Yesterday, we noted the ruling of the Ramah, cited by the Tur (C.M. 340), concerning the case of a borrowed animal that was seized while the borrower rode it on a normal road. The Ramah classifies this case under the category of “meita machamat melakha” – situations where a borrowed animal died as a result of ordinary use. Halakha absolves a borrower from liability for damage that results from the ordinary use of the object for which he presumably borrowed it. By the same token, the Ramah ruled, the borrower is exempt from liability if the animal was stolen from him during travel, as this mishap occurred as a natural result of ordinary, anticipated use, as the borrower rode the animal along a normal route.
Several Acharonim raised the question of how, according to the Ramah, this situation differs from that of “meita ke-darka” – where a borrowed animal dies of natural causes. The borrower is liable in such a case, since the exemption of “meita machamat melakha” applies only to damage directly caused by the borrower’s use of the borrowed item. If it is determined that the animal died of natural causes, and not as a result of the purpose for which it was borrowed, the borrower is liable for the loss. Seemingly, this should be the case regarding an animal stolen during travel, as well. Theft could happen anywhere and under any circumstances, and thus if a borrowed animal is stolen as it is being rode, this should not qualify as “meita machamat melakha.”
A number of different approaches have been suggested to explain the Ramah’s ruling. The Beit Yosef (in Bedek Ha-bayit) writes that thefts of this sort generally occurred along intercity roads, which in many areas were deserted. Hence, the theft of the animal indeed directly resulted from the borrower’s use of the animal – riding it outside the city. As such, he is exempt by force of the rule of “meita machamat melakha.” Along generally similar lines, the Netivot Ha-mishpat (340:5) explains that within a populated area a person can call for help when he comes under attack in order to protect himself and his property. This cannot be done in a remote, deserted area, and thus the theft of the animal is indeed a direct result of its being used for intercity transportation.
Rav Asher Weiss noted that according to this understanding of the Ramah, his ruling would not apply to the parallel case of a borrowed car that is damaged as it is driven. At first glance, if another vehicle struck the borrowed car and caused damage, the halakha should depend upon this ruling of the Ramah. Here, too, the borrowed object was damaged as a result of its normal use, though the cause was incidental, and not a function of normal wear and tear. Seemingly, then, according to Ramah, the borrower should be absolved of responsibility, just as in the case of the stolen animal. However, according to the Beit Yosef and Netivot, the Ramah’s ruling stems from the distinction between riding an animal in a city and doing so outside the city. Car accidents, by contrast, can occur anywhere, and there is no reason to attribute the mishap to the fact that the borrower drove it where he did. It thus stands to reason that even the Ramah would hold the borrower liable, as this case would not qualify as “meita machamat melakha.” (Rav Weiss then adds another explanation for the Ramah’s ruling, according to which it is, indeed, applicable to the case of a car accident.)