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Finders, Keepers?

By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

Tami Robinson decided that she would single-handedly tackle the homeless problem in Florida. She located abandoned houses, filed some paperwork with the county government, and then proceeded to change the locks. Homeless families were presented with keys to their new homes. These were not starter houses but stately homes. She ran into trouble with the law when it was discovered that these homes weren’t actually abandoned. One particular house was just temporarily vacant while the owner was on active duty in the Air Force.

However, she is not alone in her campaign. Her idea has its supporters around the country. Many homeowners walked away from their houses because they couldn’t afford the mortgage. Some civic-minded people feel that there is no use in letting a house lie abandoned, so why not let homeless people live there?

Although not exactly comparable to the situations above, what would happen if a family found an ownerless house and moved in? Let’s suppose they didn’t want to take ownership of the house and be liable for taxes or any other liabilities. Would the family be obligated to put up a mezuzah?

Although not accepted as practical halachah, Rebbe Eliezer is of the opinion that Shabbos may be violated in preparation of fulfillment of various mitzvos. The prime example in the Gemara is that Rebbe Eliezer holds that a Jew may carry a circumcision knife through a public domain on Shabbos to be able to perform the mitzvah of milah in its proper time. However, even Rebbe Eliezer concedes that one may not write a mezuzah on Shabbos for the sake of a doorpost that is lacking one. The explanation is that one is never in a situation where one has an absolute obligation to put up a mezuzah. There is always another alternative; one always has the option of declaring his home ownerless and thereby escape the obligation of putting up a mezuzah. Thus the Gemara in Shabbos clearly states that one is not obligated to put up a mezuzah on an ownerless house.

The story is told that Rebbe Zalman of Vilna was once staying at an inn for Shabbos. He noticed that the mezuzos were improperly affixed, rendering them invalid. Rebbe Zalman did not want to stay at the inn, which effectively did not have any mezuzos. Not wanting to lose his revered guest, the innkeeper declared his inn ownerless in front of three witnesses. In this way, he was able to accommodate Rebbe Zalman.

Rebbe Zalman’s conduct might seem like a radical stringency. After all, the innkeeper would have fixed all the mezuzos right after Shabbos. Could it really be wrong to temporarily stay in a home that lacks a mezuzah? The Aruch HaShulchan clearly paskens (Y.D. 285:5), “One who found out that he doesn’t have a mezuzah on his door is not allowed to delay even for a moment. He must go immediately to the sofer to purchase a mezuzah and affix it promptly.” The Aruch HaShulchan is a little more lenient when it comes to Shabbos. He writes, “And if it is Shabbos or yom tov and it is not possible to affix the mezuzah, if it is possible to stay out of the room without the mezuzah, he should do so. If not, he may use the room. The same leniency would apply during the week where a mezuzah is not available for purchase.”

Clearly it is incorrect to delay affixing mezuzos. Likewise, the practice of leaving one’s home without mezuzos for a significant amount of time while they are checked is also incorrect. In the Five Towns, Rabbi Naftali Jaeger, shlita, set up a mezuzah gemach to be utilized just for this purpose. One borrows the mezuzos and only then removes his own. He then immediately affixes the gemach ones. When one’s mezuzos come back from the sofer, the gemach’s mezuzos are returned. Rabbi Jaeger’s gemach is a free service set up l’iluy nishmas his daughter, a’h.

One also has the option of hiring a sofer who makes house calls. In that case, the mezuzah will only be off the doorpost for a very short time. One may also employ the suggestion mentioned above of declaring one’s home ownerless while his mezuzos are being checked. However, that trick only works for 30 days. The Rashba writes that even someone living in an ownerless house has a rabbinic obligation to affix mezuzos after 30 days. Further, if someone declared his house ownerless, he may have to reaffix all the mezuzos, even the ones not removed for inspection, when he reacquires his home. Please seek halachic guidance. v

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead and offers a program to help children with ADD increase focus and concentration. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.

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Posted by on February 14, 2013. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.