This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Tool Time *

Whether it is in the context of television comedies or of comic strips, our popular culture would have us believe that the most insidious source of strife between neighbours is the borrowing of tools.

In fact, this impression finds considerable support from the Talmudic tradition, which relates many examples of disharmony and litigation that were precipitated by borrowed tools. Of course, these ancient sources do not speak of fancy power-tools, but of humble spades, sickles and axes.

So frequent were those squabbles that the rabbis used them as proverbial examples for a variety of social evils.

To mention one such instance, our sages were convinced that the gruesome plagues that afflict the walls of people's dwellings, as described in the book of Leviticus, were punishments for moral transgressions. Prominent among these offenses was the "evil eye," referring to the meanness of spirit that impels some people to resent the good fortune of others, or to enviously strive to undermine their happiness.

When called upon to illustrate this negative behaviour, Rabbi Isaac mentioned the case of a person who, when approached by his friend to borrow an axe to chop down a tree, was brushed off with the excuse "I do not own one.'

The Torah states that, once the priest has diagnosed the house as having been infected with the plague, he should command that the owner's possessions be removed and taken outside. At this point, the Talmud notes, all the neighbours will witness that, contrary to his disingenuous protestations, the miserly owner did in fact possess an axe, and his meanness will thereby be exposed to public censure.

A similar pattern is observable when the rabbis came to define the Torah's prohibitions against taking vengeance and bearing grudges.

Vengeance is characterized in the Talmud by the following case: Reuben refuses to lend Simeon a sickle. The following day, Reuben requests the use of Simeon's axe, but is told "I will not lend it to you, just as you refused to lend me your sickle."

Grudge-bearing, however, is a more subtle phenomenon. It would occur if, in the previous story, Reuben had originally denied Simeon the use of his axe; and when he subsequently asked to borrow an article of clothing, was told "Sure, here it is. I am not a tightwad like you!"

Neither form of behaviour is countenanced by the high-minded morality of the Torah. Significantly, both offenses are illustrated by examples of tool-borrowing.

Similarly, when called upon to provide examples of problematic vows, the Talmud finds it convenient to describe the case of an individual who tries to brush off his neighbour's request to lend him a spare tool by vowing "Let this spade be forbidden me if I own another one" or "Let all my property be forbidden me if I possess any spade besides this one."

Presumably, these examples were taken from the realities of daily life; and requests to borrow tools, as well as attempts to evade those requests, were common occurrences.

So compelling was the temptation not to lend out tools that generosity in this realm was sometimes treated as an extraordinary virtue.

The Talmud relates, for instance, that a plague that arose in the Babylonian town of Sura miraculously excluded the neighbourhood, where Rav dwelled. The citizens were informed in a dream that this wonder should not be attributed to the merits of their saintly rabbi, but rather to an anonymous individual whose saving grace was his willingness to lend out his shovel and spade for burials.

The borrowing of tools raised frequent legal issues that had to be dealt by the judiciary.

A typical question dealt with by the Talmud had to do with the right of the lender to retract his offer and demand the tool back before the borrower had used it. Rav Huna ruled that once the borrower has used the axe to chop a piece of wood, then the designated period of the loan has taken legal effect, and the borrower has assumed a quasi-legal ownership, so that the owner has relinquished his right of retraction until the conclusion of the loan period.

Other rabbis claimed that the right of retraction is forfeited from the moment when the borrower takes possession, even before the instrument had been put to any use.

When it comes to the borrower's liability for damage to the article, all the authorities seem to concur that it took effect from the time when it was physically handed over. From that point on, the borrower bore responsibility even for unavoidable accidents.

Indeed, the thorniest legal questions arise when a tool is damaged while in the possession of the borrower. The Jewish legal system strove to define the precise limits of the user's liability in such events.

Already in biblical times we encounter the story of Elisha, who accompanied a group of apprentice prophets as they ventured to build a dwelling for themselves in the Jordan valley. While they were chopping timber for the project, the blade of one of the axes flew off its handle and sank into the river, causing the acolyte to panic because the tool was borrowed.

Fortunately, Elisha was able to perform one of his miracles and caused the metal to float conveniently up to the surface.

In a case that was adjudicated by Rava, a borrowed axe was broken, and Rava ruled that if the borrower could produce witnesses that the axe had not been put to any unconventional use, then he was exempted from compensation.

However, if witnesses could not be procured, the borrower was placed in a legally vulnerable position, and usually had to pay for the damage.

Even in this matter, there existed differing views about how the payment should be made.

In a case that was brought before him for judgment, Rav declared that the defendant was obligated to replace the broken axe with a functioning one.

However, when his disciples, Rav Kahana and Rav Assi, heard this decision, they challenged it, taking the position that it was sufficient for the borrower to return the damaged article and make up the reduction in its value.

Rav did not respond to their question, and the Talmud declared in favour of the students.

In light of all the numerous complications and neighbourly spats that are occasioned by the borrowing of tools, it is hardly surprising that, in talmudic parlance, one of the most common metaphors that is used to describe the refutation of a rabbi's opinion is "an axe has been thrown at it."

This corresponds precisely to the modern English image of "throwing a monkey-wrench into the works."

This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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