By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
The Chofetz Chaim wrote a number of famous works. He wrote the Mishnah Berurah commentary on the Orach Chaim section of Shulchan Aruch. He also wrote Sefer Chofetz Chaim on the laws of lashon ha’ra. There is another book that he wrote which is not so famous. It is called Ahavas Chesed, and it deals with the obligation to perform chesed—acts of kindness.
Every so often, the weather forecasters tell us that the New York greater metropolitan area is in for a snowstorm. Shoveling the snow is often a time-consuming but necessary event. You are prepared for it because you have purchased a snow blower. Your neighbor, however, has not.
But now your neighbor wishes to borrow your snow blower. What are your obligations in this regard? What mitzvos are involved?
The Chofetz Chaim cites the mitzvah of ve’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha (Vayikra 19:18) and understands it to include the mitzvah of loaning one’s tools and items to another who requests it (see Ahavas Chesed, Part I, 1:2). True, it is a mitzvah. But is it obligatory?
The Chofetz Chaim writes later on that if one is a tza’ar ayin (someone miserly in his or her conduct) and lies and says that he does not have the item, his punishment is that nega’im come to his home and he is forced to remove all the vessels in his house. If the reason why he is not lending the snow blower is that this neighbor had previously slighted him or simply because he cannot stand the neighbor, then there is an additional verse that he is violating—“Do not take revenge nor harbor a grudge” (also in the same verse in Vayikra).
What if you are concerned that he will damage the snow blower? In such a case, it would seem that there is no obligation to loan the item. It should be no different than a loan where there is a significant concern that he will not pay back; in such a case, there is no obligation to make the loan (see Ahavas Chesed, Part I, 1:9).
Can the neighbor who borrowed the snow blower lend it to someone else? Absolutely not (ibid., Part II, Chapter 22). In fact, one may only use the tool for the normal purposes for which such a tool is used. Using it for any other purpose constitutes gezeilah, a violation of the prohibition of theft—a violation that disqualifies a person from serving as a witness (at a wedding, for example). For example, if one stores nails on top of the snow blower, this would constitute theft, because the snow blower was not meant to serve as a storage tray.
If the neighbor borrowing the snow blower happens to be poor, then there is another mitzvah that is fulfilled as well—tzedakah. In conclusion, it seems that according to the Chofetz Chaim, the obligation to loan tools and other items is a full obligation. We should therefore approach this mitzvah with a joy and excitement when we are given the opportunity to loan such an item, just as we should approach all of our mitzvos in the same manner.
What if one makes one’s living renting snow blowers? Is there an obligation to rent it for free to someone who is in need of it? Here the answer may not be so simple. Clearly, one is not obligated to give up one’s livelihood to perform this mitzvah. The verse tells us “vechai achicha imach—and your brother shall live with you” to tell us of the obligation of loaning money and giving to charity. The emphasis, however, can be placed on the words “with you.” There is no need sacrifice one’s own living for this. If you may require this snow blower for your rental business, there is no need to loan it to the other. What if it is clearly an extra one? Then there is one more consideration—if word gets out that you loan the snow blowers for no charge, then your business may be adversely affected, and you would not be obligated to lend it. The exact parameters of the obligation depend upon whether the person is poor and whether it will, according to the derech ha’teva—the natural order of things—affect one’s parnasah adversely if word gets out that the item is often loaned for free.
In this article we used the example of a snow blower, but obviously the idea applies equally with other tools or items. It would even apply, for example, to an extra car which might be in our possession.