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Mr. Cooper had done some electrical work for Mr. Singer in his office. A monetary dispute arose between them, and beis din ruled that Mr. Singer owed Mr. Cooper $600 for the work.

Mr. Singer said he would pay shortly, but a few weeks passed without payment.


Meanwhile, Mrs. Singer, who worked as a teacher during the day, also played music during the evenings at simchas. Mr. Cooper asked her to play at his daughter’s bas mitzvah.

At the end of the evening, Mrs. Singer asked for her fee, which amounted to $600.

“I don’t need to pay you,” replied Mr. Cooper. “Beis Din awarded me $600 that your husband still hasn’t paid. Offset the $600 from the $600 he owes me.”

“Please keep me out of your litigation with my husband,” said Mrs. Singer. “I provided music for your daughter’s bas mitzvah, and expect you to pay me for my services.”

“I also expect to be paid for my electrical services…,” replied Mr. Cooper dryly. “What’s the point of paying you, only to have your husband pay me!”

“I keep a separate business account for the music,” said Mrs. Singer, “so the money is different.”

“Even so, according to halacha your earnings belong to your husband,” insisted Mr. Cooper, “so it seems fair to me to offset your services with his debt to me.”

“On what basis do you say that my earnings belong to him?!” objected Mrs. Singer. “I would like to call Rabbi Dayan and ask him!”

Mrs. Singer called Rabbi Dayan on speaker, and asked:

“Can Mr. Cooper offset my fee with my husband’s debt to him?”

“Answering this question requires an overview of the financial relationship between a husband and wife,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “Afterward, we can address this particular question in the context of counterclaims.”

“Most couples live, nowadays, with the financial model that both spouses provide for their family’s needs and expenses through their joint income.

“The classic halachic model, though, is that the husband is obligated to sustain his wife and family, but is entitled to his wife’s earnings in lieu of her sustenance. In a typical case where the husband and wife share an account in which both salaries are deposited, and from which the family’s expenses are drawn, there is minimal practical difference between the two models during the course of marriage.

“The Mishna (Kesubos 59b) delineates the work responsibilities of a wife, in lieu of her sustenance, which include household chores and a certain amount of income-producing work, such as spinning wool” (E.H. 80:1,6).

“Even if she earns more than the required amount, the husband is entitled to the extra earnings in lieu of the additional money that he provides her for personal expenses, beyond her basic sustenance of food, shelter, and clothing” (E.H. 70:3).

“The Gemara (Kesubos 66a) addresses also the case of a woman who exerted herself beyond the normal manner of earning, such as by working extra hours at night or at numerous jobs, whether the husband is entitled even to these earning. The poskim consider this question unresolved, so that if the wife is in possession, she can maintain the earnings; if they already entered the husband’s possession, he can maintain them” (Chelkas Mechokek and Beis Shmuel 80:2).

“Many poskim do not differentiate between earnings from the required work inside the house, such as spinning wool, and work outside the house, especially if it is customary for women to work in such jobs, such as teaching, secretarial work, nursing, etc.” (Be’er Heitev and Pischei Teshuvah, E.H. 80:1).

“However, some contemporary poskim maintain that the husband is not entitled to his wife’s earnings outside the house, especially of the kind he cannot halachically expect of his wife to do, more so than work through exertion” (see Pischei Choshen, Ishus 10:2[3]; Ezer Mishpat #19, pp. 232-234).

B’e”H, we will see the application of these principles to our case next week.

Verdict: In the classic halachic model, the husband is entitled to his wife’s earnings in lieu of her sustenance and personal expenses. There is an unresolved dispute regarding earnings through exertion.


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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 [email protected]. 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 [email protected].