Shabbat of Sanctity Dirshu’s 20th Anniversary International Convention

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By: Rabbi Max Sutton

Bobby and Joseph are next-door neighbors. The two own private homes with backyards adjacent to one another. One day, Bobby walked over and congratulated Joseph on the new barbeque located in his private backyard. Joseph was surprised and inquired how Bobby was aware of yesterday’s purchase of his new grill. Bobby responded that he’d just installed hidden security cameras around his property and caught a glimpse of the new barbeque. Joseph was appalled by the thought of his next-door neighbor peeping in on his private life and demanded that the camera be adjusted so that it did not show a view of his property. Bobby dismissed the complaint, explaining that he’d only viewed the screen of the security camera when it was first installed and had no intention of doing so again. Joseph did not accept Bobby’s response and was unwilling to compromise his privacy whatsoever.

When Joseph realized that Bobby was unwilling to correct the problem, he immediately acted. With the use of a long metal rod, he pushed the outdoor floodlight, onto which the hidden camera was attached, in an upward stroke. The camera’s view was now more of the sky than of the floor and Joseph was confident that his mission had been accomplished.

Nearly two months later, while on vacation, burglars entered Bobby’s home through a back window. Since Joseph had moved the camera, Bobby was unable to see the burglars. In Bet Din, Bobby demanded compensation for his losses because of Joseph’s reckless behavior. Joseph admitted to trespassing and moving the camera, but was unwilling to offer compensation.

How should the Bet Din rule and why?

According to the ruling of the Shulhan Aruch, it is strictly forbidden to even momentarily look into the private quarters of a friend’s property. Leading halachic authorities further explain that even if one has no intention of glancing into his friend’s home, he is restricted from standing in front of his friend’s property in a way that appears as if he is peeking in. Any sort of suspicious infringement of privacy is restricted, since such activity causes discomfort to a homeowner. Interestingly, a homeowner is entitled to press charges in a Bet Din, and demand that an individual stop observing him in his private quarters, since he is unable to conduct his life in a relaxed, unrestricted manner.

By law, it is forbidden to trespass onto another person’s property. Nevertheless, if one trespasses in order to protect his own rights, he is not penalized for his violation. Hence, when privacy laws are violated and a neighbor chooses to take the law into his own hands by trespassing to move a camera that is in view of his property, he is not penalized. Providing that no excessive measures are taken, one is permitted to take the law into his own hands in order to avoid legal proceedings in a Bet Din. While it is halachically permitted to act in this way, it is unadvisable, since the consequences of taking the law into one’s own hands can sometimes be considered criminal activity by local authorities.

By rule of the Shulhan Aruch, not all damages caused by an offender are grounds for a Bet Din to exact payment. Although one who deliberately causes any form of damage to his friend is liable by Divine decree to compensate a victim, a Bet Din will not forcibly collect compensation unless the damage is considered direct. Indirect damage and even more so, damage whose cause is indeterminate because of the uncertainty of numerous variables, is not collectible in Bet Din.

At times, for the sake of achieving peace between neighbors, a Bet Din will suggest that a token of compensation be paid to a neighbor. The amount suggested will be decided upon at the discretion of the Bet Din, and will depend on both the severity of the loss caused to a victim and the actions of the offender. We strongly advise that an offender heed our suggestion, since restoring friendship contributes greatly to enhancing quality of life, a benefit worth more than anything money could buy.

Endnotes: Shulhan Aruch Hoshen Mishpat 154:3,Semah 154:14,Pithei Hoshen 5:14:1,Shulhan Aruch Hoshen Mishpat 4:1,Shulhan Aruch Hoshen Mishpat 386 1-4,Baba Metziah 34a, Shulhan Aruch Hoshen Mishpat 12:2.

Privacy Prevails

Our Bet Din exempted Joseph from paying for the damages he may have caused Bobby by moving the hidden camera. As a homeowner, Joseph is entitled to his privacy. After Bobby refused to adjust his backyard camera and brushed Joseph off, saying that his claim was nonsensical, Joseph had the right, according to Jewish law, to take matters into his own hands. Joseph was not required to compromise his privacy by allowing Bobby to potentially view him on his property. While trespassing is generally illegal, Joseph did so in order to protect his rights.

Furthermore, the moving of the camera was not necessarily the cause of Bobby’s loss. Even if the camera had been in place, it is possible that the faces of the thieves were covered when entering. And even if the faces of the thieves were not covered, it is possible that the camera would not have provided clear evidence to their identities. Finally, catching a thief does not necessarily lead to retrieval of the merchandise stolen.

For all of the above reasons, halachic law exempted Joseph from payment. Fortunately, Bobby’s damages were relatively insignificant. Still, we suggested that Joseph pay a token amount of money to Bobby for the sake of peace. As for Bobby, he came forward and agreed to adjust his camera so that it no longer infringes on Joseph’s privacy.