Sruli was an avid coffee drinker. His local supermarket was having an unbelievable sale on coffee, selling a case for $100, with a limit of one per customer.
Sruli turned to his neighbor, Chaim, who also shopped at that store, and asked whether he planned to buy the coffee.
“Nobody in our house drinks coffee,” replied Chaim.
“When you shop,” said Sruli, “I’d be happy if you bought a case of coffee. I’ll give you $110 for it.”
Chaim agreed and bought the coffee. Sruli came to pick up the case and offered him the $110.
“I’m not sure that I can take the extra $10,” said Chaim.
“Why not?” asked Sruli. “I told you initially that I would pay you $110 for the coffee.”
“I only laid out $100,” replied Chaim. “I’m concerned that the extra $10 would represent ribbis.”
“What ribbis?” asked Sruli. “You didn’t lend me anything!”
“I laid out money for you,” replied Chaim. “That’s like a loan.”
“Who’s to say that you laid out money for me?” countered Sruli. “You bought the coffee from the store for $100 and I’m buying it from you for $110. Furthermore, you deserve $10 for your effort on my behalf. I’m not giving the $10 because you laid out the money.”
“I perceive that I bought the coffee for you, on your behalf, not for me,” replied Chaim. “Thus, I did lay out the money for you. I’m happy to do it as a chesed and not take money for the effort.”
Sruli called Rabbi Dayan and asked:
“Is there an issue of ribbis when paying someone more than he paid to buy something for me?”
“Although ribbis applies primarily to loans,” replied Rabbi Dayan, “money laid out by an agent for his sender is considered a loan. Thus, if Chaim serves as your agent to buy the coffee on your behalf, there is concern of ribbis in paying him extra.
“On the other hand, if Chaim does not serve as your agent, but rather bought for himself and you subsequently buy from him, there is no issue of ribbis, since there is no loan.
“How can we ascertain whether Chaim acts as an agent? Two rules of thumb are: 1) Can the parties retract and refuse to follow through with the final transfer? 2) Who would bear the loss if an oness (‘act of G-d’) occurred and the coffee was ruined while in Chaim’s hands?
“If Chaim acted as an agent, he initially acquired the coffee on your behalf. Thus, neither party can retract and any uncontrollable loss would be yours. On the other hand, if Chaim purchased for himself and resold to you, the parties could retract in certain situations, and uncontrollable loss would be his” (Choshen.Mishpat 200:12).
“This can be reflected in the terminology used. If you say, ‘Buy coffee and I’ll pay you $110 for it,’ this indicates that Chaim is buying and selling at a profit, which does not entail any ribbis.
“On the other hand, saying: “Buy the coffee for me and I’ll pay you back,” indicates that Chaim is your agent; you would then not be allowed to pay him extra.
“Even so, if you say, ‘I’ll pay you an extra $10 for your effort,’ you clarify that the extra is for the effort extended, not the money laid out. Provided that the extra amount is reasonable for the effort, it is permitted even if Chaim serves as your agent, since you are repaying him only the principal that he laid out for the coffee, with a separate payment for his effort.
“Alternatively, if you gave Chaim $110 ahead of time, he does not lay out anything and there is no issue of ribbis.
“One can question the ethics of asking others to buy a sale item limited to one per customer,” concluded Rabbi Dayan, “but when the neighbor is doing a shopping there anyway, it would not seem to be a problem.”
Verdict: It is prohibited to pay someone extra for money that he laid out for you, but you can buy the item from him, pay him explicitly for his effort, or give him money ahead of time.