In the Torah portion of Mishpatim, we learn1 about the four kinds of custodians: the shomer chinom (who watches an object without fee), the shomer sachar (who guards an object for a fee), the socher (who rents an object), and the sho’el (who borrows an object).

Although these are four distinct categories, the Gemara2 explains that according to R. Meir “There are ‘four custodians’ whose ‘ordinances are three.’ ” This is so, says R. Meir,3 because the socher and shomer sachar share the same laws with regard to damages and to loss of an object placed in their trust.

Rashi4 explains R. Meir’s reasoning as follows: “Since it is in his possession for his own personal pleasure, although [the renter] is paying for its use, he is considered a shomer sachar. For if he were not paying for it he would be considered a sho’el ….”

Rashi thus implies that were it not for his payment for the use of the object, the socher would indeed have the same liability as a sho’el. This is because the socher — unlike the shomer sachar (who is essentially guarding the object), is similar to the sho’el in that both take temporary possession of an object for their personal benefit.

With regard to their relation to the object itself, as well as to its owner, the four kinds of custodians are divided along these lines: All the benefits accrue to the owner of the object when it is guarded by the shomer chinom , since the latter is not remunerated in any way. The sho’el is at the opposite end of the spectrum, inasmuch as all the pleasure is derived by the borrower and none by the lender. Then there is the shomer sachar and the socher, who are similar in that both they as well as the owner benefit from the arrangement.

The above outline helps us understand the phrase that “There are ‘four custodians’ whose ‘ordinance are three,’ ” in terms of man’s spiritual service. For the Shaloh states:5 “Just as four kinds of custodians exist in terms of interpersonal relationships, so too they exist in terms of the relationship between man and G‑d.”

This is as follows.6 The world’s existence is dependent on the performance of Torah and mitzvos by the Jewish people.7 The Jews are thus the “custodians” of the world, G‑d having given it over to us to “guard” for Him.

The spiritual significance of these four types of custodian will be understood accordingly: a shomer chinom is involved in the loftiest level of spiritual service, for he serves G‑d without seeking remuneration. The shomer sachar, on the other hand, serves only for the sake of a reward, while the socher is similar to an individual who says: “This money shall go to charity on the condition that my [sick] child lives.”8

Then there is the sho’el , the Jew who demands all manner of benefit as his birthright, without the need to serve. However, just as one who borrows an object is responsible for accidents, so does the spiritual sho’el obligate himself to perform Torah and mitzvos by his very reliance on G‑d’s bounty; he cannot excuse himself because of an “accident.”

The sho’el’ s performance of Torah and mitzvos is thus not a true service, which involves an obligation to serve for the sake of his Master. Rather, he does so strictly for the benefit he seeks to derive.

The difference between the spiritual service of the shomer sachar and the socher will be better understood in light of the explanation provided earlier: The shomer sachar is mainly employed as a guard for the benefit of the owner of the object, while the socher desires to use the object for his own needs.

The same is true of their spiritual service. The principal motivation of the shomer sachar is a desire to serve G‑d, but he has yet to attain the wholly unselfish kind of service that characterizes the shomer chinom , and so he expects remuneration.

The socher , however, is quite different. He desires to benefit from the world and receive his needs, but is also sensitive enough to realize that he must “repay” G‑d (the Master of the world) through the spiritual service of Torah and mitzvos.

Although their service is thus dissimilar, in the end, the law of the socher is similar to that governing the shomer sachar. For since after all is said and done the socher is serving G‑d in a manner similar to that of the shomer sachar , he too comes under the same heading of one who is actively engaged in spiritual service.

Based on Likkutei Sichos , Vol. XXXI, pp. 112-118.