Here's a great tip:
Enter your email address and we'll send you our weekly magazine by email with fresh, exciting and thoughtful content that will enrich your inbox and your life, week after week. And it's free.
Oh, and don't forget to like our facebook page too!
Contact Us

Is My Teacher Responsible for My Confiscated Smartphone?

Is My Teacher Responsible for My Confiscated Smartphone?

 Email

Question:

Rabbi, I admit, I probably had it coming when my teacher finally confiscated my phone, which I was playing a tad too loudly in the middle of class. She was supposed to return it to me after two weeks, but now she says she can’t find it.

My question is: was she allowed to confiscate it? If she was, is she responsible to reimburse me?

Answer:

Leaving the lectures about proper behavior to others, I’ll just address the issue at hand.

Is Confiscation Permissible?

Limited Confiscation

According to Jewish law, one is not allowed to “take” an object from someone else, even if it is done as a practical joke with the intention of teaching a lesson (e.g., “Next time be more careful with securing your valuables”). It is considered stealing.1

Some are of the opinion that this law applies to a teacher as well, and therefore a teacher may not confiscate an object from a student—unless it is potentially dangerous—even if it’s to teach him a lesson.2 It still, however, may be permitted for a teacher to take an item from a student and place it on her desk until the end of the class, since in this instance the teacher is not taking it for herself, and the student knows where the object is at all times.3

Confiscation Is Permitted

Others make a distinction between a practical joker and a teacher. Parents entrust their child’s education to the teacher, so if a teacher were to not confiscate the items from the child when it is appropriate, the teacher would be guilty of not fulfilling her job properly.4

Additionally, if after trying other discipline techniques it is clear to the teacher that only corporal punishment will be effective, then according to the letter of the law, the teacher is allowed to gently hit the child5—so how much more so would the teacher be permitted to confiscate the student’s objects.6 [Please note: The subject of corporal discipline and when it may or not be permitted—and even if it is permitted, whether it is advisable—is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that in today’s age, it is extremely rare for it to be permitted.]

In this event, the teacher is generally still required to return the object (unless it is a dangerous object). Some, however, are of the opinion that if it is deemed that the only way to discipline the student is through permanently confiscating or destroying the object, then as a last resort that may be permitted.7 Others qualify this and say that it would only apply to relatively inexpensive objects.8 According to all, however, the teacher is forbidden to use the confiscated item without permission.9

Teachers’ Responsibility

Assuming your teacher was permitted to confiscate the object (which is what most hold), the question of the teacher’s responsibility remains.

When your teacher signed up for her job, the agreement was that she would be paid to teach, not to guard phones. Therefore, she may be considered a shomer chinam (unpaid guardian) over any confiscated items in her possession. A shomer chinam is liable only for damages that occur due to his own negligence; he’s not liable if, through no fault of his own, the item is lost or stolen.10

Therefore, in this case, if your teacher took the normal precautions (e.g., she put it the phone in a locked closet), but now it’s gone, your teacher isn’t liable for your lost phone. If, however, it was lost due to negligence, then she would indeed be required to reimburse you for your phone.

Having promised to leave the lectures to others, I’ll just end off with saying that hopefully this entire episode will serve as a catalyst for positive change.

Footnotes
1.
Talmud, Bava Metzia 61b; Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Gezeilah 1:3; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 348:1; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Choshen Mishpat, Hilchot Gezeilah u-Geneivah 3.
2.
Responsa Benei Banim 2:47.
3.
See Techumin, vol. 8.
4.
Responsa Mishneh Halachot 6:284. See also Pit’chei Choshen 4:1, fn. 17.
5.
See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 245:10.
6.
Responsa Mishneh Halachot ibid.; Rabbi Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg in Melechet Hashem, Hilchot Melamdim, pp. 287 & 292.
7.
See Responsa Mishneh Halachot ibid.
8.
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, quoted in Melechet Hashem, p. 270. If the child’s parents wouldn’t mind that the object be destroyed for educational purpose, it is considered “inexpensive.”
9.
Responsa Mishneh Halachot ibid.
10.
Talmud, Bava Metzia 93a; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 291:1.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
 Email
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
7 Comments
1000 characters remaining
leeba goldstein new york January 11, 2016

very nice I always hated when my teachers did this to me and didn't understand it until i went to college. when your in class and texting you can't learn and do worse. So that's why its "good" for teachers to take away items. Reply

Susan Levitsky January 3, 2016

The teacher should replace the phone The teacher didn't mean to confiscate the phone in the first place. Her intention was to prevent the student from using it for a certain length of time as punishment for disobedience to a logical rule. I am sure there was plenty of warning. If she took it permanently that would have been stealing.
Since she chose to keep the phone out of the students hands for two weeks, it was her obligation to make sure it was stored in a secure place. If she did not, it was negligence on her part. She should replace the phone. Reply

Anonymous Tsfat, Israel January 3, 2016

Re: Avraham & Bill - level of responsibility Your remarks are why I had already questioned why the author set the level of responsibility at shomer (guardian) and not sho'el (borrower), who is held responsible in more situations, including this one. Looking forward to author's response to Avraham about his source. Reply

Mr Cohen UK January 2, 2016

I think the more appropriate first step would be acknowledging personal responsibility for the event and the outcome as a direct consequence of the behaviour. As a teacher of physics I can speak from experience and say that pupils and students have free choice to follow the class or school rules, or not. The result of the latter is in most cases clear and well established punishment, in this case removal of device. If you were aware that this could happen then you are at fault and must accept the responsibility for being in the position which led to the loss of your property. You are in a class to learn and this is a great opportunity to learn the real value of cooperation and active participation in the learning process. Also gadget insurance for the future maybe a good option. My advice, calm down, hold no grudges, learn from this episode and rise above... You are more important than a phone as is your education. Reply

Avraham M Brooklyn January 1, 2016

"[I]f a teacher were to not confiscate the items from the child when it is appropriate, the teacher would be guilty of not fulfilling her job properly"

So the teacher's permission to confiscate property stems from the fact that it is a necessary part of their job as an educator. If this is the case, it seems more than a little strange to categorize them as a shomer chinam.

This statement isn't sourced. Is this also included in Rabbi Klein's teshuva? Reply

Anonymous Tsfat, Israel December 31, 2015

Why is the teacher comparable to a 'shomer chinam' and not a 'shoel'? -- of course, each are far from precise. Reply

Bill Montreal December 31, 2015

Teacher should pay In this case the teacher has a greater responsibility for the safety of the device - not just as a guardian, but as the person who removed it from the rightful owner in the first place. I would certainly hold the teacher responsible for the loss. Reply