Yaakov had spent Shabbos at his yeshiva for a few weeks running. “Don’t forget to bring your suit in to the cleaners,” said his mother, before he returned home. “It’s been a while since it was cleaned.”
During the lunch break, Yaakov went to the closet and took out the Shabbos suit. He brought it to the cleaners, and asked, “Can you have it ready by tomorrow?”
“We can have it ready by 11 a.m.,” the store manager replied.
“Fine,” said Yaakov. “How much does it cost?”
“A suit costs $13,” answered the manager. He entered Yaakov’s name and telephone number in the computer and gave him the receipt.
In the evening, Yaakov’s roommate, Elisha, asked him: “Did you see my Shabbos suit? It’s missing from the closet!”
“I took my suit to the cleaners,” replied Yaakov, “but yours should be there.”
“Come take a look,” said Elisha. “Maybe you took mine by mistake?”
Yaakov looked at the suit hanging in the closet. Sure enough, it was his suit. “You’re right!” he exclaimed. “I was rushing and the two suits look very similar.”
Yaakov took out the ticket and gave it to Elisha. “Look at the bright side,” he said. “I saved you the effort of bringing your suit in. They said it would be ready by 11:00 tomorrow and it costs $13.”
Elisha looked at the ticket skeptically. “You should pay the bill,” he said.
“But they cleaned your suit,” replied Yaakov. “Why should I pay? You got the benefit from this work, not me.”
“I didn’t ask them to do the work, though,” said Elisha. “I wasn’t planning on bringing my suit to the cleaners.”
“It was dirty, though,” said Yaakov. “You’ve worn it for the past month. Do you remember I pointed out a few stains on the jacket last week, which you tried to spot-wash?”
“Still, I wasn’t planning on taking it in yet,” said Elisha. “I was going to wait another two weeks. Anyway, I’m extremely low on cash, and don’t have the $13. I must have the suit back for Shabbos, though.”
“No problem, I can loan you the money,” said Yaakov. “You’ll pay me back when you can.”
“I’m not interested in borrowing,” said Elisha. “You brought the suit in; you have the responsibility to pay!”
“But it was a mistake, a mekach taus,” argued Yaakov, “I didn’t realize it was your suit.”
“Rabbi Dayan is still downstairs in the beis midrash,” said Elisha. “We can ask him.”
The two went downstairs. “If I mistakenly brought Elisha’s suit, partially dirty, to the cleaners – who has to pay?” asked Yaakov.
“The Gemara [B.M. 118a] addresses the case of a person who hired a laborer for himself, but instructed him to work in his friend’s property instead,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “The one who hired the laborer has to pay him the full salary, since he accepted responsibility for the employment. However, he can then claim reimbursement from his friend for the benefit that he provided him.” (C.M. 336:1)
“What does ‘the benefit’ mean?” asked Elisha.
“If his friend needed the work to be done anyway, it means the cost of the job,” answered Rabbi Dayan. “However, if there is a range of costs among laborers, he would only have to pay the lower end of the range, unless the job was clearly of superior quality. Thus, if there are other local cleaners who charge only $10 and do comparable work, you would only have to reimburse Yaakov $10.” (See C.M. 332:1)
“What if I wasn’t planning on cleaning the suit?” asked Elisha. “The work didn’t need to be done yet.”
“A suit needs a cleaning every so often, especially if there were already some stains,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “We would have to estimate the relative benefit of having the suit cleaned already now. Even if the suit had no stains, there is still a benefit in having a freshly cleaned and pressed suit, but that would be a much smaller sum.” (See C.M. 375:1-3)
“Why isn’t this considered a mekach ta’us, though?” asked Yaakov. “The employment agreement was a mistake!”
“Mekach taus is when there was some mistake in the nature of the work – e.g., the customer asked for pressing and the store did cleaning – or in the price agreement. Here the nature of the work and price were clear, so the customer is responsible to pay the cleaners even if he gained nothing from the work.” (See C.M. 335:3)