Most of the posts that I have written for this blog fall into one of two categories. I am either writing about current events or some aspect of nostalgia for the 60s and 70s, the era I grew up in. I’ll continue with those posts in the months ahead but I also want, occasionally, to use this blog as an opportunity to share some of my favorite traditional Jewish texts. I’ll begin by sharing a text I plan to teach my 5th grade class in Mishna this coming week.
The Mishna in Baba Kamma chapter 3, mishna 8 discusses the question of where the responsibility lies when there is a collision between two people on the street resulting in damages to an item being carried by one of the individuals. The Mishna begins by saying: If one is walking with a jug and another with a wooden plank and the two objects collide, there is no obligation for either party to pay damages since everyone has the right to walk on the street.
However, the Mishna then presents another situation. Let’s imagine that the person with the plank is in the front and the person with the jug is behind him, if the jug is broken by the plank, the person carrying the plank is exempt from any blame since he was walking in the front. This applies unless that person suddenly stops without giving warning to the person behind him carrying the jug. If that happens, the person carrying the plank is responsible for paying damages. However, if the person carrying the plank said: “stop”, and the person carrying the jug still bumped into him, the person carrying the plank is not responsible because he tried to prevent the accident with a warning.
Then the Mishna gives the opposite example. Say the person carrying the jug is walking in the front. If the person carrying the plank bumps the plank into the jug and breaks it, the person carrying the plank is responsible since he could have prevented the accident. If however, the person carrying the jug were to suddenly stop, the person carrying the plank behind him would not be responsible unless the person carrying the jug said: “Stop” in which case there is liability since he tried to prevent the accident with a warning.
When I teach this class, I always begin the class by showing the kids the youtube video of the old 1980’s Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercials in which two people bump into each other, one carrying chocolate the other peanut butter. (See, I got some nostalgia in anyway). But, this is a very serious discussion.
Think about the responsibility for a car accident in which one car rear ends the one in front. In general, it would be considered the fault of the person in the rear car. But, what if the driver of the front car made a sudden unjustified stop, who then becomes responsible? And, how do brake lights figure into the discussion. Is this the equivalent of saying; “stop!” which places the responsibility back upon the rear car?
The important message for the kids and for all of us is that when we walk (or drive) down the street, we have to recognize the equal rights of the person on the street with us. We also have to realize that when we walk down the street with a fragile object, we have the responsibility to make sure that we are taking the proper precautions to insure that we get home safely. We also have the responsibility when we are walking with a dangerous object that we are taking the proper precautions to insure we don’t cause any damage. The Mishna understood the complexity of the situation and tried to set up a structure by which we can determine responsibility. But, at the same time, the Mishna would have urged us to go “lifnim mishurat hadin”, beyond the letter of the law by taking extra precautions to protect ourselves and others as well.
Back to nostalgia next week. For now, think about how these scenarios might in fact apply to situations in our own lives.