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By: Rabbi Max Sutton

The Case

Norman purchased five permanent seats in a prominent synagogue in his neighborhood. When he arrived for the first time on the High Holidays, on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, he discovered that only four seats were assigned to his family. Norman confronted the synagogue coordinator, who apologized for the mistake, and, as a last-minute accommodation, offered Norman a spare seat in the back of the sanctuary. Norman rejected the offer, and angrily stormed out of the synagogue.

After the holiday season, Norman demanded that his membership payment for the seats be refunded, as the synagogue did not provide the five seats he had ordered. The committee refused, countering that mistakes occasionally happen, and they would soon arrange five permanent seats together in the same row for Norman’s family. Furthermore, the committee argued that two of the seats were used on Rosh Hashanah by Norman’s sons-in-law, who wisely chose to remain in the synagogue and pray rather than abruptly leave with Norman. Since the synagogue only sells permanent seats at a yearly membership rate, they were unwilling to grant a refund for these two seats. As for the balance of the other three seats, the committee conceded that the status of their sale was pending. Norman expressed that he is no longer interested in praying in
that synagogue, and that he expected an immediate refund of the entire sum.

How should the Bet Din rule, and why?

Torah Law

According to the ruling of the Shulhan Aruch a purchase may be returned by a buyer if the shipment is incomplete. Since the buyer intended to purchase a specific quantity for his needs, and placed his order as one collective purchase, he is not required to settle for a partial shipment. Hence, in instances in which the seller is unable to supply the balance of the purchase in due time, the buyer is entitled to a complete refund. If however, the buyer was aware of the shortfall and still agreed to the shipment, he may not later return the delivery. While some halachic authorities differ with the above ruling, the opinion of the Shulhan Aruch prevails, and is common practice in commercial markets. However, if the amount short is completely insignificant, some contemporary halachic opinions rule that a buyer cannot reverse the sale, though the seller is required to provide compensation for the balance.

In instances in which a buyer reserves the right to nullify a sale, if he chooses to use the item thereafter,  he effectively forfeits his claim of return. Whether the item is found to be defective, or if the shipment is incomplete and the seller cannot supply the balance, if the buyer uses the item he effectively accepts the sale as final.

This above ruling is limited to instances in which a buyer willingly used the item after he became aware of his right to reverse the sale. If however, a buyer was compelled to use the item due to circumstances beyond his control, he may proceed to reverse the sale, since his usage did not indicate his acceptance of the sale as final. In a classic case in which one purchased a defective wagon and discovered the defect only in transit, the buyer was allowed to reverse the sale even though he continued to drive to his destination. Since he was compelled to use the wagon, he still reserved the right to reverse the sale.

While the aforementioned law extends a complete refund to a buyer when he is compelled to use the item he intends to return, nevertheless, the seller is entitled to collect a rental fee for the usage. Since the seller is ultimately refunding the buyer his money, the buyer effectively used the item which was owned by the seller, and so the buyer is legally required to provide payment for his usage of the item.

A considerable amount of halachic significance is given to providing a family with seats in a synagogue in the same row. According to leading halachic authorities, an open seat in a row must first be offered for sale to a family who already own seats in that row, so to insure that the family members all sit together. It is quite understandable that one who purchases five permanent seats in a row is entitled to reverse the sale if the synagogue is unable to provide the seats as ordered. Since the seats were purchased in one collective sale, and the specifications of the purchase are essential for the family needs, the sale may be reversed. Nevertheless, if the family was forced to use the seats on the High Holidays out of a lack of an alternate place to pray, while they maintain the right to reverse the sale, they are required to pay a rental fee for their usage.

Endnotes:

Shulhan Aruch Hoshen Mishpat 182:8Netivot Hamishpat 182:8
Netivot Hidushim
15
Taz Hoshen Mishpat
216:5
Shulhan Aruch Hoshen Mishpat
232:3Erech Shay 232:1
Pithei Teshuva Hoshen Mishpat 232:1
Shulhan Aruch Hoshen Mishpat
232:15
Sema
232:33, Aruch Hashulhan Hoshen Mishpat 175:60.

Verdict:The Difference between Wise and Foolish

Our Bet Din enabled Norman to collect a refund for the purchase of all five permanent seats, after deducting a rental fee charge for the two seats used on Rosh Hashanah. As mentioned in Torah law, Norman made one collective purchase of five seats for the specific needs of his family, and he has the right to reverse the sale. Upon verification, the synagogue was unable to provide a fifth seat in the same row, as another family that already owns seats for years in that row had purchased the last available seat. With no other row with five available seats, the synagogue is obligated to refund Norman’s money. Although his sons-in-law made use of two seats, that does not serve as an indication that they accepted the sale. Since they were forced to use the seats due to a lack of an alternate place to pray on Rosh Hashanah, they still are entitled to reverse the sale. Nevertheless, once the sale is reversed, the synagogue is entitled to charge them for usage of the seats, according to the accepted rental fee for seats on the High Holidays. Hence, our Bet Din charged Norman a rental fee for two seats and refunded to him the balance owed to him for the five permanent seats. Norman made a foolish decision to storm out of  synagogue on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, as he had everything to gain and nothing to lose had he used the seats available. He could have ultimately paid a rental fee for his seats and spared himself the aggravation on the holiday. His sons-in-law made a wise choice to pray with a congregation as required.