How Many People Can One Person Feed?

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By: Rabbi Max Sutton


Ralph’s eldest son was engaged to be married in only one month’s time. As per his agreement with the bride’s family, Ralph was responsible to order the necessary flowers for the night of the wedding. With the intent of keeping the cost of flowers to a reasonable sum, Ralph contracted a flower distributor instead of a florist to do the wedding. He chose the arrangements and submitted his credit card number to the distributor, to be charged the day the flowers are delivered to the wedding hall. Two weeks later, the bride’s family inquired about who was doing the flowers, and upon hearing Ralph’s response they were appalled. They complained to Ralph that a distributor is not equipped to dress a canopy with flowers, nor is he experienced to drape an aisle with flowers as is customarily practiced. Ralph called back the distributor by phone and attempted to upgrade the style and design of the ceremony flowers. The distributor replied that he can do a basic canopy flower design but not anything too extravagant. At that point Ralph realized that he made a mistake by working with a distributor and not a florist, and claims to have cancelled the entire order in that phone call conversation. On the morning of the wedding the distributor sent a text to Ralph that the flowers were ready for delivery, and requested the contact person’s name at the wedding hall. Ralph replied by text that he already cancelled the order and he then immediately authorized his credit card to stop payment on all charges. Within three days of the wedding the flower distributor seeking payment claimed in Bet Din that Ralph merely cancelled the idea of upgrading the ceremony flowers in that earlier telephone conversation, but he did not cancel his original order. Ralph counterclaimed that he explicitly said to cancel the entire order.

Is Ralph obligated to pay the distributor or not? How should the Bet Din rule and why?


According to the ruling of the Shulhan Aruch, cancelling an order of a product which is perishable imposes liability. Since the product was already prepared to fill the customer’s order, the customer is responsible for damages caused by his late cancellation. In instances in which a customer can prove that the reason for his late cancellation is due to circumstances beyond his control, a competent halachic authority is to be consulted. The above laws are applicable in the absence of a contractual agreement which dictates otherwise. By Torah law, conditions and terms agreed upon by two parties are binding.

Leading halachic authorities rule that in the event a customer is liable to pay for a late cancellation of a perishable product, he is only responsible for out-of-pocket costs and labor expenses invested in the product. Since the late cancellation is viewed as a form of damage and not as a final purchase, the customer is not required to compensate the seller for the lost profits he inadvertently caused.

By rule of the Shulhan Aruch, when a defendant is denying the claim of a plaintiff, he is required to take an oath to validate his defense. Upon taking oath the defendant is subsequently exempt from payment. This leniency enabling exemption is extended only to a defendant in possession of the money in dispute. Hence, unless a plaintiff can provide concrete evidence to exact payment from the defendant, he is required to accept the oath of a defendant as compensation for his claim.

By rule of the Shulhan Aruch a Bet Din is required to attempt to settle a dispute in a peaceful, amicable manner.

This is particularly advisable when a dispute evolves due to poor communication between the litigants. Since both parties are to a certain degree negligent for not interacting in a lucid, standard manner, it is befitting that they both share the undesirable consequences they brought about. For this reason, although a defendant is prepared to validate his claim under oath, a Bet Din will nevertheless promote a settlement. As a matter a fact, in certain instances a Bet Din will force a settlement on litigants that interact carelessly. Generally, a Bet Din will impose a practical remedy to resolve the matter efficiently.

VERDICT A Flower “Arrangement”

Our Bet Din decided that in this particular instance a peaceful settlement between Ralph and the flower distributor was in order. Although the distributor claimed that Ralph’s last-minute cancelation caused him damage, Ralph denied the claim explaining that he cancelled the order well in advance. As explained in Torah law, even if the distributor’s claim is believed, he is only entitled to payment for the cost of the flowers and the cost of labor sustained for their preparation. If Ralph’s cancellation was indeed last-minute, it nevertheless was done inadvertently. Hence, he is only required to pay for damages he caused and not for the purchase price that included the distributor’s profits. Thus, halachically, the distributor’s potential claim was reduced to half. Since Ralph cancelled all future charges on his credit card and is in possession of the funds in dispute, he is entitled to take an oath that he indeed cancelled the entire order in advance. Nevertheless, since the manner in which Ralph claims to have cancelled the order was careless, our Bet Din imposed on him a degree of responsibility for the damage. Ralph cancelled a significant order for his son’s wedding at the end of an involved phone conversation without requesting thereafter a written confirmation. We therefore instructed Ralph to pay a quarter of the original purchase price of the distributor and in return receive some of the flowers for the upcoming Shabbat affair in his home. In the end, after receiving the flowers, Ralph will have paid an approximate third of the purchase price, a percentage which is in compliance with Torah law for this particular dispute.

Down the Drain

Danny rented a very old house from his landlord Joseph, who resided most of the year in Florida. After years of tenancy, Danny received a water bill nearly ten times the sum he regularly pays. He brought a plumber to inspect the home to determine the source of the problem. To his dismay the plumber detected a burst water pipe below the concrete foundation of the home. Danny instructed the plumber to immediately repair the pipe, which included working through the concrete, repairing, and restoring the property. The price for the plumber’s services and for his accurate detection of the leak with state-of-the-art equipment was $4,000. Danny paid the plumber and later informed Joseph of the outstanding $4,000 bill. Danny, as well, expressed to Joseph that he is seeking compensation for nearly the entire sum of the exorbitant water bill. Additionally, Danny requested of Joseph to pay him for the ruined carpet he recently installed in the basement and for other damages caused to his personal property. Joseph responded that he was unwilling to participate in any of the costs Danny incurred. Joseph explained that the exorbitant fee of the high-end plumber was hired without his authorization, and furthermore he claimed that the water bill is not his responsibility. Likewise, he countered that the damaged carpet Danny chose to install in the basement is not his obligation to replace, nor was he required to reimburse him for any damages.

How should the Bet Din rule,
in favor of Danny or Joseph, and why?