Telling The Neighbors To Buzz Off

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Halachic Musings

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

To some they are very irritating and pesky. No, not the buzzing, whining, biting mosquitoes—but the neighbors whose habits somehow bring about mosquitoes. It is
mosquito season, and the season brings on its own unique set of halachic issues, particularly when it comes to the laws of neighbors (hilchos sh’cheinim).

By the way, here are a few tidbits about the small creatures. Because of people’s body heat and carbon dioxide exhalations, mosquitoes can seek us out from up to 75 feet away. They are also attracted to the sweat of humans. They are also attracted to dark-colored clothing much more so than light-colored clothing.

The Questions

The questions abound. Is there a halachic requirement to empty the lid of a garbage can when rainwater has collected in it? May one request that his neighbor avoid overwatering with the sprinklers—because it brings out more mosquitoes? Can one neighbor force the other to clean out her birdbath water? And what about swimming pools? Is there a halachic obligation to keep the pool water both treated and circulating?

Also, when one neighbor has his lawn sprayed, it often happens that all of the mosquitoes that were on his property end up going to the neighbor’s house and yard. (And often when one sprays the lawn, the mosquitoes looking to escape actually enter one’s own home and start biting away.) When this happens to a neighbor, is there any financial responsibility on the spraying neighbor’s part toward the one being damaged?

Watch Out For Water

According to the EPA, mosquitoes undergo four stages during their life cycle. Three of these stages include being near or in water. Standing water increases mosquito reproduction. The questions about standing water and the obligations will thus be addressed first.

There is, of course, an obligation to refrain from causing damage to one’s neighbors or to others—even on one’s own property. The second chapter of Tractate Bava Basra deals with the obligation to engage in preventive measures to avoid damage. The first mishnah there states: “One may not dig a cistern next to the cistern of his neighbor, nor a water channel, nor a cave, nor an irrigation ditch, nor a washing trough—unless he distances it from the outside wall [of the neighbor’s cistern] three handbreadths and seals it with plaster.”

In terms of a financial obligation, however, the halachah follows the view of Rebbe Yosi that it is the obligation of the nizak, the one being damaged, to ensure that the mazik, the damaging neighbor, doesn’t damage him. There is one caveat. If the person is standing on his property shooting arrows at his neighbor’s back yard, then he is completely responsible financially. In the Talmud’s language (Bava Basra 22b) this is called “girei d’lei—his arrows.” This is codified in Shulchan Aruch (C.M. 155:31–32).

The simple understanding of this is that it includes any action that causes immediate harm. Therefore, for example, a neighbor can plant a tree near the ditch of his neighbor, because the tree will not cause immediate damage.

The Finicky Neighbor

There is a fascinating halachah (C.M. 155:39) in the Shulchan Aruch, which discusses a case where a person had permission to work with either animal-blood products or animal skins on his own property. However, crows or ravens began to gather and track blood on the neighbor’s fruits and they caused damage to him (the neighbor) or made cawing noises that irritated him. He must stop his activities. The Rema adds that the same applies to any other significant type of damage that a person cannot stand. The Sma explains that the word “to him” indicates that the neighbor is excessively finicky. Even in such circumstances, the neighbor must distance or cease his activity.

Conclusion

The Chazon Ish (Bava Basra 10:1) explains that the case of the ravens is likened to shooting arrows. It would seem that the mosquitoes would be no different than the ravens.

Therefore, although one should ask a she’eilah to one’s own rav or posek, it would seem that one neighbor can ask the other to:

Empty the lid of a garbage can when rainwater has collected in it.

Avoid overwatering with the sprinklers.

Clean out her birdbath water.

Keep the swimming-pool water both treated and circulated.

The Mishpetei Choshen (155:25) rules that the spraying neighbor does not have a financial obligation to pay, but he should inform the neighbor of the time that he will be spraying so that the neighbor can take appropriate actions to protect himself.

The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.

 

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