By: Rabbi Baruch Meir Levin
I recently borrowed a gown from a gemach for a family wedding. At the wedding someone accidently bumped into me and spilled a glass of juice over the gown. Unfortunately the cleaners were unable to get out the stain and the gown is now ruined.
Q. The gemach now wants me to pay them $800 for the value of the gown. Am I hallachically required to do so?
One who borrows an item is termed a Sho’el, and is responsible to pay for any damages to the item, even those of onsim (unavoidable damages). On the other hand one who rents an item is termed a Socher, and only responsible for genaiva v’avaida (loosely translated – avoidable damages even not due to negligence).
Now many gemachs charge a fee (usually $75 – 150) to “borrow” their gowns and as such these would not be considered loans but rather rentals. Even if the charge is only to cover the operating costs of the gemach, and even if it is termed “a donation”, nevertheless as long as the ability to use their gowns is contingent upon making a payment to them, they would be considered rentals.