By Rabbi Meir Orlian
Yaakov had spent Shabbos at his yeshiva for a few weeks in a row. On Wednesday, he went to the closet and quickly took out his Shabbos suit, which he brought to the cleaners.
The worker entered Yaakov’s name and telephone number into the computer. “It will be ready by 4:00 p.m. tomorrow and will cost $13,” he said, handing Yaakov the receipt.
In the evening, Yaakov’s roommate, Elisha, asked him, “Did you see my Shabbos suit? It’s missing from the closet!”
“I took my suit to the cleaners,” replied Yaakov, “but yours should be there.”
“Maybe you took mine by mistake?” suggested Elisha.
Yaakov looked at the suit in the closet.
“You’re right!” he exclaimed. “I was rushing, and our suits look similar.” He took out the cleaners’ ticket and handed it to Elisha.
“You should pay the bill,” Elisha said.
“But they cleaned your suit,” replied Yaakov. “Why should I pay? You got the benefit from this work, not me.”
“I didn’t ask them to do the work, though,” said Elisha.
“Your suit was dirty, though,” said Yaakov. “You’ve worn it for the past month.”
“Still, I wasn’t planning on having it cleaned yet,” said Elisha. “Anyway, I’m short on cash and don’t even have the $13. I must have the suit back for Shabbos.”
“No problem, I can lend you the money,” said Yaakov. “You’ll pay me back when you can.”
“I’m not interested in borrowing,” said Elisha. “You brought the suit in; you have the responsibility to pay!”
“But it was a mistake, a mekach ta’us,” argued Yaakov. “I didn’t realize it was your suit.”
“There’s no point in arguing,” said Elisha. “Rabbi Dayan is still downstairs in the beis medrash; we can ask him.”
The two went downstairs.
“If I mistakenly brought Elisha’s suit, which was somewhat dirty, to the cleaners instead of my own, who has to pay?” Yaakov asked Rabbi Dayan.
“The Gemara (B.M. 118a) addresses the case of a person who hired a laborer for himself, but instructed him to work in his friend’s property instead,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “The one who hired the laborer has to pay him the full salary, since he accepted responsibility for the employment. However, he can then claim reimbursement from his friend for the benefit that he provided him by hiring the laborer” (C.M. 336:1).
“What does ‘the benefit’ mean?” asked Elisha.
“If the work needed to be done anyway, it means the cost of the job. However, if there is a range of costs among laborers, he would only have to pay the lower end of the range, unless the job was clearly of superior quality. Thus, Elisha, if there are other local cleaners who charge only $10 for comparable work, you would only have to reimburse Yaakov $10” (see C.M. 332:1).
“What if I wasn’t planning on cleaning the suit now?” asked Elisha.
“A suit needs a cleaning every so often,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “We would have to estimate the relative benefit of having the suit cleaned already, before you planned to have it done. Even if the suit had no stains, there is still a benefit in having a freshly cleaned and pressed suit, but that would be worth a much smaller sum” (see C.M. 375:1–3).
“Why isn’t this considered a mekach ta’us, though?” asked Yaakov. “The employment agreement was a mistake.”
“Mekach ta’us is when there was some mistake in the nature of the work—e.g., the customer asked for pressing and the store did cleaning—or in the price agreement,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “Here, though, the nature of the work and price were clear, so the customer is responsible to pay the cleaners even if he gained nothing from the work” (see C.M. 335:3). v
This article is intended for learning purposes and not to be relied upon halacha l’maaseh. There are also issues of dina d’malchusa to consider in actual cases.
Rabbi Meir Orlian is a faculty member of the Business Halacha Institute, which is headed by HaRav Chaim Kohn, shlita, a noted dayan. For questions regarding business halacha issues, or to bring a BHI lecturer to your business or shul, please call the confidential hotline at 877-845-8455 or e‑mail firstname.lastname@example.org. To receive BHI’s free newsletter, Business Weekly, send an e‑mail to email@example.com.