By Rabbi Meir Orlian
The snow had piled up during the night, covering everything with a beautiful blanket of white. While Mr. Farber was eating breakfast, Yaakov and Elisha knocked on his door.
“Do you want your snow shoveled?” asked Yaakov.
“No, thank you,” replied Mr. Farber. “I’ll shovel it as soon as I finish eating.”
The two boys turned to go away. “My next-door neighbor, Mr. Schreiber, always wants his snow shoveled,” Mr. Farber called out after them. “He won’t be home until evening, so you should shovel his house and driveway.”
“Thanks,” said Elisha. “We’ll do it now.”
After shoveling for an hour, the boys had cleared the sidewalk and the driveway. When they finished, they knocked again on Mr. Farber’s door.
“We finished shoveling your neighbor’s house,” they said. “That will be $35.”
“I’ll tell him this evening,” said Mr. Farber. “Leave me your phone numbers.”
“We expected that you would pay us,” Yaakov said. “You told us to shovel his house. We would like our pay today and might not even be around in the evening.”
“I never said that I would pay you,” Mr. Farber protested. “I just told you that Mr. Schreiber always wants his house shoveled.”
“No, you told us to shovel his house and driveway,” argued Elisha. “You gave us the job, so it’s your responsibility to pay! You can work it out with your neighbor when he comes home. There is a mitzvah to pay a worker on the day that he completes the job, and it’s prohibited to delay payment against his will to the following night.”
“That’s only if I’m responsible to pay, though,” countered Mr. Farber. “I’m not convinced that I owe you anything.”
“We just had a similar case in yeshiva,” said Yaakov. “I mistakenly took Elisha’s suit to the cleaners instead of my own. Rabbi Dayan said that since I brought it in, I have to pay the cleaners and can then ask reimbursement from Elisha for the benefit I provided him. It’s the same here.”
“I’m not sure it’s the same,” said Mr. Farber. “I told you outright that it was Mr. Schreiber’s house. Come in; we can call Rabbi Dayan.”
Mr. Farber put the phone on speaker. The boys called Rabbi Dayan and asked, “If Mr. Farber instructed us to shovel his neighbor’s property, must he pay?”
“A person who instructs someone to work in another’s property is liable only if he assumes responsibility, which can be in one of three ways,” answered Rabbi Dayan. “He would then violate bal talin (the prohibition of withholding salary) if he didn’t pay promptly.” (C.M. 339:7)
“What are the three ways?” asked Elisha.
“The classic case,” answered Rabbi Dayan, “is when the person initially employed the worker for himself, and then instructed him—whether intentionally or by mistake—to do work for his neighbor instead.” (C.M. 336:1)
“This was the case with the cleaners,” noted Yaakov. “I gave them the suit with the understanding that they were working for me.”
“The second case,” continued Rabbi Dayan, “is when you accept direct responsibility for the salary by saying, ‘I will pay your salary,’ even though the work was being done for someone else.”
“What is the third case?” asked Elisha.
“When the worker was unaware that it was someone else’s property,” answered Rabbi Dayan. “For example, had Mr. Farber simply instructed you to shovel the driveway adjacent to his house—which you assumed to be his but turned out to be his neighbor’s—he would be liable to pay you.” (Rema 339:7; Sma 336:4)
“Where does this leave us?” asked Mr. Farber.
“Since you did not assume responsibility for the employment or salary, and the boys knew that this was Mr. Schreiber’s property, you are not required to pay them,” concluded Rabbi Dayan. “When your neighbor comes home, he should pay them the going rate for such work, since he is generally interested in having his property shoveled” (C.M. 375:1). “You may have a responsibility to help them collect payment, though, if necessary” (Pischei Choshen, Sechirus 8:). 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.