By Rabbi Meir Orlian
Mr. Hauser had hired Mr. Young to redo the siding of his house before the winter. When the completion of the work got delayed time after time, Mr. Hauser began to get upset.
To make matters worse, Mr. Young insisted on certain advance payments “to cover supplies.” Mr. Hauser was not happy about doing this, but agreed in order to get the job finished.
Towards the very end of the job, Mr. Young notified Mr. Hauser that he would need to take another three-day break from the work. Mr. Hauser threw a fit. “I can’t believe you’re doing it again!” he yelled.
Mr. Young explained that he needed time to take care of certain pressing family matters and would return right afterwards, but to no avail.
“Forget the rest of the job!” screamed Mr. Hauser angrily. “Just leave, and I’ll finish the job myself!” Mr. Young gathered his equipment and left.
Later in the evening, Mr. Hauser looked at the remaining work. It was more than he had realized. After calming down, he called Mr. Young. “I apologize for blowing up,” he said. “I’d like you to finish the job, in accordance with our contract.”
“You already told me to leave,” replied Mr. Young. “I’m not interested in finishing.”
“But you’re still bound by contract to finish the job,” said Mr. Hauser.
“No, I’m not,” said Mr. Young. “When you threw me out of the house and said that you’d finish the job, you released me from my obligation.”
“I never formally dissolved the contract,” said Mr. Hauser. “You know that I was just venting my anger when I exploded.”
“Doesn’t make a difference,” said Mr. Young. “You told me to leave. I’m out!”
“I’ll sue you for breach of contract,” threatened Mr. Hauser. “Anyway, I gave you advance payment. If you’re not finishing the job, return the money.”
“I will not,” replied Mr. Young. “I was willing to finish the job, and you kicked me out. If you decided to forgo the rest of the job, that’s your problem!”
“You’re nuts,” said Mr. Hauser. “You’re bound by signed contract, and now you expect not to finish the job and to keep the money! You know that I was just furious at you, but never meant to forgo my legal rights!”
“I don’t know anything, just that you told me to leave and that you’d finish,” said Mr. Young. “Take it up with Rabbi Tzedek if you want.”
Rabbi Tzedek ruled: “A person who forgoes his rights in a fit of anger does not provide legal exemption, according to many authorities. However, since the issue is not conclusive, Mr. Young cannot be required to finish the job or return the advance payment.”
Rabbi Tzedek then explained: “A worker whose employer told him, ‘Leave!’ may do so, even if he has a binding commitment. According to the Shach, he does not even have to return advance payments, while others question this point” (Pischei Teshuvah 333:16). “However, if the employer said this as an expression of anger, some say that the worker is not released from his obligation” (Rema C.M. 333:8).
“Why should it make a difference if said in anger?” asked Mr. Young.
“A statement made in a fit of rage is usually not meant sincerely,” replied Rabbi Tzedek. “Some question this ruling, though. The Gemara (B.B. 160b) teaches that our Sages instituted a special get for kohanim, since they are not allowed to remarry their divorcees. A kohein might become angry and divorce his wife in a fit of rage. This special get required extra time to write, which would afford him time to calm down. This indicates that even an action done in a state of anger would be legally valid.”
“How would the Rema answer this?” asked Mr. Hauser.
“If the person took action in the presence of beis din or witnesses, we cannot disregard his action on account of his anger,” answered Rabbi Tzedek. “But if he merely made a remark in his anger, his statement to forgo does not carry legal meaning” (Pischei Teshuvah 333:17).
“Then why did you exempt Mr. Young, since I simply said, ‘Leave,’ in a fit of anger?” asked Mr. Hauser.
“Although many authorities concur with the Rema, this law is cited as ‘some say,’ implying that it is not universally agreed on,” replied Rabbi Tzedek. “Therefore, following the rule of ‘hamotzi meichaveiro alav hare’ayah,’ it is not possible to obligate the defendant. It is proper, though, to reach a compromise in this case.”
“Some also suggest,” concluded Rabbi Tzedek, “that the Rema’s ruling applies only to statements such as, ‘Leave,’ which are merely expressions of rejection. It does not apply, though, to an explicit statement of forgoing, even if expressed in anger” (R. Akiva Eiger, New Responsa, C.M. #5).
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.