Criminals Beware

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ON THE HOLIEST OF DAYS

By: Rabbi Max Sutton

David regularly purchased the privilege of carrying the Sefer Torah during Kal Nidre at his local synagogue. Each year, on the eve of Yom Kippur, an auction is conducted in his synagogue, during which the congregants place their bids for the various available privileges, and each year, David outbid all other participants for the privilege of carrying the Torah scroll during the Kal Nidre service. Last year, however, his efforts were thwarted by Jack, a committee member who served as the auctioneer, and Sam, another congregant. Prior to the Yom Kippur auction, Jack approached Sam with a malicious scheme that he proposed in order to benefit the synagogue. Jack suggested that Sam compete with David for the Kal Nidre honor in order to substantially increase the price. If David did not ultimately match Sam’s highest bid, Jack said, the synagogue would grant Sam the honor at a fixed price of $10,000.

At the auction, David, eager as always to purchase the Kal Nidre honor, paid double his yearly donation. Due to the scheme, he was forced to pledge $36,000. Soon afterward, sometime during the Sukkot holiday, the story of Jack and Sam’s conspiracy leaked out, and David was, naturally, infuriated. He summonsed Jack and Sam to Bet Din, insisting that the two reimburse him the sum of $18,000. He explained that since his yearly bid never exceeded $18,000, they were responsible for the balance. Jack and Sam confessed that they were guilty of foul play, but refused to pay, since David willingly pledged $36,000 and received the great honor of holding the Torah for Kal Nidre. They expressed their sincere apologies to David, and claimed that their apology should suffice.

How should the Bet Din rule, and why?

TORAH LAW

According to the ruling of the Shulhan Aruch, it is forbidden to mislead or manipulate another person. Trickery and deception does not only harm the victim, it also taints the reputation and credibility of the offender. Nevertheless, a sale cannot be reversed every time a person lies while selling an item. In a classic ruling, our Sages did validate a sale in which the seller lied to the buyer, saying that he had another customer willing to pay a higher price for the item. Although the buyer was pressured into the purchase based on false information, the sale was deemed final. The rationale behind this ruling was that although it is forbidden to lie, sellers commonly use improper tactics to sell their products in commercial markets. The age-old idiom “buyer beware” is to be heeded when purchasing an item. If one fails to be so savvy, there is likely to be irreparable consequences.

 While this ruling is applicable for commercial markets, it is surely not relevant when making a purchase from a synagogue. Congregants place a high level of trust in their leaders when making a purchase, and the synagogue’s dealing so inappropriately with that faith is perhaps grounds to reverse the sale. As a matter of fact, according to one opinion, a person who deceitfully triggers others to donate by publicizing a fictitious donation is severely punished by the heavenly court, even though his intentions were good.

It should be noted that fundraising for a charity in a seemingly improper manner is a matter of lengthy discussion. Though the above opinion requires a higher standard of behavior when representing a charity organization, there actually exists halachic documentation proving that quite the contrary is acceptable. Providing that the fundraiser himself is not benefitting from these earnings, some opinions allow him to stretch the truth by concealing relevant information from his donors. Since his only intent is to secure the financial status of the poor, his improper dealings are ruled acceptable.

In a classic case, a great Sage of the Talmud deliberately borrowed the remaining funds of a charity set up for the poor so as to be able to tell the wealthy donors that all the funds were completely depleted. Once he generated enough funds to secure the financial status of the poor, the sage immediately returned the funds he borrowed. In short, he borrowed the funds even though he was not necessarily in need of the money, so not to outright lie to his donors. Another opinion maintains that the Talmudic Sage didn’t actually have to borrow the money and make the depletion of the funds a reality; it would have been permissible for him to simply lie to his donors, saying that there was no money left in his charity account. The Sage happened to borrow the money because he was in need of funds, and the poor willingly consented to this activity since it encouraged him to
further collect.

In this instance, the actions of the fundraiser are not seen as malicious, but as a means of incentive for donors to open their hearts and donate. It stands to reason that if such behavior is indeed permitted by a charity organization, a donation made under these pretenses cannot be reversed. There are a variety of opinions on this subject, however, and all opinions must be considered when ruling on a related matter.

In spite of the halachic controversy surrounding this topic, all opinions unanimously agree on this: In instances in which a buyer or donor most certainly would not have paid the amount he consented to had deception not occurred, the sale is indeed reversed.

There is precedent for this. In a classic ruling, an employer who lied about the wages past employees had received from him was required to add wages to the paychecks of current employees who specified clearly that they were willing to work for the same wages. These employees labored assuming that the past employees had earned less then they in fact had. Since they strictly requested to be paid the sum equivalent to these past employees, and didn’t know they were being lied to, their consent to labor for less was rendered null and void.

In another ruling, a fundraiser stated that he was purchasing a Judaic ornament for the synagogue for $150. The fundraiser lied, saying there was currently only $70 in the synagogue’s account. A donor pledged the balance of $80, only to discover that the synagogue actually had $120 in its account and was only short $30. The Bet Din ruled that the donor’s pledge of $80 was null and void, since it was clearly made under false pretenses.

In conclusion, although some opinions do allow a fundraiser who is not getting personal financial benefit to help generate funds by either lying or concealing the truth, they do not allow him to manipulate donors such that donations are pledged under false pretenses. If an auction is rigged so as to inflate the price of the item being bid upon, the highest bidder’s offer is rendered null and void. Since it is beyond the shadow of a doubt that the donor only increased his bid to match that of the fictitious bidder’s, his bid is null and void.

Endnotes: Shulhan Aruch Hoshen Mishpat 228:6, Rema H.M 332:4, Taz ibid 332: 4, Pithei Teshuva H.M 207: 9, Minhat Yitzhak 3:97, Vayhi Yaakov pgs.110,111, Bet Yosef Yoreh Deah 259:1, Imrei Yosher 2:148.

The author would like to give a special thanks to the staff of the Sephardic Heritage Museum, their latest publication titled “Vayhi Yaakov”, served as an important source in resolving this case.

VERDICT

A Day of Atonement

Our Bet Din ruled that David is to be granted the merit of carrying Sefer Kal Nidre this coming Yom Kippur at no charge. Since the auction was rigged, David’s additional payment of $18,000 was made under false pretenses. He assumed he was bidding against a legitimate competitor who was offering more. Given that that was not actually the case, his vow of $36,000 although already paid in full, is considered null and void.

However, since David already merited the great mitzvah of carrying Sefer Kal Nidre last year, half of his $36,000 payment is to be used towards the regular cost of Kal Nidre. The balance of $18,000 is to be credited towards this year’s merit, as the synagogue will not be auctioningSefer Kal Nidre to other congregants.

As for Jack and Sam, their behavior was not only inappropriate; it also tainted the reputation and credibility of the synagogue. However, since they did not personally benefit from their poor judgment, they are not required to make a payout. They did agree to never use foul play again, especially when representing a synagogue.

Happy Holiday?

Joey and Abie share a two-family home; Joey lives in the downstairs apartment and Abie in the one upstairs. For a number of years, Joey has been building his Sukkah on the front porch of their home. This year, Abie received a permit from the city to build a terrace off the front of his living room. Immediately upon the commencement of the project, Joey objected to the terrace, since it was likely to cover the area he used for his Sukkah every year.

Abie responded that since Joey’s Sukkah was over five feet wide, covering two feet of the porch would still leave Joey ample space for the men of his family to sit comfortably. Furthermore, Abie claimed that since he obtained a city permit it was perfectly legal for him to proceed with the construction as it appeared in the blueprints. Abie explained that ever since he purchased the upstairs apartment, every Sukkot he and his family are inconvenienced, and made to go downstairs to the backyard Sukkah for their meals. Finally he claimed that since the porch is owned by both him and Joey, he is entitled to half the porch. Making use of less than half of its space was clearly within his rights.

Joey retorted that he needed every inch of the Sukkah to be valid in order to accommodate his family. He explained that the original deal between him and Abie was that Abie would enjoy the larger backyard Sukkah, while he would settle for the narrow porch. Joey claimed that the arrangement had actually been Abie’s suggestion, as he had originally wanted the larger backyard. Abie denied any such agreement and argued that Joey typically took advantage of their property, as he was very aggressive by nature. Joey, too, voiced his opinion about Abie’s disdainful behavior throughout the years.

How Should the Bet Din Rule and Why?