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Snow Job

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Mr. Farber looked out his kitchen window and admired the snow all around. It had piled up during the night, covering everything with a beautiful blanket of white. While he was eating breakfast, Yaakov and Elisha knocked on his door. “Do you want your snow shoveled?” asked Yaakov.

“No, thank you,” replied Mr. Farber. “I’m going to shovel it as soon as I finish eating.”

The two boys turned to go away. Mr. Farber called out after them, “My next door neighbor, Mr. Schreiber, always wants his snow shoveled. He won’t be home before the evening, so you should do his house and driveway.”

“Thanks,” said Elisha. “We’ll do it now.”

The two boys got to work. After shoveling for an hour they had cleared the sidewalk and the driveway. When they finished, they knocked again on Mr. Farber’s door. “We finished shoveling your neighbor’s house,” they said. “That will be $35.”

“I’ll tell him this evening,” said Mr. Farber. “Leave me you phone numbers.”

Yaakov and Elisha shifted uncomfortably. “We expected that you would pay us,” Yaakov said. “You told us to shovel his house. We would like our pay today, and might not even be around in the evening.”

“Although I told you to shovel Mr. Schreiber’s house, I never said I would pay you,” Mr. Farber protested. “I just told you he always wants his house shoveled.”

“No, you said to shovel his house and driveway,” argued Elisha. “You gave us the job, so it’s your responsibility to pay! You can work it out with your neighbor when he comes home. There is a mitzvah to pay a worker on the day he completes the job, and it’s prohibited to delay payment against his will to the following night.

“That’s only if I’m responsible to pay, though,” countered Mr. Farber. “I’m not convinced I owe you anything.”

“We just had a similar case in yeshiva,” said Yaakov. “I mistakenly took Elisha’s suit to the cleaners instead of my own. Rabbi Dayan said that since I brought it in, I have to pay the cleaners and can then ask reimbursement from Elisha for the benefit I provided him. It’s the same here.”

“I’m not sure it’s the same,” said Mr. Farber. “In that case, you clearly took responsibility for the payment when you brought the suit in. Here, I told you outright that it was Mr. Schreiber’s house.”

“Can we come in and call Rabbi Dayan together?” suggested Elisha.

“With pleasure,” replied Mr. Farber.

Yaakov and Elisha took off their coats and put the phone on speaker. They called Rabbi Dayan and asked: “If Mr. Farber instructed us to shovel his neighbor’s property, must he pay?”

“A person who instructs someone to do work in another’s property is liable only if he assumes responsibility for the employment, which can be in one of three ways,” answered Rabbi Dayan. “Whenever he does assume responsibility, he would violate bal talin [the prohibition of withholding salary] if he didn’t pay promptly.” (C.M. 339:7)

“What are the three ways?” asked Elisha.

“One, the classic case,” answered Rabbi Dayan, “is where the person initially employed the worker for himself, and then instructed him – intentionally or by mistake – to do work for his neighbor, instead.” (C.M. 336:1)

“This was the case with the cleaners,” noted Yaakov. “I gave them the suit with the understanding that they were doing work for me.”

“The second case,” continued Rabbi Dayan, “is where you accepted direct responsibility for the salary, by saying: ‘I will pay your salary,’ even though the work was being done for someone else.”

“What is the third case?” asked Elisha.

“When the worker was unaware that this is someone else’s property,” answered Rabbi Dayan. “For example, had Mr. Farber simply instructed you to shovel the driveway adjacent to his house, which turned out to be his neighbor’s driveway, he would be liable to pay you.” (Rama 339:7; SM”A 336:4)

“When is a person not liable?” asked Yaakov.

“If you instructed a worker to do work in another’s property without accepting responsibility and the worker was aware that this was someone else’s property – you are not liable for payment,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “The laborer can only claim the benefit from the owner. You may have to make an effort to help the worker extract payment from the owner, though.” (Pischei Choshen, Sechirus 8:84)

“Where does this leave us?” asked Mr. Farber.

“Since the boys knew this was Mr. Schreiber’s property and you did not assume responsibility for the employment or salary, you are not required to pay them,” concluded Rabbi Dayan. “When your neighbor comes home, he should pay them the going rate for such work, since he is generally interested in having his house shoveled.” (C.M. 375:1)

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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