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Missing Payment

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Dr. Oren had a small psychology practice and rented office space from his colleague, Dr. Wieder, on Thursday afternoons. The rent amounted to $500 for the month. Since the two usually did not see each other, the arrangement was that Dr. Oren would leave the rent money in the top drawer of the desk.

One Thursday afternoon toward the end of the month, Dr. Oren brought the rent money with him. He counted the bills twice: “100, 200, 300, 400, 500 dollars.” He poked around his attaché case for an envelope to put the money in, but couldn’t find one, so he left the stack of bills loose in the drawer.

The following day, Dr. Wieder called. “Did you leave me cash?” he asked Dr. Oren.

“Yes, I did,” replied Dr. Oren. “I didn’t have an envelope, so I left the money in the drawer. I hope you got it.”

“How much did you leave there?” asked Dr. Wieder.

“I left the full amount for the month, $500,” replied Dr. Oren.

“Are you sure of the amount?” asked Dr. Wieder.

“Absolutely; I counted it twice,” answered Dr. Oren. “How much did you find?”

“Only $300,” said Dr. Wieder. “$200 is missing!”

“Do you doubt I left $500?” asked Dr. Oren, slightly offended.

“No, I don’t doubt you,” answered Dr. Wieder. “I’m concerned, though, since I suspect a certain patient of poking around the office. It would have been better had you sealed the money in an envelope.”

“I’m really sorry,” apologized Dr. Oren. “I usually try to leave the money in an envelope. There have been a few times, though, that I left cash loose in the drawer. There was never a problem and you never said anything.”

“I’m not accusing you of doing wrong, but you could have been more careful,” said Dr. Wider. “In any case, you still owe me $200 rent, since I never ended up receiving the money you left.”

“I feel bad,” replied Dr. Oren, “but I shouldn’t have to carry the loss, since I followed our arrangement to leave the money in the drawer. I’d be happy to discuss the issue, though, with Rabbi Dayan.”

“Fine with me,” said Dr. Wieder.

The two met with Rabbi Dayan, and asked: “Who is responsible for the missing $200?”

“There are two issues to consider here,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “One, whether placing money in the drawer is the same as handing it to Dr. Wieder. Two, whether the fact that this was the prearranged agreement is sufficient reason to exempt Dr. Oren.”

“Regarding the first issue,” Rabbi Dayan continued, “a person who owes money remains liable until he hands it over to the lender or his agent [C.M. 120:1]. Here, although the money was not handed directly to Dr. Wieder, placing it in the lender’s house in his presence is like handing it to him.” (Aruch Hashulchan 120:2)

“But I wasn’t present when the money was placed in the drawer,” argued Dr. Wieder. “In fact, I didn’t even find out until after the $200 was taken!”

“When the lender was not aware that the money was placed in his property, there is a question,” explained Rabbi Dayan, “since a person’s property acquires on his behalf even without his awareness [243:20]. Nonetheless, when returning a theft, the owner has to be made aware, so that he knows to guard the stolen object again [355:1]. This likely does not apply here, though, so long as the money was placed in a secure location.” (Pischei Choshen, Halva’ah 5:2)

“Regardless of whether or not Dr. Wieder knew I left the money, how about the second issue?” asked Dr. Oren. “Since our arrangement was to leave the money in the drawer, I don’t see any reason I should remain responsible!”

“Even if the lender instructs the borrower to throw the money to him, the borrower remains responsible if it gets lost, unless the lender explicitly said that the borrower would be exempt,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “This is because the lender presumably meant: ‘Throw the money, but continue watching it.’ However, if the lender said, ‘Give the money to someone specific,’ or, ‘Leave it in a certain secure place,’ the borrower is exempt even if the lender didn’t explicitly exempt him.” (SM”A, Nesivos 120:1)

“But it’s not secure to leave money loose in a drawer,” argued Dr. Wieder. “Had it been sealed in an envelope, perhaps the $200 would never have been taken!”

“That could be,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “On the other hand, a drawer in a private office is generally considered secure, especially if on previous occasions cash was left loose without objection. Thus, Dr. Oren is exempt, but he might offer to appease Dr. Wieder for his carelessness, anyway, by covering part of the loss.”

Rabbi Meir Orlian is a faculty member of the Business Halacha Institute, headed by HaRav Chaim Kohn, a noted dayan. To receive BHI’s free newsletter, Business Weekly, send an e-mail to subscribe@businesshalacha.com. For questions regarding business halacha issues, or to bring a BHI lecturer to your business or shul, call the confidential hotline at 877-845-8455 or e-mail ask@businesshalacha.com.

About the Author: Rabbi Meir Orlian is a faculty member of the Business Halacha Institute, headed by HaRav Chaim Kohn, a noted dayan. To receive BHI’s free newsletter, Business Weekly, send an e-mail to subscribe@businesshalacha.com. For questions regarding business halacha issues, or to bring a BHI lecturer to your business or shul, call the confidential hotline at 877-845-8455 or e-mail ask@businesshalacha.com.


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