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Thought for the Day: Kofin Al Midas S'dom -- Forcing Good Behavior

The city of S'dom (Sodom, if you will) is enshrined in our Western weltanschauung as the epitome of evil.  What was "root cause" of all the evil?  You might think this is merely a philosophical question, but it is actually a very practical "halacha l'ma'aseh" principle known as "kofin al midas s'dom"/forcing behavior to eradicate the character trait that epitomizes S'dom.  This character trait most clearly reveals itself when one party (we'll call him Benny, the beneficiary) could benefit from another party (we'll call him Lewis, who suffers no loss), and the second party suffers no loss as a result; known in halacha as "ze ne'he'ne v'zeh lo chahser"/this one benefits and this one doesn't lose.  In S'dom, it was forbidden for Lewis to help Benny without charging him.  We combat that with the full force of beis din/Jewish court, who can force Lewis to do the right thing.

Pretty straightforward, but here's a ma'aseh with an interesting twist.  Shimon was driving with his family one day when the car stalled on train tracks.  Shimon tried and tried, but the car would not start.  After a few minutes of trying, Shimon became nervous that a train might come, so he and has family abandoned the car and kept away a safe distance while they figured out what to do.  Along comes Ruvein out of the blue, who knows something about cars.  Ruvein is able to get the car off the tracks (whether he got it started or pushed if off, I don't know).  Barely another few minutes went by and a train came roaring passed on the tracks just recently cleared of Shimon's car.

Shimon is ecstatic and enthusiastically thanks Ruvein for saving his car.  Ruvein is equally enthusiastic in thanking Shimon for helping him get such a nice car.  Shimon's smile fades and he asks Ruvein what he means.  Ruvein explains that since Shimon abandoned the car, it was hefker/ownerless and since Ruvein was the first one to grab it, the car belongs to him.  Shimon is nonplussed and points out that he and his whole family were right there, crying and screaming for help.

Ruvein tells Shimon that he should have paid more attention in Shulchan Aruch shiur.  In the Choshen Mishpat section, 259:7, the m'chaber paskens that someone who saves sheep from a lion, tiger, bear (oh my!) and the like, owns the sheep.  That is so even if, continues the m'chaber, the (erstwhile) owner is standing there crying and screaming. The Rema on that syef does add, though, that it is certainly appropriate (tov v'yashar) for the rescuer to return the sheep to the original owner; Ruvein says he wants the car more than he wants to be tov v'yashar.  Shimon demands a din torah; one is called; that's the halacha; Reuvein is the owner of the car in the eyes of the Torah.

Shimon, also a frum Jew, accepts the decision.  One problem: Shimon owns the title on the car.  Moreover, Shimon declares that since he can't drive the car, he is immediately canceling the insurance.  Now no one can drive the car.  "Ahhh...", Ruvein says with a twinkle in his eye, "Shimon loses nothing signing over the title of the car, since he doesn't own it anyway.  I, on the other hand, benefit -- a classic case of ze ne'he'ne v'zeh lo chahser!  I can therefore have beis din force Shimon to sign over the title to me because of kofin al midas s'dom!"

The beis din, however, tells Ruvein that he should have paid more attention in mussar/ethics shiur.  In a case where the Shulchan Aruch paskens that it is tov v'yashar for Ruvein to give back the car, and yet Ruvein ignores that counsel and decides to stick to the strict letter of the law, beis din is not obligate to force the other party to help him.

Back to stalemate, right?  Not quite... now that Ruvein loses nothing by giving the car back -- since he can't drive it anyway -- and Shimon benefits... Yep; beis din can force Ruvein to return the car because of kofin al midas s'dom!  A nice turn of ironic justice.

Just to clean up: Ruvein can still charge Shimon whatever the going rate is for getting a car off train tracks.  Justice is justice, after all.

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