association, which meant my parents were no longer responsible for landscaping and snow removal. Now that we are homeowners, and especially this winter, I have come to appreciate my father’s relief at no longer having to shovel snow.

Isn’t it annoying when all your hard work (or hard-earned money spent on someone else to shovel) ends up plowed right back in front of your driveway? After all, we’re responsible for our property, and the city is responsible for public property. I’ve seen annoyed people shovel out their plowed-in cars by throwing the snow right back in the middle of the street. I guess they’re protesting the inconsiderate sanitation department’s desire to clear the roads, even if it meant un-clearing what these folks just cleared.

The Torah and Talmud have what to say about the tension between private and public property. That’s a theme that emerges in this week’s parshahMishpatim. The general principle is articulated in this pair of verses: “When a man opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or an ass falls into it, the one responsible for the pit must make restitution; he shall pay the price to the owner, but shall keep the dead animal” (Exodus 21:33-34).

In other words, we’re responsible for damages that are incurred on our property. That’s why we have homeowners’ insurance policies. But what about our liability on public property? Consider this Talmudic saying: “One should not remove stones from his ground onto public ground” (Bavli Bava Kamma 50b).

How ought the Biblical and Talmudic passages influence our behavior in inclement weather such as we’ve had here recently? Are there applications of these principles to be made both outside and inside our homes? We’ll explore this further on Shabbat morning. 

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom, 


Rabbi David Wise