Danny spent Shabbos with his in-laws, the Goodmans. “There’s an Avos U’banim program on Motzaei Shabbos,” Mr. Goodman said. “How about taking your son to learn there?”
“He learns at school,” replied Danny. “I don’t feel like going now.”
“It’s a very nice program,” persisted Mr. Goodman. “It’s a real loss to your son if you don’t go!”
“If you’ll pay me $1,000, I’ll go learn with him,” said Danny.
“OK,” said Mr. Goodman. “Go and I’ll pay you $1,000.”
Danny took his son to the Avos U’banim. They reviewed together what was learned in school during the previous week. “I feel much more ready for the upcoming test,” his son said.
When they returned home, Danny said to Mr. Goodman: “I have to acknowledge that I was very impressed with the Avos U‘banim. The sound of Torah reverberating through the shul was quite uplifting! In any case, you promised me $1,000 for the learning.”
“I knew that you would find the learning enjoyable!” exclaimed Mr. Goodman. “But for the hour of learning with your son, $1,000 is unreasonable. I didn’t mean it sincerely. At most, I’m willing to give you $100; that’s reasonable.”
“But you promised me $1,000,” objected Danny. “It’s like any other hiring agreement.”
“Not exactly,” said Mr. Goodman. “A father is required to teach his son Torah. You should be learning with your son without any additional incentive. It doesn’t make sense that I hired you to do something you have a mitzvah to do anyway.”
“Why not?” argued Danny. “It’s still an agreement between people to do something for pay!”
The two came before Rabbi Dayan.
“Does Mr. Goodman have to pay me the $1,000 he agreed to for learning with my son?” Danny asked.
“The Gemara [Yevamot 106a; B.K. 116a] teaches that if someone offers another person an exaggerated sum to perform a required mitzvah, he can claim that his commitment was insincere – meshateh,” answered Rabbi Dayan. “For example, if a woman offered her brother-in-law an exorbitant price to do a required chalitzah, she can claim that she did not commit sincerely, only to have him do what was required anyway.” (See Shach 81:5; Pischei Choshen, Sechirus 8:22-30.)
“Maharam of Rothenberg ruled, based on this, that a person who told his son-in-law that he would pay him to teach his own child Torah is exempt,” continued Rabbi Dayan. “He can claim he did not commit sincerely, since a father has a mitzvah to teach his son anyway.” (Mordechai Sanhedrin #704; Rama C.M. 81:1; 336:1; Shach 81:5)
“What if I meant it sincerely?” asked Mr. Goodman.
“If the person was sincere at the time, there is a dispute whether his commitment is legally binding as any other employment agreement,” continued Rabbi Dayan. “The Ketzos [81:4] holds him liable, whereas the Nesivos [81:2] maintains that one who is ‘hired’ to do a mitzvah incumbent upon him – e.g., to put on tefillin or learn with his son – is not considered an employee at all.”
“Nonetheless, it’s possible that the Nesivos would agree in this case,” concluded Rabbi Dayan. “The Nimukei Yosef [Nedarim 2a] points out that while a person has an obligation to learn Torah, learning one particular passage as opposed to another is not obligatory. Similarly, while a father has an obligation to teach his son Torah, he is not obligated to teach specific material or at a specific time. Thus, if someone ‘hired’ the father to teach his son specific material or to learn in a specific forum, such as Avos U’banim, it is not comparable to putting on tefillin.”