May 2, 2010
What is more significant - a person's intent or a person's actions?
This question comes to the fore in the Mishnah on today's daf (page) where many cases are presented where a person's specific intention is not fulfilled, but a very similar thing does take place. For example, if a person meant to hit a child severely enough so that the child would die, but instead his blow hit an adult, and there was not enough force in the blow to actually kill an adult. In such a case, if the adult died nonetheless, the attacker will not be held liable, since his blow was not strong enough to kill an adult. If, however, he meant to kill the adult with a blow that was sufficient to kill an adult or a child, if he actually hit an adult, he would be held liable as a murderer. The Mishnah concludes with Rabbi Shimon's opinion, that someone who intended to kill one person and ended up killing another will not be held liable for murder.
The first opinion in the Mishnah apparently believes that we look at just one element of the person's intent - did he mean to kill? If he meant to kill and his action was sufficient to kill, he will be held liable, even if his actions killed someone other than the person he intended to murder.
Rabbi Shimon, on the other hand, insists that all elements of intent must be in place for a person to be held responsible for his actions, and that he will only be liable if his actions matched his intention. This position, which places much significance to a person's intentions, is true according to Rabbi Shimon not only in these laws, but in other areas of halakhah, as well. There are some places where all agree that we must take into account the person's intent - e.g. the laws of Shabbat - but Rabbi Shimon applies this idea across the board.